That Tree – A Year in the Life of a Tree

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I recently came across this project carried out by Mark Hersch where he has taken a different picture of this tree every day for a year between 24 March 2012 and 23 March 2013, the results of which are published in the book That Tree. The tree is a bur oak standing alone in a field in Platteville, Wisconsin that Mark, a photographer, passed every day on his commute to work.

I’ve always liked photo series that look at a particular place or space over a period of time and was something that I was experimenting with when I wrote this post on the Leeds Dalek. I think what fascinates me is that a photograph is an individual snapshot in time but that when that snapshot is repeated over a period the photos as well as capturing stillness also capture the imperceptible movement of time and the changes of the seasons. Movement that ordinarily cannot be seen happening is therefore captured through stillness.

Mark’s series of the tree does this brilliantly I think but also differs from what I usually like in that he has sought to capture this movement through stillness, not in taking the same image but in using one object, the tree, and shooting it from all sorts of different angles and perspectives, the results of which I think are really beautiful and contemplative.

Although Mark is a professional photographer the photos were all taken using a camera phone, an iphone in his case, which is what many of us novice clickers use for capturing the world around us and I think the series and book goes to show how powerful this medium and technology now is.

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Should Art be Competitive

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Guest post by Ali Sheppard (@alishepster)

Should art be competitive ? That’s a big question and one that I have been contemplating a lot recently. By ‘art’ I mean the arts in general, including painting, sculpture, music, drama, writing, dance etc. Last year we saw the ultimate international competition in the form of the Olympics, London 2012. With sport, it is almost impossible to imagine sport not having a competitive element, despite some primary schools trying to introduce non-competitive sport into their curriculum. At the same time as London 2012, there were a whole host of art events under the banner of the Cultural Olympiad, and whilst some of these events were certainly well attended, they naturally did not get the same coverage in the media despite some events having artists at the very top of their game. There are also various competitions for art, including the Turner prize, various literary awards such as the Booker and Orange prizes, but these tend to be awarded after the artistic process has taken place, and I doubt that any of the artists involved would state that they wrote their book or painted their picture with the sole purpose of winning a competition. On the other hand, over the last few years, talent shows like The Voice UK, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent have become increasingly popular, although there are many water-cooler moments across the country in which people debate how seemingly talentless people do well at the expense of those who can sing/play/dance but who perhaps don’t have the same ‘back story’.

The reason I have been pondering about this lately is that I sing in a choir, and my choir is about to take part in an international choir competition in Tours, France. I first started singing in a choir around 15 years ago. At the time, I was working for the NSPCC, and attended a lunchtime lecture on giving effective presentations. There was a guest speaker who talked a lot about breathing from your diaphragm, and she mentioned that she sang in a choir. I spoke to her about this after the talk and expressed an interested in finding out what it was all about, and the following Monday I got a call to ask if I was interested in going along to a rehearsal of her choir that evening to see if I liked it. I went along and soon started attending regularly, going on tour with them to Germany to sing in a concert only a few months later.

I sang with that choir for a few years before finding that I much preferred singing in smaller choirs (the first choir was a big choir) and so a couple of years later I joined my current choir, called Pegasus. One of the things that attracted me about Pegasus was that it was smaller, a ‘chamber choir’, and it didn’t rehearse every week unlike lots of choirs, but rather just had a few concentrated rehearsals before a concert. This is important to me as my job doesn’t allow me to commit to regular weekly rehearsals, as it the case for many others in the choir. The choir members come from all walks of life, and all kinds of jobs – we have amongst our ranks a female vicar, several charity workers, a police officer, several teachers, someone who works at the V&A, an Aid worker for Save the Children who often has to miss rehearsals as she is in the Democratic Republic of Congo or some other far-flung place, a florist, a doctor, and a host of other jobs!

