Tag Archives: ~in the fields

Composite Landscapes

‘Composite Landscapes’ is a paper on my work with artists ~in the fields, which I delivered at the conference Writing into Art held at the University of Strathclyde and Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow, on 18–19 June 2013.

01 ~in the fields

Since 2008, I have collaborated on several projects with the artist collective ~ in the fields, Nicole Heidtke and Stefan Baumberger. Their work, in their own words, “emphasizes natural phenomena and condenses poetic moments into inventions of closed systems”. Their visual art practice draws on archival material and often involves environmental topics.

Our collaborations include a publication, an exhibition and public art projects, and I would like to consider some of the approaches to writing these different projects suggested, in terms of our collaborative methods, as well as the ways in which the content, form and sequencing of the resultant texts developed.

In particular I’ll consider two works: ink, for which text, written in response to an extant sculptural work, features in and shapes a book publication; and yen to see distant places, an interactive work made for an exhibition last summer at New Media Scotland, Edinburgh.

02 soccer

Our initial connection was a shared interest in the relationship of the handwritten inscription to the printed book – the individual to the mass-produced. I wrote a sequence of poems, On the flyleaf, notionally written in and relating to particular books, and I continue to have an interest in marginalia – readers writing in books. The image above features one of the ‘flyleaf’ poems.

03 parallel_view_on_programming_det

~ in the fields’ work incorporates new and old media, and their sculptural work ink used digitised versions of handwritten inscriptions found in five printed books from five centuries. This inscription – here represented in digital form – is taken from a 1634 edition of Pliny’s Natural History:

With one sole pen I wrote this book
Made of a grey goose quill;
A pen it was when I it tooke,
And a pen I leave it still.

04 ink_threespheres

Ink – the sculptural work – consists of five colourless clear glass bulbs – each partly filled with blue ink. When the visitor approaches, the bulbs begin to rotate, causing a layer of ink to coat the inside surface. Through the ink, illuminated handwritten inscriptions become visible on a spinning armature – a rotor with LEDs which pulse very quickly – and the inscriptions are given to the visitor individually. The visitor’s presence initiates the offering of the inscription once again.

05 Ink upright

In the book Ink, images and texts relating to the sculptural work ink are augmented by texts by myself – original poems, found poems and reflective prose – which consider the sculptural work itself as well as the related topics of marginalia and the colour blue. An alphabet poem – on imaginary shades of blue – came to define the structure and extent of the book.

06 Ink French folds

The book is bound using French folds – the main text is all printed on one side of the paper – but between the pages, as it were, there is a background text – the alphabet poem – glimpsed out of the darkness. The book is 52 pages, so two pages for each letter of the alphabet.

07 Ink Circles

The poems in the book move off in different directions from the sculptural work. As well as the blue alphabet, there are found poems using parts of the handwritten descriptions; these additionally reflect the globes of sculptural work by being presented as circle poems, a form I had previously attempted without much success, but which seemed to work for me in this context. There are also poems reflecting on the sculptural work directly – on movement – on the propriety, or otherwise, of writing in books – and on the happenstance of the collaboration occuring in the first place. Here are two short poems – original, rather than found – from the book.

A paradox – before
this or any other book
absorbs the library-
stamp of ownership.
a proper response, a nod
to posterity; but afterwards
unwanted, wanton, an act
of desecration,
proper grounds for censure.


It felt like a gift, such an encounter, out of the blue.


08 Myriorama

“Landscape is not seen as merely dramatic background but as a force which shapes and directs the minds of its inhabitants.” (James Reed)

yen to see distant places from 2012 projects composite landscapes drawn from early 19th century etchings of Scottish landscapes, creating – perhaps somewhat in the manner of historical fiction – an image each of whose elements is based in reality, but which has never yet appeared in quite this context or combination.

Each composite image consists of three elements – background (The Sublime), middleground (The Beautiful) and foreground (The Picturesque).

~in the fields wrote to me: “[we are] working with the ‘Sublime’ as landscape elements which are rough and evoke respect. The ‘Beautiful’ (Edmund Burke) are the small elements, smooth, delicate. The ‘Picturesque’ (William Gilpin) element is something like a ruin of a castle… We decided also to have the introduction of the rhododendron, etc.”

