of three of Brunel’s lesser-known sites
Developed by three artists – Reuben Knutson, Pete Judge and Bob
Walton – working in three media – image, sound, language – the
TRIANGULATION project was a celebration of three of Brunel’s lesser-known
sites in the vicinity of the Cumberland Basin: Brunel Lock, the Underfall
sluices and the tubular wrought-iron swing bridge lying out of commission
on the quay beside Howard Lock.
There were three main phases to the project:
1. Research and composition
2. Community participation
3. Final presentation and evening performance
Pupils from schools in Ashton
and Hotwells had field visits to explore sonic and visual environments
using digital technology. The sonic postcards that the children created
were emailed to over 50 schools throughout the UK. Community walks and
workshops were held to generate poetry from adults. Also a multi media
free public event was held at Brunel Lock. Work was displayed and performed,
featuring a newly formed ensemble of seven new-music musicians. The performance
took place on the Brunel birthday weekend, 8/9 April 2006.
place in the stark spaces created by the Cumberland Basin flyover in Hotwells.
This is a highly resonant site, not just in its natural acoustics and eerily
booming traffic drones, but also in its situation at the edge of the harbour
Brunel helped to create, with a grandstanding view up towards his Suspension
Bridge. On the evening of Sunday April 9 (Brunel’s 200th birthday,
and the day after the new Suspension Bridge lighting system was turned
on), TRIANGULATION transformed this site using a combination of multiple
film and slide projections, spoken word, and music from a specially
formed seven-piece ensemble (the TRIANGULATION ORCHESTRA). From 7.30pm,
the audience assembled beside the anchor next to Brunel Lock car park
(in front of the Nova Scotia pub), and were shepherded along the dockside
pathways to a viewing point beneath the flyover. Here, the performance
began with experimental audio-visual pieces produced by Year 5 schoolchildren
from nearby Hotwells Primary School. These were created in February
2006 during a Sonic Postcards project (led by Artic) as part of the
UK-wide Sonic Arts Network programme. The pieces combine field recordings
and digital video film, which the children recorded and edited themselves.
The resulting industrial soundscapes and abstract loops of film offer
a unique insight into this environment and, as well as being projected
in large-scale form for the TRIANGULATION event, are permanent features
on the Sonic
As sunset began to plunge the site into further gloom (approx 7.57pm),
the Sonic Postcards merged into TRIANGULATION itself. The voice of
Bob Walton summoned the ghost of Brunel; Reuben Knutson’s flickering
films and slides played across the waters of the dock and the undersides
of the flyover; and the otherworldly music of the TRIANGULATION ORCHESTRA
joined the clatterings and rumbles of traffic overhead. TRIANGULATION
comprised three movements, responding obliquely to Brunel’s lock
gates, sluice system, and tubular footbridge. After about 40 minutes,
the performance merged back into the looped Sonic Postcards and the audience
dispersed along the now dark quaysides.
The artists in TRIANGULATION
TRIANGULATION was a collaboration between three members of the much-missed
mopti collective: poet Bob Walton, visual artist Reuben Knutson and composer
Pete Judge. mopti took their early inspiration from the jazz & world
music pioneer Don Cherry, and used it as the basis for atmospheric multi-media
performances, especially during their year-long residency at The CREATE
Centre. Since then, Bob has been an active force on the poetry scene
in Brighton, before returning to Bristol in 2004, whilst Reuben and Pete’s
environmental arts project Artic has had residencies
in Portland and Shetland, the latter culminating in simultaneous installations
in Bristol’s Architecture Centre and Shetland’s Bonhoga Gallery.
The poetry of Hotwells-based Bob Walton (founder member of The South
and Footwork poetry organisations in Brighton, former winner of the Welsh
Arts Council's New Poet Award) evoked images of Bristol Docks in the
1830s and in the 21st century, focusing on the engineering challenges
of Brunel Lock and the Underfall sluices as well as Brunel's tubular
iron footbridge now lying abandoned on the nearby quayside.