But why do we do it?  Singing is a great form of stress release; if I’ve had a tough day at work I find that going to a rehearsal and focusing on the music and singing soon stops me feeling stressed. Equally I find it hard to remain sad or depressed when singing. A couple of years ago we had an osteopathy student who came and tested the levels of oxygen in our blood pre- and post-rehearsal, and he found that the oxygen levels had increased significantly during the rehearsal. I’m sure that singing transmits those endorphins in the brain that you also get from sport – the feel-good neuro-transmitters, and am sure that it is good for your health. Singing on your own does all these things, but singing together with others adds a new dimension – there is something about all coming together for a combined goal, breathing and matching the voice of the person next to you. And then there’s the social side; often we go for a drink after a rehearsal and many people have found lifelong friends through the choir. We often socialise outside of choir, and various members of Pegasus have gone on holiday together, gone skiing, as well as going to the theatre and parties together. I recently was introduced by Ian Street (of this blog) to Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen” video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI in which the lyrics are taken from a famous essay written in 1997 by Mary Schmich, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune who gives her advice for life. Two of her pieces of advice are: “Do something every day which scares you. Sing.”  Great advice, although for some people, singing in public is something that scares them!

Each of us sings in the choir for our own reasons, and we all get something different out of it. And although singing in rehearsals is great fun, putting on a concert and singing to an audience takes it to another level. There’s the whole thing about learning new music and working together to get the music up to performance standard, going to the venue, dressing up, hearing the hum of the audience gathering and wondering how many people will be in the audience, then walking out onto the stage and feeling a buzz of adrenaline running through your body. It can be scary, particularly if you have a solo – you wonder if you will lose your voice, if your nerves will get the better of you, and if you will look foolish.  But then you find that you don’t lose your nerve, you gain strength from those around you, and the applause further adds to your confidence. You lose yourself in the music and it is all too soon over. Afterwards you feel exhilarated, and then there are the post mortems – usually in the pub!

But then we come back to the question – should art be competitive? Shouldn’t making music be done for music’s sake, not to win prizes?  Well, Pegasus has entered some competitions in the past – the BBC Choir of the Year competition, in which we got through to the semi-final, and then two international choir competitions in Europe, one in Tolosa, Northern Spain and then in Arezzo, Italy, two years ago. Although we did very well in Tolosa, coming third in two categories where we were competing against professional choirs, in Arezzo we had a bit of a knock-back. We rehearsed for months beforehand, and thought we performed well on stage, but didn’t get through our heats to the final. When we found out we hadn’t got through, everyone felt deflated and demoralised.

So when one person in the choir suggested last year that we had a go at competing in another international choir competition, held in Tours, France in May, 2013, we had to think about it. We are a democratic choir, so we surveyed the choir members and gathered their opinions. Some people were dead against it. They thought that singing and music should not be competitive; that it is wrong to compare one musical performance with another; that we should be singing for ‘Art’s’ sake. But the vast majority were all for it. They thought that despite the knock-back in Arezzo, the experience had been great. We had improved as a choir by rehearsing for months on a difficult programme, and had bonded socially by the experience of going abroad and competing against other choirs. We decided to go for it, and put our entry in during the Autumn of 2012.

The competition is called the Florilège Vocal de Tours, and there arevarious different sub-sections that we could enter. We had to submit a recording and also tell them exactly what we were going to sing in the various categories. We anxiously awaited the results, and were informed in January 2013 that we had been accepted. We only found out recently that 17 choirs got through to perform live in the competition, representing 11 countries and we are the only UK choir to get through. Looking back at the history of the winners in the competition, there are some wonderful choirs from the UK who have won in the past, including The Sixteen, The King’s Singers and Tallis Scholars, but the last UK choir to do well in the competition was over twenty years ago, when the Swingle Singers won in 1992. So we certainly have a challenge on our hands if we are to do well.

We started rehearsing in February, and planned a rehearsal schedule which included two day-long rehearsals on a Saturday, and a couple of performances, one in Farnham Surrey, and one in Barking, East London. We also made the brave decision to perform our competition programme of 14 pieces of music in 6 languages, entirely from memory. This caused quite a lot of stress to many of the choir who, as busy people, felt they didn’t have the time to devote to memorising music, but many people were won over when they found that performing from memory adds a whole new dimension to the performance. Somehow, removing the crutch of a folder of music in front of you means that you listen more, and watch the conductor more, enhancing the overall ensemble.

