Image above: One for Sorrow (installation by detail) by Stuart Bastik and Maddi Nicholson
The work created by artists Maddi Nicholson and Stuart Bastik (co-founder/directors of Art Gene) is a permanent addition to the story of this complex site and the culmination of five years work in delivering Art Gene’s Fort Walney Uncovered project.
The site is owned by BAE Systems who build Britain’s Nuclear Submarines in the town and still fly into the adjacent airfield, once also part of the training camp, developed prior to WW2 and requiring the former North End Farm and windmill to be demolished in the national interest.
Art Gene’s work is inspired by the complexities and contradictions which form places:
Fort Walney Site: complexity and contradiction
National Nature Reserve – Wildfowl Hunting Site – Airport – Sand Dune Habitat – Land-fill Site – Site of Special Scientific Interest – Gravel Quarry – Bird Sanctuary – Airship Production Facility, & Ramsar designated Wetland featuring: WW1 Practice Trenches, Oystercatchers, Aircraft Dispersal Pads, Natterjack Toads, WW2 Gun Ranges, Skylarks, Prehistoric sites & a ‘Low Level’ Nuclear Waste Dump…
With all that to go at how could we resist working on a project here?…
Fort Walney, Uncovered – a Heritage Lottery and Arts Council England funded Art and Archaeology project led by Art Gene in partnership with Natural England which engaged sixteen professionals of different disciplines with hundreds of people from the communities of Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness and beyond.
The project began with an archaeological dig engaging volunteers and passers-by. The project’s lead archaeologist Dr George Nash and archaeologist Tom Wellicome worked with local people who were intensively trained to dig investigative trenches, undertake desk-based research and walk-over surveys of the wider site; bringing together a picture of the rare WW1 remains of practice trenches which have been preserved within the sand dune system of the reserve.
One of my most abiding memories of the dig was Dr George Nash pretending to be a Drill Sergeant – marching children from local schools across the site and through the trenches. It was something like time travel – hearing a voice from the site’s past life echo across the dunes.
The castellated trenches are most evident in aerial photography and perhaps most seen by the hovering skylarks which sing above them. The trenches were one of the drivers for Art Gene’s initial interest in the site along with the then more apparent remains of the rifle range target mechanisms which were mysteriously removed shortly after funding for the project had been secured; bringing to light the importance of projects like Art Gene’s which aims to record and attach value to features within our landscape which are at risk. This is important if we want to preserve some of them.
The practice trenches were found to be early – bullets were recovered and dated to 1914. The trenches were shallow – perhaps shoulder high and would have been incapable of protecting anyone from the onslaught of mechanised warfare which met the men who trained here and were sent to France where the trenches became much deeper and all thoughts of being home for Christmas as promised were soon lost in the horrors of an increasingly futile struggle for survival.
A participant writes…
I volunteered to be part of the Fort Walney Project as I always wanted to be involved in archaeology project. From the initial meeting to the filling in of the trenches at the end, it was such an amazing adventure. The Team at Art Gene made us all feel very welcome, and it was apparent, very quickly, we were one big family and everyone had a voice.
I had the unbelievable opportunity to work with Professor G. Nash, one to one, for a whole day. That was an experience money could never buy and one I will remember forever.
Image below: Fort Walney, Uncovered team meeting: planning the dig
Seldom Seen Apps
The second phase of the project was a smart-phone based ‘app’ – a walking tour with video clips featuring local people and the professional team sharing their knowledge, love and memories of the site. The app resulted from a collaboration between Art Gene led by Maddi Nicholson and Pan Studio led by Ben Barker who narrates the tour and introduces the contributors and the site. (contributors filmed by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan. Aerial photography by Colin Aldred, Aerial Artwork).
The Fort Walney app was the first in a series of Seldom Seen apps resulting from the collaboration which use the same architecture developed for the Fort Walney app on four further sites around the bay (in partnership with Morecambe Bay Partnership and funded by Heritage Lottery, Arts Council England and the Coastal Communities Fund) that are now available as a free download. Each app details an area revealing it through a 2 or 3 hour walk. The apps are designed to add value to the users experience of the place not dominate it. This requirement was clearly defined during a series of development workshops with local people. Each of the key points and speakers contributions is automatically triggered by GPS when the user nears a point of interest along the route.
Find out more – and download the apps here
Seldom Seen Maps
The apps accompany Art Gene’s recently published Seldom Seen Maps Series, designed by Stuart Bastik which record thousands of features and facts that Art Gene have researched through the invaluable contributions of hundreds of local people during group walks, sharing events and many meetings with local experts around the bay who were all so generous in giving of their time knowledge and experiences.
The OS size fold-out maps are available individually or as a boxed set of five. They detail the hidden assets of the Morecambe Bay area – the little known or seldom seen features which form places – They draw out the complexities and contradictions – the things which make places compelling – the collisions of industry and nature – it’s geology, flora & fauna, industrial heritage, historic figures and the stories that local people would tell you and things they would show you if you had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with them exploring.
The maps cover the Islands of Barrow, Furness Peninsula, Cartmel Peninsula, Arnside & Silverdale Area and the Morecambe & Heysham Area. Several more are in the pipeline following interest locally and as far away as the Philippines. They were developed in partnership with Morecambe bay Partnership and funded by the Heritage Lottery, Arts Council England and the Coastal Communities Fund.
