Ravens and research: Semiconductor and Chris Watson on Jerwood Open Forest

By Ben Miller | 10 January 2014

A £30,000 award from Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Forestry Commission England will create public art within seemingly tranquil forests

A photo of a man silhouetted against a sunset carrying out an investigation on a coast
Chris Watson and producer Iain Pate channel part of Valhalla in their proposal to Jerwood Open Forest© Iain Pate
The Brighton duo, Semiconductor, and Chris Watson, known as the founder of the band Cabaret Voltaire before demonstrating his extraordinary understanding of sound art, are names familiar for their ambitious science art exhibitions and interventions.

Still, Watson’s proposal for Northumberland’s Kielder Forest, in the company of Iain Pate, takes otherworldliness to another level when he mentions Huginn and Muninn, a pair of ravens who, according to Norse mythology, flew around the world bringing information back to the shoulders of the god Odin. The forest’s trees, he adds, are comparable to the columns of the Valhalla hall Odin presided over.

“These ancient ravens brought back to him conversations from around the world each evening,” muses Watson, who interviewed David Attenborough about his own time as a sound recordist for the BBC last month.

“There’s a very rich acoustic here. In about half an hour, nearly 2,000 ravens descend into the forest from all parts of Northumberland, exchanging all their conversations about what they’ve done and seen and heard that day.

“What we’re really hoping to do is bring back all the conversations and voices of ravens, raining down from the canopy above to an audience sat on the floor, so they can hear what is happening in a place where we could never be because our presence would disturb the environment and the birds would not return.”

Watson’s walk – which begins in a car park, trails through the forest and ends in darkness via a mossy stone bridge “portal” – is one of five proposals for a £30,000 art project, offered by the Forestry Commission and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, who have given each finalist £2,000 to expand their ideas.

He wants to install a set of hidden 16-channel speakers in the forest, hidden from his listeners. The end of the walk will be signalled by tawny owls under darkness.

A photo of a towering metal structure peaking into forest trees against a rising sun
Semiconductor have made a towering proposal© Semiconductor, Jerwood Open Forest. Courtesy Semiconductor
Semiconductor - Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt - have headed to the Alice Holt Forest and Research Station, in Surrey, with a view to drawing materials from one semi-permanent resident: a 26-metre high flux tower.

“It keeps getting higher every time we talk about it,” says Jarman, recalling a “very wobbly” ascent above the leaves.

“Normally we make moving image works, but we’re proposing to make a sculpture. We want to work with some scientists who are collecting data about the forest.

“We want to see how they present their data and then see how we can make that data tangible to create sculptural forms from it.”

The tower collects stats on elements such as wind and water vapour from different heights, and Jarman and Gerhardt are particularly inspired by polar plots, which represent entire years in the forest within single graphs.

A photo of a tall metallic structure within a forest of trees without very many leaves
© Semiconductor, Jerwood Open Forest. Courtesy Semiconductor
“It ends up being circular,” explains Jarman. “So you end up with this cyclical time, which we became very interested in, and also how it mimics the trees and the forest – the idea of the cycle of the year in the forest.

“We’re working towards something which looks quite natural in the forest, and then when you come close to it you see that it’s actually data – it’s digital forms that you’re seeing.”

A set of circular photos from above the canopy, taken every half hour by hemispherical cameras, are as beautiful as you might anticipate. But Semiconductor are more interested in the “technological errors” they contain.

“For us, they emphasise the presence of a human observer – man watching the world around him,” says Jarman.

“We use the way that science provides a kind of wonder and allows us to extend our senses beyond our physical limits. We can see things that are invisible to us, we can touch things that are beyond our body.

“These things are the core of art – it’s about experiencing new things and looking at new things. Working with science and scientists means we challenge ourselves and learn new techniques which are unexplored.”

  • Exhibition runs at Jerwood Space from January 15 – February 23 2014. Visit jerwoodopenforest.org for more on the artists taking part, follow @JerwoodJVA on Twitter and use the hashtag #JOF14.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a male and female artist standing side-by-side within an indoor art studio
Jarman and Gerhardt plan to create site-specific sculptures inspired by the colours of the forest and its data© Semiconductor, Jerwood Open Forest. Courtesy Semiconductor
A photo of the moon with a metallic structure moving towards it against a black sky
The flux tower captures data on the carbon dioxide uptake of the forest© Semiconductor, courtesy PEN (Phenomenological Eyes Network)
A photo of a man standing among ground leaves in a forest accompanied by a dog
Watson's work, taking place around sunset, will focus on roosting ravens© Iain Pate
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