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Keeping it Real

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Tom the Lion - FreeState window

You’ve seen Madmen, right? Bunch of well dressed ad people endlessly selling lacquered turds to post-war America? Set in the 1950s, it chronicles the moment the world is first persuaded to buy – on a mass produced scale – things it might not need.  Fast forward to 2012 and not much has changed – except the amount of things, and how they’re packaged. Consumption on a digitalised scale.

Yes, but all’s not lost. For every burger bought on the internet (well, you get the point), there’s someone somewhere working on something real. Tom the Lion, for example.

Tom the Lion? Who’s Tom? Tom is Tom – musician, writer, producer. He’s 24 years old. He’s on our window. He makes all his music. He’s played a few gigs. He has an agent. He’s just released EPs, and an album – The Adventures of Tom the Lion. Heard of him?

Tom the Lion - St Pancras Old Church - © 2011 Natasha Bidgood.

If no, then that’s probably because you don’t know someone who knows him. Publicity around Tom the Lion has been almost non-existent.  He’s the subject of a handful of blogs. He’s got a website. He’s been on the radio, interviewed, and interested parties – his record company etc. – reference him. That’s about it.

Instead, everything – money, time, effort – has been about creating sounds, spaces and things intrinsic to the quality of the music. Live events, videos and recordings are true to Tom, the person, the musician. Mistakes, difficulties etc. are accepted as part and parcel of starting out, of ‘paying one’s dues’ and attention is paid to real craftsmanship.

Take the EPs and the album. White vinyl, bible paper, foil-blocked gatefold sleeves, screen printed brass clasped wooden box sets, photographs, uncoated CD wallets, the levels of production are enormously high, the packaging undiluted, acutely observed. The album itself must have cost an arm, but that’s exactly – says Tom’s manager, James Scroggs – the point: ‘Not enough time is spent on challenging the craft and user experience of a product. A good product will ultimately market itself.’

So, not – in a world buried in free CDs, cheap apps and digitalised stores – an act of marketing madness? Well, The Adventures of Tom the Lion’s sold out, was Rough Trade’s album of the month and the internet’s jumping with praise for its textural quality, so no, not really. Just down-to-earth, meaningful, caring product making. Real stuff.

album innards - image © 2011 Gavin Lucas - Creative Review

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Written by FreeState

January 4, 2012 at 11:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Necessity being the Mother

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MOS Technology

Recognise it? If yes, you need, friend, to get out more.  If no, then fear not: you, us and most of the world.

It’s a central processing unit, a microprocessor, a microchip. There’s one (or more) in every computer – laptop, phone, domestic appliance etc. You name it: if it runs, there’s a chip. Nearly.  Anyway, this one’s called the MC6502. It’s not (now) the best chip on earth; nor is it the most numerous; but it’s the reason why there’s an alternative to the PC, and why there’s something out there called Apple Inc.

How so? Well, as you know, Apple was founded by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, erstwhile pals and early members of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club. Both had very little money, and Wozniak, the designer-engineer, couldn’t afford most of what it took to build a computer. At that time (the mid-seventies), the only microchips available were the Intel 8080 and the Motorola 6800, each of which retailed for about $170 – $700 today. Unaffordable. Wozniak was largely limited to pencil and paper designs, his head, his imagination.

Fortunately, all was not well at camp Motorola, and a whole bunch of their creatives bedded down next door, with MOS Technology, where they proceeded (via a copyright hiccup) to design a chip – the MC6502 – that went on to retail for $25. The rest is, as they say, history: Wozniak has his godfather chip, writes an Apple version of BASIC, builds the prototype. Jobs sells his van, sources the parts, finds an outlet and generally meets everyone he needs to meet to make Apple happen. Out comes the Apple Computer (later renamed Apple I). Out comes Apple II, the world’s first mass produced personal computer. It has colour. It has game making software. It has options, no toggles, less chips. It is beautiful, dynamic. The world goes computer literate.

