Christian Barnes: A Bathymetric Atlas of The English Lake District

Christian Barnes: A Bathymetric Atlas of The English Lake District

Gallery 3, The Tetley, Leeds
22nd January – 6th March 2016

Accompanied by an conversation between Jack Chesterman and Christian Barnes (featured below)


Jack Chesterman (JC)
The fact that A Bathymetric Atlas of The English Lake District doesn’t carry any obvious signifiers connecting it to, say, an OS map or a book or a sculptural object is for me where it draws its force from. Do you think your previous roles as a curator have equipped you in a particular way to form views about cultural categorisation and perhaps also about the nomenclature related to your bathymetric mapping project?

Christian Barnes (CB)
When I worked as a curator I did so within a particular tradition, Museums. As such I didn’t really prioritise a role in relation to any contemporary critical discourse in the arts which is not to say that as a former sculpture student I wasn’t interested, just that it wasn’t my job. Museum curators have responsibility for the care and management of objects not necessarily as art, but as part of our material culture as it enters the time machine that is the museum. One of the aspects of the work I particularly enjoyed was how undiscriminating it was. For me this led to greater insight into the products of cultural enterprise. I held and hold the view that everything made or otherwise holds propositions of interest and the quality and nature of the objects I curated or perhaps more properly ‘kept’ was fascinating, especially papers. Paper is a fantastic material and before one has used it for any purpose it already says so much. The means of its conservation regarding handling, acidity, humidity, temperature, particles and ultraviolet degradation not to mention the management of risks associated with fire is already determined. Every second it is exposed to light it degrades and the proper concern of a curator is to extend its life. Paper is particularly hard to look after and the effort required is a measure of the cultural significance of the things made from it. Proper curators like me (I say this to be as annoying as possible to improper curators who bother with exhibitions and so on) are more concerned with extending the life of the objects than the construction of any cultural narrative. It is the material that matters and in this I think there is a synergy with and development of, the experience and practice of sculpture. The intrinsic value of objects is something both felt and rationalised.

The collection at Abbot Hall Art Gallery where I worked 1989-99 contained a large group of watercolours of the Lake District largely assembled by the late Mary Birkett. With a few notable exceptions they were in the most part by minor artists of dubious quality and limited importance. Most of these were painted from 1750 onwards and bore a relation to the picturesque discovery of the Lake District. However to me it was just as interesting to note the changes in forestation they recorded over 250 years in places I personally know well as to see those places manipulated as scenery within the Classical, Picturesque and Romantic traditions; similarly to see images of the landscape prior to its re-engineering. The two basins of Leathes Water for example still sit below what is now named Thirlmere after being changed into a reservoir by the Corporation of Manchester in the 1890’s and it is in such changes that the modern narratives of this landscape can be clearly observed as a result of its management by United Utilities, the Forestry Commission after WW2 and the attack flight training carried on by the RAF during and towards the end of the Cold War all in parallel with the development of the nuclear power industry (though the heritage industry and the National Park does what it can to obscure them from the palimpsest that is the landscape itself).

The form of the Lake District itself has also been explored in the modern era through other means such as the creation of models and through the use of aerial photography and motorised vehicles. In its day, the 1870’s, Flintoft’s Model of the Lake District was considered a spectacle by, amongst others, Ruskin who took an interest in its development and manufacture. It was enough of a spectacle to be placed at the heart of the floor plan of the newly constructed Keswick Museum in 1905.

To return to the question of nomenclature it is perhaps in modelled visualisations such as these that I see a precedent for the Bathymetric Atlas. To me it has a model rather than a map at its core and its life is connected only to its ability to describe something else – something too big and too obscure to be imagined or visualised without a tool to do so. The book functions as a heuristic device whose purpose exists only in relation to the description and articulation of something else, an aquatic landscape that could not otherwise be comprehended or seen, interpolated from soundings and plumbings rather than observation.

The ‘model’ itself is a computer generated three-dimensional model. For the book it has been output as a contour map at a scale of 1:41000, each page thickness is equivalent in scale to 1.7 metres of altitude (or in this case, depth of water). Early maps of the Lake District such as those attached to Gilpin and West’s guides or Crosthwaite’s maps made no attempt at the standardised vocabulary of signs and symbols attached to the contemporary OS and as such they allow the exploration of the landscape as an emotional and aesthetic territory that would be familiar to psychogeographers. I wanted the book to have relevance within all these cultural traditions and artistically to proceed from the practice of sculpture.