The road to Tours has not been without difficulties. Aside from the people stressing about memorising the music, there have been differences of opinion over whether we should have a special, more uniform dress code, difficulties with finding a suitable venue to hold one of our all-day rehearsals and recitals, and various unexpected challenges – such as when our pianist fell off a ladder and broke his arm and ribs just shortly before our first performance! Throughout the last few months though, we have gelled as a group, we have all faced our own personal challenges and come through them, and now we are nearly all set to go! We have our tickets booked on the Eurostar and the TGV to Tours, our hotel booked in Tours, our dress code sorted, our music memorised, and our pianist’s arm has (hopefully) recovered enough to be able to play! We leave from St Pancras very early on Friday morning, with our first performance in the competition being in the evening of Friday 24 May.

So, should art be competitive?  I don’t know. But I do know that with competition also comes fun. And the process of preparing for a competition has brought us together, has encouraged us to sing to a better standard and has improved us as a choir. Hopefully, we will do well in Tours, and will get through to the final, but if we don’t, it has still been a great experience. I hope to let you know how we got on when we get back!

 

The Snail goes through the Doors of Perception

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After my first foray into some mountain bike training as part of my Project Snail project I’ve decided that as well as riding as much as I can with different people and in different places I was so taken by the initial training that I realised this will be very much an ongoing thing for me – ride then check progress with some more training. As a result I decided that this year I’ll look to do one training session a quarter, 2 group sessions and 2 one to ones. Luckily it’s been my birthday recently so my family chipped in to help fund the first one to one. It’s interesting in that each bit of cash I spend on training is money that I can’t put towards buying my first ‘proper’ mountain bike (more on that later) but I figure there’s not much point in having a kick ass bike if you don’t have much clue on how to ride it.

Having done my first bit of training with Ed and feeling very comfortable with it I was really looking forward to having a day’s one to one session, although this was of course tinged with some trepidation as Ed likes to take you out of your comfort zone but he does it in the nicest possible way. The day was going to be spent working on basic skills and confidence in the real world riding environment of Hebden Bridge which I’ve learnt from my participation in Clifcross is steep ! However right from the first climb I realised that one thing has definitely changed since the start of the year – I’m slowly getting fitter. This feeling continued throughout the day and Ed consistently said both from a fitness and technical point of view “I wouldn’t have brought you up/down here when I first saw you ride”

After the initial climbing we rattled into a gorgeous bendy downward section (Ali’s Z’ds ?) which started with some single track and flowed into and over some lumps and bumps. I felt I rode it OK and realised as I was riding it that my position felt better on the bike but that also I would not have ridden it or attempted it a few months ago. Ed followed me down and at the bottom simply said that was great you now look like you are riding the bike as opposed to the bike taking you for a ride and rightly recognising that I would have struggled with the trail when I first met him. Having completed the first section OK it was off to find something to try and improve my skills on – The Blue Pig ! Before we could get there it was up a searingly steep tarmac climb past the house once shared by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, next to which Ed pointed out one of the trails he uses on his Alpine prep course, Gulp. I’d love to think that one day over the next couple of years I might be able to ride it but long long way to go before then.

Once at the top of the climb we rolled down through Heptonstall (doesn’t Calderdale love a cobblestone) to the start of the Blue Pig, the top of which has been criminally ‘improved’ with some loose stones that will surely wash down into Hebden in the next flood waters. The top part of the trail has a number of steps with lips or roots in front of them and we spent a good period looking at line and how you might ride these. Ed had me concentrating on the concept of weight distribution and trying to unweight the front of the bike, and trying to get me off the brakes, so that I could roll naturally over the obstacle. Each time I attempted a section Ed would film it and then ask me what I thought – I was generally critical of myself but Ed showed me the clip and said “Your perception of what you are doing and what’s actually happening are two different things” and it was clear from the video and photos that Ed was taking that things were not too bad. This was when things started to change for me, as I realised that yes I’m not very good and am working at the basics but that I’m also having a huge amount of fun, am improving and maybe am not quite as bad as I think I am.