of the space inspired photographer & filmmaker Reuben
Knutson's visuals to explore a world of trading and commerce which might
have sunk without Brunel's work there. Featuring dancer Tony Bailey,
loose narratives pit Brunel's determination against the forces of tides,
time and silting rivers. Led by Pete Judge (trumpeter with two of the
South West’s finest bands, Organelles and The Blessing, and recently
multi-instrumentalist with Travelling Light Theatre Company), the TRIANGULATION
ORCHESTRA assembled a unique sound world from some of the region’s
best-kept musical secrets. Savio Pacini (trombone) is trombonist of choice
for everyone from Super Furry Animals to Moonshot. Liz Purnell (trombone),
along with Savio a key member of UltraSound Contemporary Jazz Orchestra,
is a highly regarded composer / arranger/sound-designer for film, TV
and theatre. Dan Marcus (bass guitar) is the quietly authoritative lynchpin
of the uncategorisable Organelles. Andy Tween (vibraphone) is an outstanding
drummer, touring with both Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, but less well-known
for his virtuosic vibes playing. Paul Wigens (drums) is also an outstanding
drummer, performing with the likes of Blurt, The Blue Aeroplanes, physical
theatre company Earthfall, and jazz collective Limbo. Rasha Shaheen (laptop
etc) is, to quote Plan B, “a rare talent”, driving force
behind the acclaimed Mooz, bassist & vocalist with The Liftmen, and
currently touring with both Male & Nik Young.
and Composition took a number of forms:
||Visits to the Brunel
Archive in University of Bristol library, examining Brunel’s
letter books, general notebooks and sketchbooks.
||Visits to Bristol Record Office
(coincidentally located alongside Brunel’s Lock) to study
Brunel’s reports to the Docks Company and other relevant
||Numerous site visits to observe,
record and respond to the location as well as to consider the practical
aspects of the field visit, workshops and the final event.
||Meetings with the staff of the
Harbour Master’s department, in particular General Manager
Richard Smith and John Edwards.
||Over a number of months Pete Judge
developed the musical composition, Reuben Knutson the film and
visual images and Bob Walton the sequence of poems, each working
individually and collectively.
||A website was produced to provide
information about the development of the project. It is maintained
to include images and text from the project. Visit www.artic.org.uk.
2. Community participation
was in two parts:
Part 1 – Sonic postcards:
||Sonic Postcards involved
the participation of pupils, staff and families from Hotwells Primary
School. Sonic Postcards is a national educational project run by
the London-based Sonic Arts Network, for whom Pete Judge and Reuben
Knutson have previously completed several successful commissions.
The aim is to encourage young people to become more aware of the
sounds in their environment and to learn how these sounds can be
transformed creatively through digital technology.
||The choice of Hotwells School was
self-evident: it is the nearest to the key sites, being just a
few hundred metres from Cumberland Basin. Following consultation
with the head teacher, it was agreed that the project would involve
mainly the 30 pupils in year 5 class. Firstly, Dan Stone, the National
Co-ordinator for Sonic Postcards, together with Pete Judge and
Reuben Knutson, ran an INSET session with key staff. This was followed
by five half day workshops (February 2 – 11), introducing
pupils to the software programmes and equipment, conducting a full
day’s field visit to the Cumberland Basin site for children
to record sounds and images, and further sessions for the children
to use their data creatively to produce the Sonic Postcards. At
the end of the week, a presentation was given to the whole school
so that all 250 pupils and staff had the opportunity to appreciate
the experimental sounds and images that had been created by the
year 5 pupils.
||A Sonic Postcards Drop-In Family
Evening was held at the School on 8 March. Parents and families
were invited to visit the school’s computer suite where the
Postcards were presented and there was an opportunity for the children
to demonstrate the software, equipment and skills to parents and
siblings. Very much a hands-on event, it was extremely successful
and generated considerable enthusiasm.
||To maintain the sustainability
of this project, the year 5 class teacher, Virginia Perrin, ran
an INSET session for all the staff at Hotwells Primary School.
The Audacity and Moviemaker software has been installed on the
school’s network so that is available for other teachers
to use with their classes.
||The Sonic Postcards from Hotwells
School can be accessed on the Sonic Postcards website by going
Part 2 – Creative Writing Workshops:
||Two free creative writing
workshops were run by Bob Walton on Saturday 25 March and Saturday
1 April 2006. Meeting in the Harbour Master’s Yard, the workshops
involved an observational ‘walkabout’ around the three
focus sites, with Bob Walton giving background information and
relevant anecdotes from Brunel’s life, followed by a writing
session in the local Nova Scotia pub. Although attendance was low,
the response from participants was positive and they went away
with work-in-progress they intended to develop.