BASIC

And all from having to hang about for a blessed chip? Well, no, not quite, because that’s the cake story, and you’d need to input things like latent genius, and a million other factors (60 more chips, luck, someone called Mike Markulla etc.), but listen to what Wozniak says about the moment he got his hands on a 6502: ‘Now I had to build the hardware. I looked at all the other computers that were around me and they were like the standard old computer—switches and lights and slots to plug boards in and connect them to teletypes. I said, “No, I want the whole thing, because it’s affordable now.”’ Necessity, then.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Written by FreeState

January 4, 2012 at 10:45 am

Dreaming of Spheres

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Cenotaph - architect's etching - Étienne-Louis Boullée

In 1784 Étienne-Louis Boullée designed the Cenotaph, a monument to Newton, a place to gather, a giant and entirely empty sphere. It was never made. Grandiose, enormous, it was at the time considered an architectural impossibility, an idea, a dream of the future.

Spheres are like this. They’re bloody hard to make. Even small ones. Why is this? If you listened at school (you did), then you’ll know that – geometrically speaking – they’re reasonably simple constructs. V = 4/3 π r3. Right? A = 4 π r2. Remember?  Sure you do. And they’re everywhere, aren’t they? We’ve grown up with spheres. Push a ball and it will roll. Look for a sphere and there it is – in us, in the games we play, the tools we use. They’re made of almost anything, and technological advances in their production have rendered them near perfect. Big, small; here, there. What’s to think about?

Well, lots actually. Difficult to imagine now, but Boullée, as a first class member of the Académie d’Architecture, would have been one of the few people in France with access to anything resembling a sphere, any sphere, whatever its size. Indeed, when Boullée dreamt up the Cenotaph (which, let’s be clear, was to be 150m tall, and 110m in diameter) the really big sphere – as thing in the world – was still thoughtfully unbelievable, a half-fantasy. Domes had been around for millennia, but they’re not the same. The first reasonably sized freestanding sphere, the Gottorb Globe (3m in diameter), was built in 1664; Daniel Marlot’s Celestial Sphere was installed at Het Loo in 1699; Jean-Pierre Blanchard had just ballooned his way across the Seine. Everything else was the future.

So what? We’re it. The future, we mean. It’s here. We’ve got James Wylde’s 60 ft tall inside-out globe (1851), the Bathysphere (1934), The Mapparium (1935), the New York World’s Fair’s Periscope (1939), NASA’s Echo 1 (1960), the Unisphere (1964). We’ve got the Ericson Globe (1989), haven’t we? That’s huge. It’s sphere time. The world’s a plastic oyster. Boullée’d be clicking his heels.

Inside-out Globe - James Wylde

Yes? No. Because whatever the rate of the last 200 years’ worth of technological advances, a sphere is a sphere is a sphere. We’ve never made a perfect one – not even a perfect little one, and nor has nature, and once you go beyond heat and moulds, the job gets that bit more hellishly difficult, as well every stonemason knows. And if you think making a stone ball is hard, go figure the maths that constitutes the making of something the size of a large hotel. Flushing Meadow’s Unisphere, for example, the world’s largest globe, is 12 storeys high, weighs 408 tons and involved (for the solving of just one of its problems) 670 simultaneous equations. Compare this with the 40 or so required for solving a similar problem in a similarly sized cuboid – no comparison, really.

So, brain frying stuff, which is why the way – from Cenotaph to Sphere Building  – remains littered with plans, designs, the never-mades, the yet-to-be-mades, and why, if Boullée were alive, he’d still be dreaming… just.

Stone ball - FreeState

Written by FreeState

December 9, 2011 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Speaking Balls

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Sphere collection - FreeState

We’ve always been fascinated by spheres. And not just FreeState. You, the world, all humans.

Yes. The sky is full of balls. The Greeks explained the universe by means of celestial balls. Christian and Muslim medieval theologists posited that the planets and stars were moved by ball-conscious angels. Even today – despite the Copernican revolution – we happily think of the galaxy’s objects as pinned to a vast sphere.

Basically, we like spheres. They speak to us. The globe is a sphere, which is why kings liked them, and popes, and lords, and pretty much anyone interested in taking over the world. The apple is a sphere, and it speaks about loss, redemption, fertility, life, love, purity, desire, rebirth and beauty, which is why kings liked them, and popes, and lords, and…  For a long time the sphere spoke the language of absolutism, of religion, its purpose political, its story found in coats of arms, heraldic insignia and in the decorative elements of both renaissance and baroque architecture.