09 backgrounds 1-9

Here are some of the backgrounds. Individual elements are sourced from different books, mainly Walter Scott’s Provincial antiquities and picturesque scenery of Scotland: with descriptive illustrations, published in the 1820s. Other sources are books from the Botanic Garden Library, for example, Scottish trees with a history or a connection to a famous place. There are also some landscape drawings by Robert Kaye Greville (mainly for ‘the beautiful’) from the 1830s.

10 3 x 15

Fifteen images were selected, and individually coloured, for each element, and thus in total there are over three thousand possible combinations(15x15x15), or composite landscapes. The idea is also that the composite images can also connect horizontally to form a continuous landscape, or ‘myriorama’ – an idea taken from 19th century sets of cards featuring landscapes, which could be placed in any order and still produce a coherent image.

11 0001wG

I was originally asked to provide a short caption or title for each image, but in fact produced a short poetic line, mostly taken or adapted from the work of Sir Walter Scott and other Romantic writers. Like the images, these lines were adjusted so that when combined they form a composite three-line verse, or Romantic haiku. The first and second lines – background and middleground – are linked by prepositions ‘from x to y’ – with the third line following after a dash, thus precluding the need for more specific syntax, yet qualifying the previous couplet in some way.

12 2012-08-09 16.17.56

Here is a shot from the exhibition. You can see how each of the images is presented on a glass screen on a pole. When these are moved into a certain position, they are projected on to the screen at the back as a combined image, and the text appears with them.

Here is the composite landscape, and poem, formed from the three elements in the bottom right of this image.

13 4_27_38

The text reads

from savage grandeurs, to
shaggy heath –
making improvements

14 2012-08-09 16.14.56

Another exhibition shot of the three elements – and the composite landscape which they form.

15 1_24_43

from wild cascade, to
boughs, and a low eminence –
a beached skiff

Here are a series of images, as presented on the screen during the exhibition, shifting from right to left.

16 panorama

In this case, the user experience is very different from that of ink, as they participate and create one image out of three parts, anticipating what the composite image will look like and seeing this as a part of an ongoing panorama, and then being surprised by the related poem they have also “composed”.


To conclude: poetry is about structures, about form as well as content, and sometimes the most interesting way of producing content is to focus on the form, and let the content as it were come of its own accord. I enjoy the way ~in the fields focus on thinking through and making their highly conceptualised and technically ambitious works, and I hope the poems can work in similar ways, as intricate machines which fascinate in terms of both their engineering and their output.

Ken Cockburn, June2013

florist flowris schene

Gavin Douglas wrote the lines below about a May morning 500 years ago, as part of his Prologue to Book XI of Eneados, his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

I read it beneath a cedar in Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens at the weekend, as part of the ‘Spring Blossoms’ walks.

But it also seems a good match to this picture of me at Stonefield Castle, near Tarbert in Kintyre, taken by ~in the fields while I was visiting them there last week (even if rhododendrons hadn’t yet reached Scotland in 1513).


Dame naturis menstralis, on that other part,
Thayr blyssfull bay entonyng euery art,
To beyt thar amouris of thar nychtis baill,
The merll, the mavys, and the nychtingale,
And al small fowlys singis on the spray :
Welcum the lord of lycht, and lamp of day,
Welcum fostyr of tendir herbys grene,
Welcum quyknar of florist flowris schene,
Welcum support of euery rute and vane,
Welcum confort of alkynd fruyt and grane,
Welcum the byrdis beyld apon the breyr,
Welcum maister and rewlar of the yeyr,
Welcum weilfar of husbandis at the plewis,
Welcum reparar of woddis, treis, and bewis,
Welcum depayntar of the blomyt medis,
Welcum the lyfe of euery thing that spredis,
Welcum stourour of alkynd bestiall,
Welcum be thi brycht bemys, glading all,
Welcum celestiall myrrour and aspy,
Attechyng all that hantis sluggardy!