3. The final presentation and performance was
on Sunday 9 April:
||A free, open air, multi-media
event, its aim was to transform the stark landscape under the Cumberland
Basin flyover into a magical landscape of shifting projections,
atmospheric live music and sounds and the spoken, sung and written
||Members of the public were asked
to assemble in the Brunel Lock car park at 7.30pm. A safety briefing
was given and Bob Walton outlined the nature of the event before
reading his introductory poem. The audience was then invited to
walk the length of the Cumberland Basin at dusk, taking in the
atmosphere of the place as they approached the performance location
under the flyover under Howard Lock. The audience stood on one
side of the lock, directly alongside Brunel’s tubular swing
bridge, while the performers and ‘screen’ were on the
opposite sides of the water.
||The first part, as the light faded,
was the presentation of the Sonic Postcards produced by the children
from Hotwells School.
||The second part was a performance
of the 40 minute TRIANGULATION suite, in three parts – Lock, Bridge
and Sluice. A seven piece mini-orchestra, combining brass, vibes,
bass, drums and digital treatments, performed Pete Judge’s
musical composition while Bob Walton read his poems for each section
and Reuben Knutson’s films and images were projected onto
the piers, Harbour Master’s Office and underside of the flyover.
||Over 150 people attended the event
and subsequent feedback was extremely enthusiastic. It was a very
cold evening but the breeze had dropped and the dusk brought a
beautiful play of light, so that the conditions and atmosphere
were as hoped for the event fully met their aspirations.
Sonic Postcards at Hotwells Primary School:
30 children from year 5 participated in workshops, the field trip and
250 children attended the Sonic Postcards whole-school assembly
4 staff took part in the field trip
15 staff at Sonic Postcards assembly and took part in INSET
25 parents attended the Family Evening with approx. 15 siblings
Creative Writing Workshops:
5 adults and one child attended
Over 150 adults and children attended
Evaluation of the final project
against our original proposal
We retained the core of the original proposal
with the priority intention of maintaining the quality of process and
production. The £3,000
disparity between our budget bid and the funding allocation was the main
reason for scaling down certain elements of the original proposal. However,
other changes occurred during the project development.
||Sonic Postcards took
place in one school rather than two. Instead of a £1,500
contribution towards the cost, we have provided £750, though
the Hotwells project involved an additional Family Evening and
more workshops than Sonic Arts Network usually provides.
||Three creative writing workshops
were originally proposed. A personal rather than financial factor
came into play here: the illness and death of Bob Walton’s
mother delayed and reduced the time available for running the workshops.
A small booklet of writing from the workshops was envisaged but
this did not transpire.
||For budgetary reasons, seven musicians
rather than nine were employed for the ‘mini orchestra’ for
the final performance. However, this decision was taken at an early
stage so that the musical score was written for seven instruments
from the outset.
||We changed the location of the
final performance event. Originally we had intended it to be at
Brunel Lock itself. A number of site meetings gave us concern about
the audience being more exposed to the prevailing south westerly
winds at Brunel Lock. For aesthetic reasons, too, we felt that
the dramatic relationship created by having the musicians and poet
on one side of the water and the audience on the other made the
Howard Lock site preferable for atmosphere.
||It was originally proposed that
the for the final event, the audience would approach the performance
site from three different assembly locations and that they would
encounter listening posts playing the sounds of Sonic Postcards
en route. This changed for several reasons: we decided that we
could present Sonic Postcards on a larger, more powerful scale
by using the PA and projector at the performance site; we also
had health and safety concerns about three different groups being
shepherded around the waterside at night; finally, the financial,
technical and security factors involved in setting up six-nine
listening posts weighed against them in the light of the opportunity
to present the Postcards at the Howard Lock site.
||In the end, we did not develop
the involvement of the Architecture Centre in Sonic Postcards as
had originally been envisaged. There would have been a cost implication
that we could not meet and the commitment and knowledge of the
staff at Hotwells School made an additional input unnecessary.
||St John’s Ambulance was unable
to attend the final event. Since the final numbers attending were
unpredictable, this was of some concern. However, the Harbourmaster
agreed to have his rescue boat available and we had several stewards
with first aid training.
The Sonic Postcards element of community involvement
was hugely successful. As someone who has witnessed Sonic Postcards
projects taking place across the country, Dan Stone (Sonic Arts Network)
thought it was “fantastic”.
