As a public artist my work has taken me on many exciting journeys through materials, landscapes and physical hardships. Nothing could prepare me for the relentless nature of building this structure though. Due to the tightness of the budget it was left to my partner and colleague Pippa and myself to complete the construction of the tower. Spending one and a half months living in a Mongolian yurt under the cliffs climbing scaffold to fit those 800 metres of tapered tongue and groove boards
The towers beginnings stretch back to an open commission to create a piece of work for the land form called Samphire Hoe, Englandıs newest landform. Commissioned by Sustrans and Eurotunnel, the artist had no idea what was to be built. As an artist with a diverse practice ranging from digital sound and video to environmental installation. My work has always been about hybridisation, mixing sound and visual ideas, working with theatre, dance and cross cultural fusions.With the tower I was keen to embrace several areas of my practice and to introduce new elements.
During a research trip around the South Coast of England I came across a coast watch look out station at Winterton. It was a particularly blustery day, but the sense of calm and protection afforded on entering this little building and looking out to sea at the crashing breakers below felt exhilarating and very special. Looking around the inside of the building I was fascinated by the information pinned and spread around the walls relating to ships, planes, bouys and other maritime concerns. This was a watch tower, but also a place of observation, recognition and recording ; all the things I aspire to as an artist. The building also contained devices such as sextants, telescopes, barometers, radios and scanners, the constant hiss and crackle of a marine radio could be heard in the background. I had found my perfect hideaway.
As a sound artist I have always been fascinated by short wave radio and information, creating several works around this theme, so the idea of creating an installation that used radio along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world really appealed to me. So the idea of a building to house and contain this sound seemed perfect. I also knew that Samphire Hoe had been the site of fishermanıs huts for many years. Moving along the coast to Hastings I encountered the fantastic stretched fishermanıs net huts along the coast as well as the innumerable sheds and weather beaten structures. I then knew I had to create a wooden building to house a sense of calm and my own audio interpretation of the Dover coast and it would have to be a long one.
The first ideas arose from designing buildings by cutting and pasting textures and images of fishing huts in photoshop. These started to morph with North Atlantic Lighthouses The first drafts of the idea were met enthusiastically by the commissioners who very quickly raised more funding from Arts and Business. We just needed planning permission now
Although I am an experienced carpenter and have worked for many years in wood I needed advice from an expert, so the good friend and the eco-builder Kevin Beale gave me good advice and helped me plan how it could fit together and be transported from my studio in Wales to Dover. We spent several afternoons playing with balsa wood and cardboard.
This done I spent the winter learning CAD and drafting out the 3D rendering of the building, creating montages in photoshop and working out how to afford to build it??
During this time I started to realise the implications of building a five sided tower with tapering sidesbut as a sculptor I relished the challenge.
In the meantime I had re-established contact with an old colleague from college through a chance meeting on an anti war march in London. I have always had the greatest respect for the work of the Cornish based artist Sax Impey, loving the attention to the detail of texture and layers of time his work evokes. Perhaps he could be persuaded to work on the interior? I had been collecting images and information for a bout a year, ordering admiralty charts as well as taking photographs of the flora and fauna in the area. This would form the basis of the imagery inside the building. Sax happily agreed to undertake the interior decoration with help from Pippa.
The original plan for the tower had included the building of a custom built telescope by my dear friend Graham Twyn, an octagenarian engineer from the thou of an inch school of precision who had worked in radio engineering and built telescopes for astronomy. The idea for this telescope is that it would simaltaniously tune short wave radios and select audio samples from random MP3 players. He sadly passed away before we could make a start on this aspect of the project. Luckily I found a local engineer Simon Quincey, who through himself heart and soul into the project and created a beautiful piece which has pride of place in the tower.
We succeeded in getting planning in November 2003 with the only condition being that the structure be stained blue, which was the plan all along. I could then order the oak and larch to be cut by a local farmer Yai Jones in Wales to start seasoning. By spring 2004 we had moved to our new house Penrallt and fitted out one of the barns with a fantastic new workspace. We then constructed a framing yard behind the house and began the task of planing, thicknessing and joining the wood together. This was to take many months of hard work.
During this time I visited the site with the Sustrans engineer, Simon Balentine, pouring thirty tons of concrete into the ground to form a solid weight to hold the tower down and help it withstand the pressures of force 12 galesgod willing he got the calculations right...
The tower is has a green oak frame morticed and pegged together and is constructed in three sections. The 900metres of Larch cladding then had to be planed, tapered by 3 degrees and tounge and grooved, it was then fixed along the rails by over 4000 stainless steel screws. On completing the three sections of the tower it was now ready for transportation.
The original plan was to load all the sections on to a low loader and drive the lot down to Dover in one go. It soon dawned us that not only was this prohibitively expensive, but that it would not fit down the narrow Welsh tracks from our house. Luckily by this time the mighty technician Dave Statham had been sucked into the project, not only does he live in a fantastic 1970ıs Carmichael Fire engine but is mad enough to suggest we tow the tower down on trailers13 hours later we arrive in Dover after an epic over night drive.
What I love about the tower
As soon as I saw the CAD renderings of the view up through the centre of the tower I knew this would be the most striking part of the work, the rhythm of the rails as they stretch up to the roof, with the angled sides causing an enhanced perspective pull you upwards. This line also links with the five roofing beams that converge to a point in the centre of the truss. I have always loved church spires and pagodas for this reason. I love the warmth of wood and its endless variation when it comes to grain and texture, the Larch has been a particular joy in this respectespecially after the stain was applied we used three layers of watered down translucentSikkens Deep Blueto achieve the depth and to allow the reds and pinks of the larch to shine through. At certain times of the day the boards shimmer and match the colour of the sea a sthe sun moves around to set behind the cliffs.
I like the fact that as you walk around the site the horizontal lines of the building line up with the horizon line of the sea at many different aspects of the site.
Stage 2. Sound Design.
The plan has always been to house a sound installation within the tower. This has now been scheduled for the spring to allow more fund raising and research to be conducted. The soundscape will be a collaboration between the Norwegian composer Geir Jenssen (aka Biosphere) and the artist. The telescope will act as an interactive interface linking the landscape views with audio content and allow visitors to change and modulate the sounds. Pre recorded digital sound will seamlessly mix with live sounds from shortwave and marine band radio. The power for this will come from solar panels mounted on the top section of the tower. This is due to be installed in the spring of 2005.