The good thing of doing one to one work and building up a relationship with a coach/ trainer is that they get to know you, what you want, how to stretch you and to discuss in detail parts of your riding. I’m slow and heavy on the braking, Ed was clear that he’s never going to have to get me to slow down but it’s also not about speed but about the concept of momentum on a tricky section and momentum and letting the bike roll is something different than speed. We looked a lot at how I can adapt my braking and worked on braking before something, rolling through a section and then braking after it as well as what happens if you use your front brake in a rough section (it’s not good !).

Without getting too Zen about things Ed was working with me to try and look through a section and just try to feel the ground and moving your body and weight accordingly. Imagine spreading butter with a large knife over the ground your body needs to flow along that line but keeping your head still and looking foward and using the legs and arms more to adjust the torso or to compress and acting as additional suspension. I struggle with this but definitely began to get it a bit more as we worked on it.

We then headed further down the trail to look at some loose rocks and roots walking the trail and discussind lines. Fascinatingly Ed would ask me what line I would take and then his would be totally different and it was great to chat why that was. At this point some speed merchant came flying down the trail, Ed commented that he’s not riding the trail he’s riding around it. This was part of the perception change, trying to accept the trail as it was and ride over it or through it not around it. This was a big confidence shift for me. We repeatedly looked at a little section as shown in the video below. Remember that I’m trying to grasp the baiscs here but this felt like a big step for me and again I’d have never have attempted this previously I’d have walked down most of the blue pig but as Ed reminded me at the bottom you have ridden the whole trail – respect.

Project Snail from Ed Oxley on Vimeo.

After a great pie back in Hebden we then headed up to Peckett Well, this again reminded me that my fitness is getting better as it’s a fairly long climb and I was chatting with Ed most of the way up, instead of puffing and wheezing. At the top Ed said right you’re riding my bike this afternoon and promptly swapped the pedals over. I’d been thinking of switching to flats but Ed said to stick with what I’m doing and stay clipped in for the time being. Now I’ve never ridden a full suspension bike, nor a 29er, nor one with all the bells and whistles that this prototype On One Codeine had on it.

Wow, what a machine – now appreciate that I have no experience nor anything to compare it with but I felt like I was in the bike as opposed to being on a bike, the suspension felt amazing – solid as opposed to pinging me about all over the show. I’ve never really understood all the hoohar about wheel sizes, dropper posts, wide bars etc but the wide bars and short stem just felt right and helped me feel more as though I was in the right position; the dropper post was a total revelation not something I’d have ever thought about but a brilliant and simple innovation. Ed was running a single chain ring as well which also just seemed right, I might go for a double but with the right combination out back then this again seems the way to go. 29er wheels after the initial shock of the sheer size of the beasts again just seemed right. The voodoo of tubeless tyres, sold on that as well as I managed to somehow ping the rubber off the rim (I’d like to say through speed but obviously that was not the case I think I just hit something) but bit of air and watching the whole thing self seal was magic indeed. God damm I want one of these bikes which made me think, bike companies use brilliant riders (like Ed) to test and showcase their products which makes total sense. However there are lots of people who aren’t brilliant surely they also need accounts from basic riders as well after all if the Codeine is great for me and Ed then that’s some bike. So if On One fancy supplying me I’m happy to ride and write about it 🙂

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I rode the bike all afternoon down Peckett Well 1 and 2 and as Ed said the bike will not make you a better rider but it can help your confidence and will help you to ride some sections with momentum and control. The second trail was steep, rocky and rooty and I was now way out of my comfort zone but Ed again quietly eased me through the doors of perception changing my whole notion not just of what could be ridden but what I could ride. We practised a section repeatedly before riding the whole trail and heading back to Hebden for a well earned pint.

