The Phone and the Film Canister

My interest with place comes out of my experiences as a child, growing up an estate on the edge of a city, of working in outdoor learning for 20 year, from my degree in Human Ecology and from a life long interest in maps.

My art making mostly centres on explorations of landscape and the relationship between offline and online spaces.

I grew up on a housing estate based on Ebeneser Howard’s Garden City Movement. I lived on the urban fringe. Our house was 100m from fields in one direction and 4km from Derby city cathedral in the other direction. The boundary between urban and rural fascinated me. Later when I worked in outdoor learning, not matter where I went outdoors, I felt I was to varying degrees on the urban fringe. Some artifact of human activity could always be found, even in the most remote places.

I started at Outward Bound wales on Live Aid Day 13th July 1985. One of my team leaders was a woman called Maggie Annatt. Maggie had paddled solo around the British Isles, the first woman to do so. Many years later I attended a lecture by another woman who had done the same. In questions she talked about taking a mobile phone for safety. I asked her if she got a signal all the time and she said in three months she could not get a signal only one one night.

At the time I worked with Maggie there were no such things as mobiles. If Maggie got into trouble paddling, she would have dealt with it herself. When we went on expedition, we took a film canister with 10 and 50 pence pieces. If we had a problem, we walked from our high camp site say, to a phone box. We put in the money and stated the number of the phone box so we could always be called back. Today people been rescued from a text message sent from a mountain top.

Even places clearly very wild, now have access to cyberspace via network signals.

Space and Place

My Human Ecology degree, in the days before gender awareness was desribed as ‘The Study of the Relationship Between Man and his Environment’. We threw quadrats onto fields of flowers and applied the Braun-Blanquet Cover-Abundance Scale to analyse the plants present. We studied Christaller’s Central Place Theory. It taught me to value a systematic approach to understanding place.

Growing out of my own experiences and interests I came across Yi-Fu Tuan’s ‘Space and Place – The Perspective of Experience’ here. It totally struck a chord for me.

In simple terms he suggests we start with space, which is undifferentiated or unoccupied. Our actions in space make it into place.

‘In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value.

Yi -Fu Tuan – Space and Place

This worked for me in so many ways.

I used to take groups up a path behind Abergynolwyn up the Talyllyn Valley by Cader Idris in Gwynedd, Wales. We would sometimes take lunch at a spot by the disused mines called Bryn-Eglwys. In my time it was green and serene. Bryn means hill and eglwys church. It appeared deserted, a kind of soft green wild place. But once, our lunch spot was a village, a mining village on a hill with a church. When the mine closed, so did the village.

People eating lunch would wax lyrical about nature and wilderness. But at the time the EU was funding ‘Green Roads’, rough tracks to give farmers access to upland pasture. The road we had walked up to get there was only a few years old and designed to enhance farmer incomes. The place was in the past, and in the present, a place of industry and commerce.

To me it is interesting that we make place but find space. Beyond what is under our feet, place is a construct, a thing we make by occupying space. Stories of ‘The English’ banning Welsh people speaking Welsh in Wales illustrates the dark colonial aspect of this. But when we arrive at a camp site we also find space. In putting up tents we made it, for a night ‘our’ place. Occupation of space by place has good and bad sides.

In those days nobody had mobiles. Today, at that campsite, we could all occupy briefly another space, cyberspace, through network signals.

Online and Offline Places – Outdoors as Art

Whilst I am interested in depicting or exploring outdoor places through visual art and photography, what really fascinates me is the way that the internet and online places have grown up over offline places.

The internet is not a cloud. It is a real thing, a material entity.

The image above is of Google Data Centre. The pictures, messages and files you have on Google are probably on these servers. In material terms, your online world is most definitely offline. It is not in a cloud, it is on a hard drive.

We can relate to this in a couple of ways.

We can see the internet, cyberspace, the cloud, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, in terms of data. But what is ‘data’. Where is ‘data’. I messaged, the host for this website, to ask where my data was. They said it could be on any number of data centres throughout Europe, but most likely in the UK somewhere. These words as digital code, could be on a server in Milton Keynes for all we know.

But we can also see cyberspace as a real place, as more than ‘data’. Doing this is a very interesting step. To research cyberspace as a physical entity as art has occupied me for some time.

I will add more on this but for now a good artist to know about in this regards in James Bridle at I have a number of entries on my blog about his work and ideas and will cite his ideas a lot.

Other artists are using art to explore, research and depict outdoor and indoor places. ‘Place‘ by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Miller is a good place to start if you are interested. You get it for under £3 on Amazon.

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