However, while nearly always saying something, spheres were never – to exhaust the metaphor – keynote speakers. The big cheeses – the triangle (cross) , the crescent (sickle, moon) the circle (sun, wreath, crown) – were always considered more meaningful, more potent, more relevant, and the sphere, relegated even in the case of portraiture to cameo roles, was frequently forced to fight its corner against a treasury of rivals, against pearls, sceptares, diamonds etc. This is certainly most true of architecture, whatever the success of the dome.

Chaux cemetry sphere - Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

And even when finally – with the French Revolution, with in particular the visionary designs of the likes of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée – when finally it takes centre stage, and comes to symbolise by itself the people, the nation, the body nationale, the sphere as metaphor is so much less well behaved than its competitors, its vague and varied antiquarian stories easily hijacked. In 1939, for example, at New York’s World Fair, and in the designs of Albert Speer, Germany’s leading architect, it spoke for futurism and fascism – at exactly the same time.

In the end, the very geometry of its form – total, self-referential, anti-gravitational – makes its own meaning, which in many ways is what happened to our own sphere, the Glitterball. Predictably, the initial attraction of suspending an enormous sphere outside the entrance to Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Wing at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 is heavy with Old World speak: Virgin is a global brand; it flies around the world; ergo, a giant ball signifying planetary reach. No one could have foreseen, however, its effect upon arrival, its own physical power. Brought in, across one of the runways, it appeared in the distance inconsequential, small. We were – initially – nonplussed, unengaged. It looked like a child’s toy, and it was only up close – craned in over the roof, and readied for suspension – that we were able to gauge its actual size, to feel its hugeness. Now a giant, and yet still emanating a kind of unbridled childishness, it made us smile, laugh – all of us, client included. Ever changing, its moiré affect illusory, compelling, fascinating, it felt irreverent, playful, fun. Like a glitter ball, in fact.

construction drawing of the Glitterball for Virgin Atlantic

Written by FreeState

December 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Making Giants – again

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If you’ve read our post on the same subject, you’ll want to know (perhaps) why one of Britain’s best known giants, Andrew Gormley’s Angel of the North, didn’t get a mention. Short answer? We’re not sure. Sorry. Here it is:

Angel of the North – steel – height: 20m – 300 tonnes

Situated in Gateshead, clearly visible from the A1, and designed, built and erected between 1994 and 1998, the Angel of the North is, for more reasons than one, a very modern giant. Funded largely by the National Lottery, made of COR-TEN, a steel alloy, it cost close to £1 million, is located in an area originally earmarked for regeneration, and initially met with stern opposition. It was described variously as a ‘monumental clanger’ (The Sun), ‘a clothes peg and a foot rule’ (The Mail) and ‘vulgar’ (Brian Sewell, for The Evening Standard). Giants, if nothing else, attract a lot of attention.

Dream

Today, the Angel of the North is a landmark work of public art. We love it. As important an icon of the northeast as the Tyne Bridge, it’s served to whet a collective appetite for giant sculptures, an appetite that has resulted in – most notably – Jaume Plensa’s Dream (St Helens), in Thomas Heatherwick’s B of the Bang (Manchester) and in Wolfgang Buttress’s Rise (south Belfast).

Like the Angel of the North, each of these giants involves enormous amounts of time and planning; each employs industrial scale making techniques; and each serves a public space. However, there’s more here than meets the eye. All, even Dream, the recipient of almost universal praise, has faced giant problems: Rise is actually a replacement for an initial commission, a larger work, Trillian, considered too costly; B of the Bang, the largest of the lot, suffered structural problems and was subsequently dismantled; and Gormley, while successful in getting the Angel of the North made, had previously failed to get his Brick Man off the ground.

Truth be told, making giants is not easy business. They’re expensive. They’re big. They’re next door. They make mincemeat of time frames. The competition is super fierce, and for every successful venture, there are x number of projects that never make it beyond the drawing board – the GatewayWales landmark initiative, for example, or Mark Wallinger’s White Horse.

