cloud studies

Out in the field and a return to the breakup of Britain.

Northern coasts, part of my chorography of the English-Scottish borders [Link]

Nobson Newtown – In Parenthesis

The great exhibition of Paul Noble’s work opened at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen at the weekend – [Link]


An endlessly growing cosmopolis

14 June – 21 September 2014

This summer Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen will exhibit Paul Noble’s Nobson Newtown, an ever-growing cosmopolis on which the artist has worked for eighteen years. The vast drawings and other artworks that make up Nobson Newtown are spread across major museums and private collections worldwide, and will be brought together in the museum’s 1500m2 Bodon Galleries for the most comprehensive survey of Noble’s project to date.

Paul Noble’s (1963, UK) metropolis takes form through detailed and gigantic pencil drawings, sculptures, video and other objects. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen purchased two works by Noble in 2004, and now 10 years later the museum is excited to be gathering the largest ever collection of the Nobson works. Works such as Nobspital (a hospital), Nobsend (a cemetery), Welcome to Nobson (a civic monument), and many more will be presented in collaboration with the artist, to give scope to the breadth and depth of Noble’s visual world.

Nobson Newtown

Located in the precise moment of 10.45am, the sun’s rays hit Nobson Newtown at a 45-degree angle, illuminating it left to right. All buildings and objects are represented in oblique projection, in which there is no distinction between foreground and background, and the buildings are made up of a three-dimensional typeface, the ‘Nobson font’, through which the letters literally describe their locations.

I worked with Paul on a text, called In Parenthesis to accompany pictures of his work in the catalogue – it can be visited at a website – [In Parenthesis – website]

The text takes the form of a series of comments on things you might encounter in Paul’s world, Nobson, with some reflections on topics like geometry, territory, theatre. Here’s a link to – [Nobson – the book]

Here’s a sample:


Geometric grids abound in Nobson. Features follow angular paths. In Welcome to Nobson geometric decorations from The Dome of the Rock are picked out by stones on the ground. Regular tiled patterns occur too, squared paving, or the like, in The Mall and Welcome to Nobson. There are egg-carton forms, cages and contained forms, in Ye Olde Ruin these are next to a cadastrated cemetery, while a great gridded structure dominates the upper half of the vista.

Prisonob is rigorously gridded, with its rows and columns. Welcome to Nobson features a crossroads and labyrinth — enclosed, squared off. There are enclosures everywhere. Unified Nobson looks to be organized in square sections or city blocks. There’s no tangle of streets here, no narrow winding lanes. Nobson sometimes seems to have been built under an aesthetic of cleanliness — that the clear passage of air will blow away stagnant humors.
There is more generally a deep sense of order to Nobson, in the drawings, because everything is marked out on the coordinates of a three-dimensional grid — x,y,z, lines and points. This offers articulating structure — like an invisible skeleton.

The walls in Nobson often have a regular grid structure that can form the basis for sculpture and imagery, like storyboarding, and as also in the great Egg.

Grids, spreadsheets of rows and columns, putting things in boxes helps us organize the world. Cleaning up the world and organizing things into proper categories — a grid is about putting things in contained forms.

Then there’s the corollary — Cathedral is a pile of stones, and the great bound sculpted forms in Villa Joe Rear View conspicuously refuse to conform and instead seem to explode the boundaries of containment.


Nobson is projected across a paper surface. These are not perspective drawings, but adopt oblique projection, a particular kind of informal 3D rendering.

This is not the way our eyes see the world. There’s no vanishing point, no convergence of parallel lines on a point in the distance — parallel lines stay parallel, and the surface extends off into infinity, so there’s no horizon either.

Nevertheless these are architectural drawings combining plan, section, elevation into a rendered view. There’s a traditional term quite relevant here — ichnography — the ground floor plan that comprises the depiction of ichnoi — tracks or footprints, marks made by those no longer with us, paths that we may follow again. The term suggests that architectural drawing concerns matters of presence and absence.

illuminated manuscript

Nobson is bathed in an even light, but what lights Nobson isn’t the sun. The light source is outside the viewer’s field of vision. The shadows are all at the same angle, and there’s no converging perspective, so the light in Nobson must come from a prism or angled slats that are above but parallel to the land, not from a point source such as the sun. The sun in Nobson is not about light.

So the light in Nobson is a function of the projection and its grid, the way Nobson is drawn. Illumination actually therefore comes from the reflective qualities of the paper, shining through the pencil graphite, the drawing, while the angled shadows offer the impression of three dimensional modeled form. Nobson’s light is brightness — tone.

Paul Noble: “I mostly use hard, or technical, pencils — 4H,5H,6H,7H,8H and 9H. Each of these hardnesses has their own tone — or a darkness they can’t go beyond. The more 9H pencil you apply to your paper doesn’t increase it’s darkness, it simply compresses the paper so that it becomes shiny, reflective and thus a pale mirror.”

These drawings are chirographic, scripted by hand, manu-script. Given the organizing principle that word and letter forms are the basis of so many buildings, features, landforms, Nobson is a kind of illuminated manuscript.

Here’s a video of Paul made with the BBC – [Link]


It looks like one of those wonderful winter late afternoons in the north east of England – sunlight after a morning of heavy rain.


Gilbert (Cockton) and Ros (Stansfield) have been out at Belsay, Northumberland [Link] – that extraordinary landscape of classical formalism and gothic romance.

Here’s Gilbert’s superb photo of the old border tower with its Jacobean extension, remodeled as a ruin when the new house was built.

