Steve Messam

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Curlew Machine


Date: 2014

Client: Artworks In Teesdale

Location: The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. Co. Durham. UK

Dimensions: 300mm x 200mm x 200mm

Materials: wood, brass, paper, motor, MP3 player

Video: Curlew Machine on Vimeo

Audio: Curlew Machine on SoundCloud

Further info: Blog post

              machine (detail)  

A response to 'God's Bridge' in the North Pennines, UK.

To me the North Pennines are a special place. They are vast and wild and full of secret places. Landscapes are built from a multitude of layers. These are both physical and metaphorical. Physically the land is layers of geology which in turn reveal themselves like the rings of a tree trunk - mapping out eons and epochs, not just years. God’s Bridge is one of those places where the land sheds its skin and reveals its flesh and bones - its inner workings. What has happened at Gods Bridge is not unique - it’s happening all over the north pennines below the ground, but at that one point there is a gap, an anomaly which creates a ‘place’. In that confined place the geological story of that part of the north pennines is most easily read - one of limestone and water and peat and Vikings and myth and industry.

In response to that sense of place I want to capture the wider experience of the landscape and transport the audience back to there. I wanted to find a solution beyond visual representation, but also beyond just that hole through the rock, but plant it firmly within its wider sense of landscape.

The North Pennines are a lonely landscape – big swathes of nothing. A great place for solitude. However, remote places are rarely empty and certainly never silent. Birdsong has a strange way of summoning up landscapes.

By far the sound that best sums up the vast open landscapes of the North Pennines for me is the whirl of the Curlew. The sound comes from way up above and bubbles across vast distances. It trails off in a descending tone, a built in doppler effect which seems to accentuate the vastness of the landscape.

The ‘Curlew Machine’ is a mechanical attempt to recreate the sound and experience of the call of a curlew high above the fells and dales of the North Pennines. A small electric motor will drives a series of cams which in turn will power small bellows and a ‘whistle’ to emulate the call in a very analogue and physical process. The mechanism will be clear to see - presented unenclosed and on one level works as a piece of kinetic art.

The work is to be presented in the top floor painting galleries. The acoustics of those galleries will enable the sound to be heard as a distant call around the whole of the museum, invoking that original experience of the distant, lonely Curlew. It’s proximity to the Silver Swan makes connections of a contemporary approach to an idea of natural automata. Both can be seen as man’s attempt to create artificial life - or ‘God Machines’. The presence of the work within the painting galleries can also be seen as an extension to the representation of landscapes in painting and drawings.