White Horse - artists model - proposed height: 50m

Giant making requires buckets of faith – in groups, politics, local democracy, yes, but also in science and art. Structural engineer Cecil Balmond calls it ‘the crucible of invention.’ Every successful (read made) giant pushes at the envelope: Anish Kapoor’s Marsyas (Tate Modern) uses a fabric that is just 1mm thick; Dream is self-cleaning (titanium dioxide); Dune Grasses (Blackpool), our most recent giant, employs the technical excellence of Altelier One to kinetically mimic windblown grass.

And, as if this were not enough (it’s not), the best of giants speak – to us, the land, with other giants. Really? Yup. Imagine – if you will – beetling up the A1 and coming across the poised and sun-blasted brilliance of the Angel of the North. Look at its wings. Big, yes, but look at their angle. Set to embrace, grab or sweep away, they’re saying something, telling a story, yours, ours, anyone’s. Good giants tell good stories. They do. Worth their weight in gol…

Dune Grasses

Written by FreeState

November 23, 2011 at 6:31 pm

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The Garden of Forked Paths

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Stowe Gardens - © 2011 Agatch Lucka-Ahmen

In his story The Garden of Forked Paths, Jorge Luis Borges, arguably Argentina’s greatest writer, is not concerned directly with a garden, but rather with what he calls a combination novel, a hypertext novel, a story that can be read on many different levels, from many different perspectives, and by many different people. However, had Borges had the opportunity to visit Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire, then he would, we’re certain, have jettisoned from his story plan the garden-as-metaphor conceit, for here, in 300 acres of rolling fields, serpentine waterways, groves, temples, hermitages, ruins and grottos, lies the real thing: the hypertext garden, the garden of forked paths. It is also one of the main inspirations for much of FreeState’s work.

Huh? Bear with us. Stowe Gardens, a leading example of the eighteenth century’s English garden movement, is the brain child of Richard Temple, leading Whig and distinguished soldier. The year is 1715. His unremitting support for King George 1st is beginning to reap much reward. Last year, following George’s coronation, he was made Baron of Cobham. This year he marries Anne Halsey, heiress to mountains of untold wealth. Next year he’ll be made Privy Councillor, and in three year’s time he will have the Viscounty of Cobham tucked firmly under his belt. A rising star, a member of the exclusive Kit Cat Club, friends with the likes of Alexander Pope and architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham has the world at his feet. What next week, for a man like this?

Well, two things. First, more power, please, and lots of it, gained either directly, through office, or by means of patronage – though in this he will be forever frustrated by Sir Robert Walpole, First Lord of the Treasury, Great Britain’s first prime minister, onetime friend, confidant and political colleague. Second, build something. Build something lasting, something that says important things about about him, his friends and their shared view of how the world should be. Something, above all, about Britain, British taste, her technologies, her artistic prowess. So, not French, not Catholic, not kingly, not absolutist.  It must, in the words of Jonathan Meades, be progressive, worldly, liberal, enlightened, secular, parliamentarian and, crucially, sybaritic. It must, in short, be the Whig worldwide view, a physical manifesto, a blustery polemic in 3D. What better place than to write it on Stowe Gardens?

Jonathan Meades - on set of Reading A Garden

Thus is it that, from 1715, having bought his cousins out, and pioneering a very English philosophy of what it is that constitutes a so-called properly landscaped park, Cobham makes a garden speak the politics of the new aristocracy. Its many builds will employ the brilliance of Vanbrugh, the baroque tendencies of John Gibbs and the accessorising eye of William Kent. Meanwhile, its shape – its irregularities, the many perspectives, the ha ha’s (sunken fences), the hermitages, the hideaways, the walks, the untended fields, the clumps of trees, the seemingly randomly placed deadwoods, the sheer lack of Frenchness – it will owe to first the designs of Charles Bridgewater, then to the naturalistic Kent and, finally, to the singular genius of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, in whom the English garden found its true poet.

Unlike Versailles, its opposite, it will make nothing of its house, which is dull, a dull, inert block. Instead, it will be about itself and its makers, modern, forward looking, a garden that cannot be seen in its totality from any single point, a garden that is asymmetrical, filled with hidden delights, the unexpected, a garden of jokes, secrets, ideas. And because it is, so it will issue a guide, the first of its kind, a map that not only shows the way, but also names and explains, a kind of literary appendage designed to help visitors – who will come in their thousands – negotiate a garden that speaks a language steeped in the classics, in myths and monsters, in ancient history, in lost symbols, and in the whys and wherefores of British aristocratic life.