Places are never one thing, they are layers of things existing through time, some hidden some currently very apparent – all of which tell a story and collectively reveal something of what places are and might become through what they have been – I see the maps as landscape paintings revealing the good the bad and the ugly – and as a capturing of everything we have found out about the bay. Although they look like a product they are really a place to store everything we have learnt about this place and want to share before going on to design sustainable infrastructure or future focussed facilities with our communities – they are source material and inspiration informing our future work…
Find out more about the Seldom Seen Maps here.
Image below: Detail from the Seldom Seen Series of Maps
One for Sorrow
The final part of the Fort Walney Uncovered project was to create a lasting artwork for the site which would act as a form of interpretation – revealing something perhaps hidden or little known about its history and ecology.
This was one of the most difficult artworks we have ever had the opportunity to create – it took ages to reveal itself – there were many false starts and so much inspirational material to work through.
Art Gene, 2017
Maddi, myself and Charlie MacKeith (Architect) all began by being a little obsessed by the recently ‘lost’ rifle range mechanisms which had inspired our early interest in the site. We looked at our photos of it asking questions – how did it work?, how many were there?, what would the targets have looked like? – could we recreate one with an interesting image on the target? We searched the site for clues – measured the remaining concrete wall made scaled drawings and found a few rusty remnants chucked in a nearby pond and tried to assemble them in the studio but all the interesting bits including the cast iron winding wheels that sat on angle iron frames had gone…
Around that time Charlie went on a mission to find out how it worked and had finally found some bits of a similar mechanism in pieces at RSPB Rainham Marsh another reserve with a military past and had photographed some interesting numbers still in situ on top of the range wall. Then eventually he and Maddi went to visit a range of the same type which was still in use by the NRA in the North East and spent an afternoon being terrified by men in camouflage with powerful rifles. All of a sudden the mystery was solved – we knew how it worked and we immediately lost interest in recreating one.
Maddi had begun stitching army camouflage fabric around some ornamental ceramic birds her mother had recently given her. The birds were significant – they had been collected by her brother, a budding ornithologist, who died in a tragic accident aged 15 and Maddi was wrapping them to keep them safe – to stop them flapping their wings and hurting themselves – something they had both learned to do as children when holding chicks on the family’s Cumbrian smallholding.
They were the kind of little pottery birds that seem to turn up in Barrow charity shops after a former life on a mantle piece – often a bit chipped or missing a beak or claw – showing the signs of love and the regular flick of a duster by someones recently deceased relative – the receivable face of nature we invite into our living rooms and lives with little thought for the real thing – the cheap ones (no pun intended) most often now painted in China by someone who has no idea what a chaffinch looks like or at least it’s not the same idea that someone else sat in another factory seems to think they look like.
We gathered collections of these variants of the chaffinch, robin or wren all slightly wrong hybrids and all the more interesting for it.
They put me in mind of the cross cultural confusion those tattoos written in Chinese characters cause when folk have them inscribed on their backs in Blackpool or Magaluf. The ones which allegedly spell their name or that of a loved one – but they have never really dared to check for fear of it saying something else or worse something ridiculous or offensive.
Then one day I walked into Maddi’s studio after having seen magpies near my home on the Sandscale National Nature Reserve and said One for Sorrow!
The numbers Charlie had photographed, the work of the reserve, so often motivated by the fear of the loss of nature, Maddi’s camouflage-wrapped birds, the gun range, the sound of skylarks on high and all those intimate first world war letters & poems we had read from and to the trenches – by mothers, sons and brothers expressing loss and love and fear seemed held in that rhyme.
No glory, no heroes, no statues, bronze, monoliths or guns but something more personal, human, binding and tragic.
Maddi’s fragile wrapped birds were cast in iron, made strong – but once painted they began to look like ceramic again.
The numbers were cut from corten steel and engraved with the rhyme
But how would we present them on the site?
I had been working unsatisfactorily on ideas around sentry boxes (which played the sound of skylarks inside) and the associated rising red and white check-point barriers like the blood and bandages on a barbers’s pole as an entrance to the reserve.
That barrier became a gate – more accepting – less war-like – more heavenly yet more grounded and earthly: (we exhibited it hanging high in our gallery before it was installed on the reserve). A farm gate for the lost farm then a period-style Edwardian estate gate and a fitting entrance to a heavenly historically poignant place.
Remembering the fragility of people and nature.
And secrets which remain untold
Art Gene’s Future Work
We all become the places we live – that goes for beautiful places as much as ugly ones – living in Barrow is hard – you have to work hard to be rewarded by it – but the Borough is currently and for the second year running The No.1 Borough in England for the number and quality of its natural heritage assets yet engagement with those assets is amongst the worst in England*
*Source: Royal Society for Arts and Industry. Heritage Index 2016/17
Art Gene established and manages The islands and bays of Barrow and Furness Coastal Team and was recently awarded £444K from the Coastal Communities Fund to begin to act on the aspirations of our team’s Economic Place Plan written by Charlie MacKeith and Maddi Nicholson.
The plan focusses on a suite of projects which will improve our green infrastructure and develop mechanisms through which our communities can become more engaged with our outstanding natural heritage assets as a means through which to improve health and well being.
Follow the Coastal Communities project here.