JC From our conversations I am to an extent informed about the multiple agencies that you worked with in the production of the map. Locus+ as the commissioning agency was clearly part of the initial stages. It would be interesting to hear more about the work the engineering firm undertook in relation to establishing the mapping data including the contour lines and how a scale was decided upon.

CB I like engineers; they always ask how a thing can be done and never ask why! The fact is I didn’t have the technical knowledge or skills to execute the concept and needed technical assistance. Price and Myers were a referral from a company of architects I occasionally work for. I was determined not to work with a University and the idea of working with professional geotechnical expertise against a production timescale was reassuring to both me and to Locus+. The depth surveys were researched and collected over several years and include surveys made with irregular contour depths in imperial measurements taken from a wetted hemp rope from a rowing boat with a compass as well as acoustic and electronic surveys reconciled to GPS.

Reservoirs were built on a foundation of depth surveys of the waterbodies upon which they were constructed and where no surveys existed (Wet Sleddale) were entirely extrapolated from the OS surveys carried out prior to their flooding. Surface altitudes were taken from OS’s Landform Panorama open source data set and are fortunately an exactly recorded data within that otherwise rather crude interpolation. The task of entering all this data into one model and then using software to reinterpolate it and resection into the scale required to match the vertical scale of the model was beyond me and indeed anyone without sufficient computer expertise.

I was struck by how much use was made in the office of Google Earth and open access Satellite imagery as a reference tool. The scale was ultimately decided by the width of the paper selected which was 1.2m. The colophon is an important part of the book and is conceived as a literal description of process and materials as well as the provenance of all the intellectual property amalgamated in the model by Price and Myers. To go back to the earlier question about the ‘found objectness’ of the model, clearly the model was made, not found, but it was made by a pre-determined process which meant that I couldn’t manipulate it for aesthetic effect other than in choosing and cropping its parameters of altitude and width and by not including every piece of water (there are over 4,200 of them) in the Lake District.

In this respect the inclusion of Wet Sleddale was intended to act as something of an underwhelming overture whose smallness was intended to be challenging relative to the overall scale of the book. I remember a particular moment of tension and excitement for me at Locus+ when this page was eventually turned for the first time and they saw what they had paid for!

JC Dating back to cave art, cooperative authorship is as old as the production of imagery itself. Moving forward to the Middle Ages more formalised cooperative activities in Renaissance studios saw master and pupil working on the same painting or sculpture. In our own time Damien Hirst has employed scores of people to help in the production of artworks and has been quoted as saying that you wouldn’t expect an architect to lay bricks. In relation to your map a strongly personal gestation period arose from long held and intense interest in and knowledge of the Lakes. You have spoken, though, of how later decisions were to some extent process driven. The relationship between the making and doing and the creative bit may even be a central element in the project in that one must closely inform the other in the journey towards realising the concept. The physicality of the map and its production are obviously closely related but it would be interesting to know more about this in detail, for example how the concertina form of the book was arrived at, the process of cutting the pages and the nature of the binding. Did your past experience of bookbinding influence how you approached this?

CB It has always been extremely difficult for me to call myself an artist and I think most of my life I haven’t really deserved the title or presented myself as such. My working life as a project manager in a public art setting which followed my stint as a curator has been dominated by white collar working practices divorced from the personal exercise of any craft skill and although I’m not a digital native I don’t think that anything I do or think at the moment could happen without a knowledge of digital technology.

The work I have done with others has often been in a professional creative context where production has been secured by instruction and contract and largely driven by the duties associated with the instrumentalism that has funded the opportunities I have been able to develop. This experience has informed the way I work and it allows me to discover and observe the work independently as if I am a participant rather than a maker. I really like that and I think it provides opportunities for thought and reflection that would not arise otherwise. Other people’s assumptions and mistakes are always revealing.

In the case of the Bathymetric Atlas crucial aspects of the project and of the concept are the creative work of others and would not be present were it not for their input in resolving the work. I believe Jon Bewley, Hannah Kirkham and Jonty Tarbuck at Locus+ who have a background in the commission of live and performance art understood the performative potential of the book far, far better than I did. It was only when I saw the pages turned for the first time and the element of theatre as people crowded round that I fully understood the depth of the curatorial and creative contribution they had made to the project. Likewise, Rob Hadrill at Book Works Studio first suggested the idea of a ‘spineless book’ after the first dummies or prototypes which I had made revealed mechanical problems in the displacement and distortion of the model arising from the page bindings when the pages were manipulated. These and the numerous ideas contributed by Price and Myers formed part of a discursive circle from which the concept was finally resolved.