Which is exactly what happened. Stowe Park, a story filled with stories, is, says Meades, ‘an anthology of boasts.’  Take, for example, the temples of Ancient Virtues, British Worthies and Modern Virtues. Set in the Elysian Fields, reflected in the waters of the River Styx, they are Cobham’s version of the good, the great and the downright bad: old heroes in the first, modern heroes in the second and everything that is rubbish about eighteenth century today signifed by the ruins of the third, and by a headless statue of none other than his arch enemy, Walpole. It is a big old Whig boast, and hilariously obvious. Obvious, that is, if you’re a member of the Kit Cat Club , or someone with enough of a reading in the classics, in British history, in Cobhams Machiovelian shenanigons.  Otherwise, like most of us, you’ll be needing that there guide book.

from British Worthies to Temple of Ancient Virtue

And it gets even more interesting. Stowe was developed and changed over time. The many effects of the story’s main features are dependent on when you visit. The strength of its message is, from an early eighteenth century perspective, somewhat diluted by the removal of the Temple of Modern Virtue in the 1770s, its fragmented remains only identified 200 odd years later, in a survey carried out by the National Trust in 1989. That’s up to a thirds worth of story, gone, its meaning – for a large chunk of time – changed. More, the story is, whatever the effects of the vagaries of time, not nearly as clear as Cobham would have hoped.  The inclusion, for example, of Sir Walter Raleigh, pirate and general wastrel,  makes for an interesting twist, his very unworthiness casting a questioning shadow across the rest, across Shakespeare, Newton, Milton etcetera. And not just the Elysian Fields. This warping, twisting and proliferation of meaning is everywhere at Stowe. 300 acres of invention, of rampant metaphor, of adverts, games, nods, winks and landscaped illusion, it is a garden ‘about which,’ in the end, says Meades, ‘there is no consensus about meaning.’

Which brings us – by way of a rather long forking back path, if you’re still here – to the hypertextual realities of Borges, to FreeState, to how Stowe Gardens continues to inform almost everything we do. This is most obviously true of our work on the Sony IFA stands, but is perhaps much better illustrated by The Agency of Change, a smaller project, commissioned by Nokia. Using sound and lighting to transform – and continually transform – Beaumont Chapel, in Windsor, and led by a group of professional actors, we placed 200 of Nokia’s senior directors at the centre of a multi-sensory experience, one which had them digitally and instantly feeding back their impressions to their colleagues. Sensual, interactive, a story made up of stories, the total immersion… the similarities with our reading of Stowe are obvious: interesting visuals, believable props, great sounds, tightly choreographed spaces, the subjects as much agents of experience as the object – and the opportunity for endlessly expressive outcomes. And all from a garden, eh.

Bridgeman's Map of Stowe

Written by FreeState

October 26, 2011 at 1:54 pm

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Here’s Looking at Billions

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What’s 10 000 people look like? 100 000? What about a million? The largest gathering of people ever – anywhere – took place in 2007, at the Kumbh Mela, on the Ganges, in northern India. One of Hinduism’s most important festivals, it attracted 70 000,000 pilgrims over the course of 45 days. The only way to see a number like this is from space. And not very well.

And if that’s hard, what about a billion plus? The world’s population is 7 000 000 000 000 people. It’s impossible to imagine this many people – let alone see them. And what about even higher numbers, numbers used to account for the world’s insects, its grains of sand or, the subject of this week’s window, it’s many monies?

In his blog Information is Beautiful, David McCandless expresses his frustration at the (unreflective) ease with which the media reports large amounts of money: ‘They’re reported as self-evident facts, when, in fact, they’re mind-boggling and near incomprehensible without context.’ Decontextualised, the information given is next to useless.

Better, then, to provide a visual and relative context with which to understand ‘unseeable’ numbers. Something, then, like this. Simple, easy; information made beautiful. Example: it costs nearly as much to defend America as it does to feed every child on earth for 5 years. You can do something with this.

The Billion-Dollar-O-Gram by David McCandless

Written by FreeState

October 24, 2011 at 7:27 pm

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