The picture at the top of the page is of me on the afternoon trails on the Codeine and for me, if you did not know that I’m a basic rider, I look good there. Position looks right on the bike, chin up, eyes looking ahead not down at the rocks I’m riding over it all just looks right and it felt fantastic. Don’t get me wrong I’m still the snail but I’m having fun and learning stuff. Aldous Huxley famously took some drugs and wrote about his experiences and how they opened the Doors of Perception (Jim Morrison’s band took their name from the book) but on this one to one sessions I didn’t need the drugs but Ed opened the door and changed the perceptions of myself and what might be possible in the future. Cheers Ed.

Spring at the Hepworth Gallery

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The Hepworth Gallery has been such a fantastic addition to the cultural scene in Yorkshire and in the comparatively short time it has been open I’ve seen some fantastic exhibitions there. I went along recently to the spring installations by Alice Channing, Linder and Jessica Jackson Hutchins.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the Jessica Hutchins gallery, large painted canvasses hanging over metal ladders that made me think of a team of painter and decorators who were really frustrated abstract artists and left these canvases draped over their equipment while they’d gone out for a lunchbreak. There were also weird shaped ceramics and everyday objects like a sofa that had been turned into sort of half painting – half sculpture like pieces. The colours were beautiful and the pieces had a sort of abandoned, disconnecting feel to them but I was unclear what any of it actually meant.

Linder had a variety of work on display, we all really liked a gallery of mashed up vogue covers that merged models from the 1970’s with household objects in an odd but playful way and provided a nice link through to the everyday items that had been used in the Hutchins gallery. There were also light boxes mixing dancers with annimals showing I think different aspects of form and shape. This led through to a piece that I really liked which was a collaboration between Linder and the Northern Ballet called Ultimate Form that visually mixed dance, music and colour in an interpretation of Hepworth’s Sculptures. You could see a looped feed of the dance piece being practised and I found it really hypnotic and I’m sure the premier of it today would have been fascinating to see.

The highlight for me though of the exhibition was the gallery containing Alice Channer’s new work which seemed to play with the whole idea of form and material. Plastics, metals, resin, silk and other materials were hooked, stretched, shaped and formed in strange curves and angles apparently influenced by invertebrate deep sea lifeforms that are dependent on their body shape by the impact of the sea environment around them. Weirdly though dotted throughout the work were ‘severed’ fingers that appeared either on top of some of the pieces or randomly on the walls. I’ve got no idea what was happening here other than perhaps to contrast the structured human form to the looser aquatic influenced curves of Alice’s work. I found it utterly beguiling.

At first I didn’t think there was any connection between the three gallerys but perhaps the idea of form, movement and everyday objects were interconnecting threads drawing the seemingly disparate pieces into one coherent whole. Clever stuff.

The difficulty behind creativity

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A few weeks ago I visited the fantastic city of Girona and the marvelous film museum there. In part of the museum there was a gallery of film posters, now I love film posters in the same way I love album covers – a single image that attempts to distill the nature of what you are going to see or hear. I’ve always enjoyed looking at them but never really considered the creative process that goes on in order to produce a film poster and to get it right. When I walked into the exhibition I didn’t recognise any of the posters and at first I thought that it was simply because they were perhaps for the Spanish market but then I noticed that they had the correct version in miniatures so that you could compare and that the posters were infact examples that didn’t make it through the creative process.

This got me thinking a bit of how hard it must be to try and and come up with images many of which have gone down as classic pieces of art in their own right but of course each idea before it comes to fruition must go through countless revisions before we the public see the final version. I managed to sneak a few snaps of the posters that didn’t make it, some I quite like but you can understand why they didn’t make it but others you have to wonder what on earth was going on in the mind of the artist. Going through this exhibition I think has definitely given me a new found respect for this creative process and I can only imagine the amount of hair pulling that must go on – perhaps that’s why so many designers seem to have shiny pates !

Have a look and see if any of these posters should have replaced the originals.

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