I think it is crucially important to recognise the limits of one’s own ability and experience and to work with people who are more experienced and expert than oneself to extend the range of one’s own limited expertise. To me that should be the norm for creativity, but for some reason it isn’t always seen that way.

Prior to the final proof of concept I had set up a ‘ning’ (an online private social network), now archived, that consisted of amateur freshwater divers, fellow lake sailors, art collectors, artists as well as others to develop a resource of ideas that fed into the project. Most notably the photographer John Darwell, whose partner, then working for the Freshwater Biological Marine Research Station at Ferry Nab, Windermere first pointed out the perhaps deservedly neglected publication, Depth Charts of the Cumbrian Lakes, by A. E. Ramsbottom. A lot of the thinking around this project – much of it still untreated and unprocessed – was effectively ‘crowd sourced’ or at least ‘crowd validated’.

However, the single eureka moment came from a piece of work I did for Cumbria Tourism. They had hired me to investigate the feasibility of producing some kind of picturesque interpretation on the sites of Thomas West’s viewing stations and the concept came into being as I drove round the lakes with a disintegrating copy of West’s Guide on my passenger seat looking for the ‘stations’ and armed with a folder of John Darwell’s brilliant photographs made over the course of many years which attempt to situate Farringdon’s suite of engravings made to illustrate the guide.

The thing I came to understand in this process was that West’s invention of the ‘Viewing Station’ as a device around which the elements of a picturesque composition could be assembled in the eye of the viewer was not that they were a singular point but a suite of views taken around a water table that occupies the middle ground of the composed view and reflects the distance or some effect of the weather. It was therefore a middle ground that one never actually looks at and which Mark Haywood memorably and elegantly described as a ‘sutcher’ that draws all the elements of the composition together. The chapters of the book are named after the principal lakes and describe the routes taken to get to the stations and that, with the benefit of a bit of lateral thinking, was where the idea for A Bathymetric Atlas came from.

JC The fact that the pages carry no pictorial or textual information can provide an imaginative spur to what could be there as well as promoting focus on the developing spaces of the lake shapes. The “purity” of the object provides a quiet certainty that I think prompts thoughts about what other information the project might promote. We spoke briefly on this subject envisaging an accompanying textual supplement. Have you had any further thoughts about this? The geological and scientific subject matter you have researched could make a strong accompaniment to the map, forming a parallel publication or artwork to the map as, indeed, could the natural history, cultural and anecdotal material that you have also gathered. I could envisage a film of the turning of the map’s 80 pages being a strong ancillary art object as well.

CB Yes, a lot of material was gathered in the ‘ning’ I mentioned earlier and the idea of developing written content was foremost in my mind when considering the idea of making a series of publications as a part work rather like Wainwright’s guides… The North Eastern Lakes, The Southern Lakes and so on. My idea had been to ‘exhibit’ pieces of text that linked to the character of each waterbody, each one so different. For example I recently story boarded a comic strip illustrated by Peter McGlynn about the manslaughter of Margaret Hogg. Hogg had cuckolded her husband Peter who killed her and disposed of the body in Wastwater sometime in 1976. Her corpse was recovered eight years later after an accidental discovery by an amateur diver. However the fats in her flesh were subject to a process known as adiopocere in which they were effectively emulsified. This was possible only because there is insufficient oxygen in the lake to support the micro-organisms that would have otherwise rotted her body tissues. Her eyebrows hair and skin were still in place and she was identified by witnesses. The coroner’s report would have been one of a number of perfect texts for a ‘partwork’ of this type because it illustrates a particular quality of that lake water, its lack of oxygen.

A lot of the lakes are actually SSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and although now environmentally stressed by leisure users, still have environmental links to the last Ice Age in terms of their living populations of fish and so on. Strange though it seems to me, most people do not seem able to think of water as an environment or a place and yet the water in each lake is so visibly and physically different. Bassenthwaite for example is a peaty bourbon while Wastwater is crystal clear.