(also – [Link])

heritage futures – a design paradigm

Last May I delivered the Reinwardt Memorial Lecture at Amsterdam School of the Arts – [Link]


This week it was published as an illustrated booklet – Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall: Heritage, Performance, Design The 2012 Reinwardt Lecture. Amsterdam School of Arts, 2013

Background: phases in the growth of the heritage industry this last 40 years, as I have tried to describe in some of my writing:

Heritage – self consciousness. In the 1980s the rapid growth of the heritage industry, cultural resource management as it is known in the US, became very evident – new museums opening, more and more references being made to cultural legacies that were in need of attention and protection, a growing professional sector of heritage and cultural resource managers to attend to the remains of the past-in-the-present and offer them up to the public.

Heritage – politics. Chris Tilley and I, in our 1987 book Reconstructing Archaeology [Link], dug into the politics of cultural conservation and received a hostile reception when we argued that the heritage industry made conspicuous what was already the case with academic archaeology – that any work done on what remains of the past is always, of course, located in the present and so embroiled in the cultural politics of communities, states, institutions – there can be no value-free study of the past for its own sake. Since then it has become orthodox understanding that archaeology and heritage are wrapped up in changing modernist notions of tradition, history, agency, nationalism – key components of how we see ourselves connected to where we have come from, as individuals, in communities and nation states, as a species. This is explored in great detail in my book Classical Archaeology: Experiences of the Discipline (1996) [Link] and in the discussions with archaeologists that I edited with Bill Rathje and Chris Witmore under the title Archaeology in the Making (2013) [Link].

Heritage – creative cultural production. In Experiencing the Past (1992) [Link], a follow up to my work with Tilley, I elaborated this notion of archaeology/heritage as creative cultural practice. Randy McGuire and I proposed in an article in 1996 for American Antiquity that archaeology is craft – skilled labor done with the remains of the past. It is simply their particular specialization that distinguishes academics and professionals from others who also work on what remains, a society of amateur local historians, for example. Such a notion of heritage as active and dynamic shifts focus from conservation efforts aimed at the stewardship of sites and artifacts, from cultural property to the manifold of engagements between the past and the present, the celebration of intangible vernacular tradition and folklore, for example, as much as the presentation of ancient arts in a national museum. The Archaeological Imagination (2012) [Link] traces some of the historical roots back to the eighteenth century.

Heritage – performance. Heritage is about performing the past. Performance is a powerful concept that helps refine the understanding of dynamic engagements between past and present. Mike Pearson and I explored some ways that this could be activated in our book Theatre/Archaeology (2001) [Link], and in a recent review [Link].

Heritage – design. In Archaeology: the Discipline of Things (2012) [Link], Bjørnar Olsen, Tim Webmoor, Chris Witmore and I outline a unified field of pragmatology – the concern with things-and-things-done (the meaning of pragmata) that includes archaeology, anthropology, science studies, histories and sociologies of technology, and design.

In Let me tell you about Hadrian’s Wall I draw upon experiments in theatre/archaeology as a hybrid of contemporary art and archaeology, as well as my work in the design school at Stanford and suggest ways that we explicitly acknowledge that heritage is a field of design.

Here’s a description of how this might look, taken from the end of my new book:

… begin in medias res with a design challenge or brief. Here, imagine it is a local archaeological museum. Research the context — ethnographically, or by whatever appropriate means, with an eclectic research methodology that aims to establish deep, empathic insight into needs and desires of clients, constituencies, and communities. Define the problem/need/desire, or else redefine — building a museum may not be the solution to local circumstances and points of view. Make this definition design actionable, something that can be addressed by a service, a product, an experience, something made or assembled. Ideate: generate ideas and possible solutions to the challenge/brief—perhaps enhanced support for a local history society may be just what is needed. Choose some of these ideas for prototyping: material models/mock-ups that can be shared, showing possible solutions, not specifying a definitive answer. Show, rather than tell. Share these models, test them out with people to see how they work, or not — evaluate. Perhaps it emerges that what really is at stake is demographic in character — a disjunction between the attitudes to the local past of younger and older generations. Repeat/iterate with another prototype. Build when force of circumstance dictates (depending on feasibility of technology and resources, practical and economic viability). Be aware that any ‘solution’ is provisional.

In all of this process there is rich and flexible interplay between action, inscription and description, research and theory, fabrication and display, with agents, witnesses and audiences, experts and users constantly exchanging roles in collaborative co-creating teams or communities that recognize little hierarchical structure. Such design thinking connects with what I have outlined as agile management (Shanks 2007). This pragmatics is about informed intervention under a tactical attitude, performative remix and assemblage, post-disciplinary, because it freely can combine scientific research and expressive arts, and located in specific encounters between past and present. There is both ambition to make a difference and contribute to well- being, as well as a humility that stands by work done while recognizing how provisional that work always is.

I suggest that here we have a way of practically carrying the insights afforded by performance art, ideology critique, archaeological theory, and critical heritage studies into heritage management strategies and structures, making actionable their points about the ontology of the past (located, constructed, dynamic, tangible and intangible).

Here is the book – Heritage, Performance, Design: The 2012 Reinwardt Lecture. Amsterdam School of Arts, 2013

Jacquetta Hawkes and the Personal Past

Christine Finn’s wonderfully sensitive documentary about Jacquetta Hawkes was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 yesterday – [Link] [Link] Truly, a human past.

Here are my earlier comments – [Link]

Jacquetta Hawkes from Michael Shanks on Vimeo.

Lordenshaws and the Coquet Valley

(Use the controls to navigate through the panorama)

The Simonside Hills loom over the upper Coquet valley looking north. The magical and haunted Whitton Dene is in the middleground. The path off to the left is to the main carved rock outcrop.

The hillfort is one of the most accessible sites of prehistoric rock carving in the north.

It features in my ongoing chorography of the English/Scottish borders.