In particular, while other Sonic Postcards projects have focused on sound,
the combination of sound and image at Hotwells School made the children’s
work particularly potent. The pupils engaged in it with enthusiasm, intelligence
and imagination, while their role at the Family Evening empowered them
through the demonstrations and teaching that they gave to visitors. The
Headteacher, Jenny Taylor, and class teacher, Ginny Perrin, were hugely
impressed by the learning that had taken place and by its impact on the
children’s lives – “they will never forget it”.
Parents expressed great appreciation of their children’s enjoyment
In addition, involvement in Sonic Postcards gives
an additional national profile to Brunel 200 since the children’s work is accessible on
the internet. Half the participants were girls, meeting one of Brunel
200’s aims of introducing girls to engineering and technology,
while more mothers than fathers attended the Family Evening. For everyone
who saw it, as well as for pupils taking part, Sonic Postcards combined
engineering, environment and digital technology in a creative and educational
The Creative Writing Workshops were the least successful
element of the whole project. A number of reasons for this may be proposed.
Although the workshops were publicised in the Books listings of ‘Venue’ magazine
and through flyers and a poster at the Central Library, publicity could
probably have been more extensive. This being his first writing workshop
in Bristol, Bob Walton is not “known” as a workshop leader
and reputation is a factor. A number of other, higher-profile Brunel
200 writing workshops were available in February and March, particularly
those at the Central Library, so the “market” may have already
Nevertheless, the response of the few participants was positive.
Bob Walton is of the view that the structure of a walkabout-followed-by-writing-workshop
can be successful, particularly in this striking location. He is currently
considering offering further free writing workshops on the Brunel sites
theme during the summer.
In our view, the final Triangulation event was
as successful as we could possibly have imagined. Above all, we believe
that it used high quality, contemporary cross-art-form methods to make
an impact upon the audience; raised public awareness, knowledge and
appreciation of Brunel’s
work with regard to the three lesser-known sites; and achieved an exciting
interface between history, engineering, artistic creativity, technology
and environment. From audience feedback, we believe that the quality
of the composition stands up to artistic scrutiny and meets the central
Brunel 200 criteria both for community involvement and for artistic merit.
We had no idea how many would attend the event and were fully aware that
inclement weather could devastate attendance numbers, but in the final
outcome we were very pleased by the size of the audience.
Our proposal stated
that we would involve some of Bristol’s leading
musicians and we believe that the group that was drawn together for this
event fulfilled that aim entirely, as their CVs testify (see below).
Their engagement in the process was rewarding: in rehearsals, in developing
their improvised parts, in their working relationships (they had not
worked together before, Pete Judge being their only common link), in
their enthusiasm for the cutting-edge nature of the project and the location,
and in their final performance, they were an example of professional
excellence. In the end, they were all asking, “When are we going
to do it again?”
Finally, we believe that we produced a Brunel 200
event that will be remembered by all involved. Despite the cold, it turned
out to be atmospheric, engaging and impacting. The performance achieved
a balance between being both cutting-edge/cross-art-form and being accessible.
Feedback – some comments received
On Sonic Postcards:
“I thought it looked and sounded
fantastic! I also chatted to quite a few parents who attended the family
drop-in session who all really thought it was great. Also, I bumped into
a guy from the BBC who is part of their learning and Interactive : Innovation
team which was great as he was really excited about the project.”
was a truly amazing project.”
Both from Dan Stone, Sonic Arts Network,
National Co-ordinator Sonic Postcards.
I think they all got so much out of the project
- new ICT skills, new ways of looking at the world and the freedom
to be creative. It's something they will never forget.”
Virginia Perrin, Year 5 class teacher,
Hotwells Primary School.
From audience at TRIANGULATION event:
“Thank you so much. It was great.
What a tremendous atmosphere you created and I loved the mental image of
a hornpipe-dancing moth.”
“I’ve never seen an event like that in Bristol – site
specific with a performance, drawing attention to the space.”
I thought was lovely was that as the light was going down, you could see
the lights on the Suspension Bridge coming on. It was really well placed
for the whole Brunel experience.”
everyone involved in a magnificently ambitious enterprise - worthy of Brunel
“Wonderful and very atmospheric.”
it was a joy, and a surprising one, full of exclamation marks and gentle
arrests, full of beauty without being Beautiful.”
was gorgeous, evocative, moody stuff, transport for the senses (ironic
idea, under a flyover) and utilising the physical and intellectual context
“It's given me a sense of joy through
the week. And of all the all-singin, all-dancin Brunel extravaganzas
on at the w/e, yours was real and exciting.”