I am personally uncomfortable with the idea of an animated film, I’d prefer just a few people to see the pages turned and talk about it. The fragility of this experience and its rarity is important to me. In fact it would be very easy to make a stop frame animation from the computer model but I feel this is a  temptation that should be resisted. As it is I really enjoy the juxtaposition of the highly crafted nature of the object and the digital and automatic processes of 3D modelling from which it is derived.

JC The display of books – not available to be leafed through – can present a problem in terms of their mediation. The inherent fragility of the map is a counter-intuitive part of its strength. However the turning of the pages does present a problem which you are fully aware of. The danger of a page being “kinked” as it is turned is real. Page turning, an essential function of the book form and also the progressive/sequential nature of the map concept, is available to the audience in very controlled circumstances. It takes two well-briefed people to turn a page. Thus the matter of mediation could be seen to present interesting issues, and no doubt you have given these much thought during the conceptualisation and production of the map. Ideally how best might the project be read?

CB I’m quite happy for people to see the book closed and to have described to them what goes on inside it. I don’t care if that is annoying because I think a part of me dies every time a page is turned. I think an artist has an absolute responsibility to control every aspect of their work and for me the book is a live experience, a prop in a performance, and as it is leafed through it establishes a whole series of transactions between the people who are present. It doesn’t need to be seen to be understood. A description of its function and contents will do and perhaps this is why so much thought went in to the wording of the colophon.

JC It is clear that your extensive and long standing experience, research and passion of the Lakes has provided powerful drivers for the map project. The object you have finally fashioned is remarkable in its purity, yet it implies a backstory that is not readily visible. How has your direct experience of living and working in the Lakes and, and in particular sailing, developed your knowledge and understanding about the bodies of water depicted in your Atlas?

CB When I returned to the area to live I started racing sailboats on the weekends firstly at the Royal Windermere Yacht Club which I left around 2004. When yachts race they sail diverging and converging courses around a series of turning marks where they come tightly together at which point the sailors judgement in taking the most efficient course is proved and places can be given. On Windermere these courses take their names from the land to which they are adjacent such as ‘Graythwaite’, ‘Temple’, ‘Storrs’, ‘Rectory’, ‘Red Nab’, ‘Swans Nest’, ‘Adelaide’ and ‘Henholme’ – many sharing their names with West’s ‘Viewing Stations’ – although I don’t suppose anyone stops to think of this as they pass them taking a transit on the next.

My first experience of the lakes as a child was essentially a recreational one. I was taken on the lake steamers for outings and when I was about 10 years old I received a little sailing boat as a gift. My father spent a lot of down time from work at the lake and I spent hours paddling around the shores and beaches. I also had a canoe and would love to push the canoe into the reed beds looking for moorhens on their floating nests. I have a vivid memory of how cold and clear the water was there and how my refracted hand and arm seemed so much brighter beneath the surface.

Children have a habit of seeing the microcosm around them in a very vivid way and this feeling and sensibility has always stayed with me, but at each stage of my life it has stretched. For example, the first time I encountered the lakes as a cultural proposition (and fully realised that) was as an art student while living away from the area. It would have been the mid-1980s and I was spending a lot of time reading critical essays. Rosalind Krauss’ masterful essay The Originality of the Avant Garde and other Modernist Myths contains a passage relating some correspondence between William Gilpin and his son. Gilpin’s Guide circulated in manuscript for years before it was published. Gilpin Jnr. writes home while touring in the lakes with the manuscript that ‘everywhere I beheld a drawing of yours’ and refers to his father’s ‘system of effects’.

Krauss’ argument that an underlying condition of an original experience is the existence of its copy and the language in which to recognise that experience is exquisitely formed. That we cannot see what has not been framed by cultural expectation and given context, that we live in a cultural environment, that the place I am from has that life too. I am still astonished that my introduction to Gilpin came from an obscure publication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but it did.

I think models are exciting things, they are like museums. I have also heard them described as ‘time machines’ of a sort. They can be used to predict change and they are as much about the future as the past.

Christian Barnes is exhibiting as part of Picture Book, The Tetley, 21 January–6 March 2016.

Jack Chesterman is a painter, printmaker and sometime sculptor and teacher who studied at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art. His practice relates to history, journeying and loss which are explored through maritime and landscape imagery. Through sailing and fell walking he has developed a strong affinity with the Lake District.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

« »
Scroll to top