~in the fields

After our collaboration on Ink, I’ve had the pleasure of working again with ~in the fields, and written texts for two works in their current show at New Media Scotland, Inspace, part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2012.

Yen To See Distant Places features ‘3D’ images – images literally made up of three layers, that is background, middleground and foreground, or ‘The Sublime’, ‘The Beautiful’ and ‘The Picturesque’. There are fifteen of each, so 45 in total, presented in the gallery on stands, and they can be physically moved. When three are placed in a particular spot on the floor, they are ‘read’ by sensors, which create on a screen a three-part composite image.

from steep and solitary rocks, to
groves deep and high—
an air of majesty and dejection
from gloomy raptures, to
the lonely down—
sepulchral yew

Each ‘ground’ also has its own associated line of text, and beneath the composite image a composite three-line text appears. Just as the ‘grounds’ are adapted from 19th century engravings drawn mainly from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland’, so the lines are drawn from 19th century texts, especially Scott’s. I think of these little three-liners as ‘Romantic haiku’. The composite images (though not, sadly, the texts) are then transmitted to St. Andrew Square where they can be viewed through a telescope located by the Edinburgh Art Festival pavilion.

Drifts Through Debris is a modern take on the 16th century book wheel of Agostino Ramelli. Ramelli’s wheel was made to allow comparisons to be made between different texts – you could have several books open at a time, and by turning the wheel you could compare and contrast their contents.

This wheel features video screens, and draws attention to the growing problem of oceanic plastic pollution. Footage includes archive material from the 1940s extolling the virtues of plastic as a way of utilising what would otherwise be waste products, and responses by two dancers – Sue Hawksley and Tony Mills – to images of sea-creatures constrained in various ways by plastic debris.

I wrote texts to the same images, and extracts from these are presented as part of the soundtrack to the video loops. The wheel is made of steel, with spaces at the hub for small projectors – a clever piece of contemporary design – but you turn it by pulling on handles made of driftwood, so it also has a nice tactile element to it.

The third work in the show is A Diagram of Floating Stones – in tall, thin aquariums, lace-knit wrapped stones from Shetland beaches are given buoyancy by plastic found on the same beaches.

I think it’s a great show – conceptually and visually strong, a fascinating mesh of old and new technologies, and acknowledging the gallery visitor as active participant rather than passive consumer. There are pictures of the opening, and of the works, here.


ink will be launched at 7pm on Tuesday 22 November at The Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DF. The book will be for sale at the special price of £18.00. Dr. Anette Hagan from the National Library of Scotland will speak about book inscriptions, and Pfaelzer Wein (red and white wine from the Palatinate region of Germany) will be served. ink is a beautiful new artist book, featuring full-colour images of the prize-winning sculptural work ink by ~in the fields, and specially written texts by myself – poems, circle poems, ‘Reflections on the writing of marginalia’, and a hidden alphabet poem offering twenty-six imaginary shades of blue. In addition, the contributors present their ‘blueographies’. ~ in the fields are artists Nicole Heidtke and Stefan Baumberger. In 2010 they won the Berlin University of the Arts Award for Interdisciplinary Art and Science for their sculptural work ink. Their visual art practice draws on archival material, environmental topics and ephemeral artefacts, such as lost forms of cinema. ink was developed from inscriptions found in five printed books from five centuries – a Bible, a copy of the Arabian Nights, a songbook, and books about natural history and botany. ink consists of five colourless clear glass bulbs – each partly filled with blue ink. When the visitor approaches, the bulbs begin to rotate, causing a layer of ink to coat the inside surface. Through the ink, illuminated handwritten inscriptions become visible on a spinning armature, thanks to the phenomenon of persistence of vision. The inscriptions are given to the visitor individually. The visitor’s presence initiates the offering of the inscription once again.

Details 208 x 198 mm Hard covers 52 pages Full colour French folds Edition: 500 Publisher: Abertay University Press, July 2011 ISBN 978 1 899796 25 0 Recommended Retail Price: £24.95 If you would like to receive more information about the book, please write to me, or to studio@in-the-fields.org