"Magical! I loved the way all the layers
and textures of sound and images slowly built up throughout the piece."
On the Creative Writing Workshops:
“I found the workshop interesting, inspiring and I’m
really glad I bothered to turn up! Although some of the facts weren't
of huge interest to me, I’m glad of any knowledge about Bristol
that is passed on to me, and above all I have been back to the Lock because
I went to the Records Office, and I looked at the place from a whole
new perspective. It was also useful how you described the possible process
you personally would go through to create some writing on the given topic.”
||As three individuals
co-ordinating the project, we have learnt a great deal about the
life, work and significance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Our research
has taken us not only into the fascinating detail of his daily
life but also into the language of his letters and reports, the
minutiae of his calculations and designs, the technicalities of
construction and the operational strictures of locks and sluices.
We have become much more aware, too, of Brunel’s vast, prolific
vision and of the way in which he combined that vision with rigorous
attention to detail. We will never be able to look at Brunel Lock,
the swivel footbridge, the Underfall sluices, and indeed the whole
of the Cumberland Basin in the same way again! We hope that we
have passed on as much as possible of this learning to the community,
young people and other artists with whom we have worked.
||We have learnt how to operate within
a large-scale civic festival. We have had to keep the aims of Brunel
200 at the forefront of our thinking through the organisational
and the creative process. We have recognised the importance of
operating within the guidelines established by Brunel 200 and maintaining
communication and liaison with the festival organisers.
||We have learnt more about the logistics
of staging an ambitious open-air event. This has involved applications
for licences, undertaking risk assessments and putting safety measures
in place, site meetings and correspondence on a much larger and
more sophisticated scale than we have encountered previously. As
such, we have gained confidence in our ability to plan, explain
and be flexible in our response to others involved.
||Over the months, we have learnt
a great deal about the complex nature of responding to sites. When
we drew up our proposal, we thought we knew quite a lot about Brunel
Lock and the Cumberland Basin. Historical research deepened that
knowledge. However, our meetings and work on site, observing, discussing,
evaluating, have all had an impact upon our creative responses
as well as upon our ideas for staging a performance. We have had
to take account of weather, tides, light, assessing their implications
for audience and performers, as well as the range of possible effects
on the ambience and their relationship to the aesthetic experience.
||Artistically, the project has enabled
us to take a number of important developmental steps forward. While
we have worked together on a number of projects and events in the
past, this has enabled us to take on the challenges of something
that is more ambitious than anything we have previously done. In
retrospect, we think that we might have held a few more “signpost” meetings
to achieve a little more integration of sound/image/text - without
compromising the genre-specific elements in each composition. Many
of our meetings became involved in dealing with the practicalities
and while this was essential, and while there were some personal
family occurrences which had to take precedence, we think the final
piece would probably have benefited from a slightly stronger relationship
between the three strands.
||In writing the music, Pete Judge
learnt about composing and arranging for a medium-sized ensemble
of non-standard instrumentation. The choice of instrumentation
to suit the locality, the relationships between instruments in
different parts of the suite, and achieving an integrity of sound
within a “through-composed” piece, with less improvisation
than he is used to, were all challenges to be faced.
||For Reuben Knutson, the use of
large-scale projections offered an exciting challenge. The space
was both difficult and inspiring while the equipment needed for
successful projection was more sophisticated than that which he
usually uses. The totally unpredictability of the light on the
evening of the event, even allowing for official sunset time, gave
an edge to the experience of working in this particular environment.
Working with Tony Bailey, the dancer featured in the Bridge section,
was also a valuable learning opportunity.
||The role of poetry in the final
piece was always intended to be more explicit for the audience
in its references to the three sites and to Brunel than the sound
and visuals. Bob Walton was faced with writing poetry that incorporated
specialist, technical information and language within a lyric mode.
Sluices, lock-gates and the workings of wrought-iron swing bridges
are not the usual stuff of poems! It was, however, a deeply fulfilling
mission. Initially Bob had intended to be more experimental syntactically,
to link in with the digital dimension. Gradually though, he felt
that the engagement with the vocabulary of engineering and shipbuilding
became a stronger imperative which necessitated standard grammatical
structures in the poems to promote accessibility and lucid imagery.
||Finally, we feel that we have developed “a
formula” that works, artistically and educationally – one
which successfully integrates poetry into other art forms and which
responds to the exigencies of the specific site within the context
of a bigger festival.
Photography: Mark Simmons.