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Harald Symkla

ada's key 256 bytes ada's key 256 bytes ada's key 256 bytes

Work made:

  1. Circumambulating the Beast of Exmoor || Gallery || mixed media collage (watercolour, tea, graphite and colour penciel, OS maps on paper)
  2. Exmoor Chart of Sublime Interconnectedness || Gallery || mixed media (tea, graphite and colour pencil, scaled-down OS map copy on paper)
  3. [DIS]ORD[I]NANCE SURVEY || Gallery || Maps and Materials Towards an Approximation of Exmoor National Park
  4. Ada's Key (256 Bytes) (images above) || Gallery || Photographic documentation of an outdoor work
  5. Triparks Exmoor Commemorative tea towels a) Circumnavigating the Beast of Exmoor; b) Ada's Key || Gallery


Harald says:

Triparks and I or A Brief Guide to Identifying, Experiencing and Processing the Sublime on Exmoor Today

Program Flow

Which National Park would I prefer to work in?  Dartmoor, Exmoor, Northumberland?  Before applying for Triparks, I checked a UK road atlas:  Exmoor National Park would fit more than twice within the M25, the Greater London Orbital.  That size looked manageable. And it was the one National Park on offer with a good stretch of coast. This was an easy decision:  I wanted Exmoor –– and I got it.

Next stage:  five days of initial research in the National Park in April, with the working village of Wheddon Cross as a base.  A flood of information and impressions washed over me.  Trying to make sense of it all, I felt unable to focus on one single idea.  I was looking for links, an overriding theme.  I read the National Park Authority’s Management Plan and even "Lorna Doone", R. D. Blackmore's quintessential Exmoor novel.

Drawing connections between all and sundry, I eventually found myself exploring the physical and narrative landscapes of Exmoor for present-day aspects of the Sublime.  In my subsequent residency periods, personal observations and actions interwove with topical strands such as global warming and the birth of digital technology, high- and low-tech animal husbandry, Romantic literature and science fiction, local traditions, folklore and myths, cyber-feminism and apple orchards.

Ada's Key (256 Bytes)

During the weekend of 16/17 August 2008, I created an outdoor work in the orchard and picnic ground behind Porlock Visitors Centre that also happens to be the end of the Coleridge Way.  Over two days, I inscribed apples that were still ripening on the trees by impressing the fruit with pigment-free pen point, numbering and marking them with 256 Bytes - 8-bit units of binary character encoding, which form the basis of our computers and keyboards (I used the extended ASCII table []).  This work presented a temporary memorial to Ada Countess of Lovelace.  The only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron and friend of Charles Babbage (inventor of a mechanical predecessor to modern computers), Ada was a visionary 19th century mathematician, who resided at Ashley Combe near Porlock Weir and authored the world's first computer programme –– which makes the environs of Porlock the seedbed of our internet era.
There are obvious links between apples and digital technology.  Alan Turing, 20th century computer pioneer, cracker of the Enigma code and –– as a gay man in early post-war times –– forced to undergo legally ordained 'chemical castration', died of a bite from a poisoned apple.  Suicide or not (as his mother claimed), the story sounds like a dark fairytale, or even something out of the Old Testament.  The writer Sadie Plant, whose book "Zeros + Ones"* references Ada throughout (and Turing frequently), does not fail to mention, that the company logo of a rainbow-coloured apple with a byte taken out adorns millions of desk- and laptops in our days.

In the orchard, I also bit a piece out of the apple marked as #127 [01111111], which encodes the 'delete' command. Perhaps the work’s title ought to be “256 + 1 Bytes”.

Genius Loci (pronounced: Low-Key)

Turing’s eponymous test examines a machine's ability to demonstrate intelligence.  HAL, the sentient super-computer from "2001 - A Space Odyssey", would easily pass.  Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote the novel and the script for Kubrick's film –– thus being HAL's creator –– was born in nearby Minehead, the gateway to Exmoor.  I wondered if there was something peculiar to the area that would inspire post-Romantic notions of the Sublime based on concepts of Artificial Intelligence, and searched out Clarke's birthplace (13 Blenheim Road, actually marked by a blue plaque), which is in a quite unremarkable street.  Young Arthur apparently spent many a childhood night stargazing, so I tried the same.  Exmoor is famed for its clear night skies; I had seen magnificent ones over Wheddon Cross in April.  However, in the street- and moonlight-polluted canopy over Minehead, only one star shone brightly enough to show up in my photographs. I think it was Venus.

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would enter virtual realities by non-digital means.  His opium-inspired poetic fragment 'Kubla Khan' was written in nearby Culbone and famously disrupted by "a person on business from Porlock".  On his way to Culbone, Coleridge must have walked through the same wooded grounds where Ada would live some decades later.  With poetry, it's all in the mind.  The "deep romantic chasm" from 'Kubla Khan' might reference Ashley Combe, while the walled gardens of Xanadu may well have been an opium-transformed vision of Somerset apple orchards.  Once upon a time, the area was teeming with these.  And with giants.

One of them, as legend has it, snapped off the tip of the spire of St. Dubricius Church in Porlock and planted it on top of Culbone Church (Britains smallest parish church, by the way).  In R. D. Blackmore's “Lorna Doone”, male protagonists of near-gigantic stature and sublime physical (not intellectual) strength battle it out in what often seems an unforgiving wilderness.  Blackmore himself preferred gentler environs.  He lived in Teddington (near London) to pursue another passion of his:  fruit growing.

The Blood of the Beast

In the course of the novel, Lorna's love, the hero and gentle strongman Jan Ridd, has a whole menagerie of animals butchered for the sake of traditional Exmoor hospitality.  Jan himself is saved by a female relative from death by blood-letting, administered by an over-zealous 17th century physician.  No such luck for Ada Lovelace in the 19th century:  like her father, she died at the age of 36 following medically induced blood loss.

Any hunter on Exmoor will remember with pride the first time s/he followed the pack and underwent the ensuing initiation of ‘bloodying’: the ritual of getting one's forehead marked straight from the kill's fresh carcass.

Such time-honoured ceremonials are unlikely to occur in your local abattoir.  There, the term "performance" would rather refer to the mass and quality of a beast's dead meat.  To optimise this, relevant data networks are the key:  information on an animal's vital statistics and its genetic bloodline has to be obtained, stored, referenced and made accessible in a central data administration system.  Shearwell Data Ltd. of Putham Farm near Wheddon Cross offer complete solutions in hard- and software for this and other livestock management issues.  An innovative local agricultural high-tech business of international importance, the DNA of their success can ultimately be traced back to Ashley Combe and Ada's discursive ambulations.

Any wild predators that humans used to fear have been extinct in England –– or so we assume. Yet as recently as in the 1980's, a crypto-zoological "Beast of Exmoor" –– supposedly a large wild black cat –– was blamed for mass killings of livestock on the moors.  In response, the Ministry of Agriculture called in the Royal Marines to search and destroy the creature.  The soldiers, however, didn't know where to look.  They never found the Beast.  I did –– several of them, in fact.  On the National Park's Public-rights-of-way network map, I identified the contours of various mega-creatures, in particular a very big cat stretching lengthwise from Porlock to Martinhoe Common, with paws on Simonsbath and Exford.

Around midsummer, I made a 5-day journey cycling/walking along the outline of this 'real' Beast of Exmoor, creating a large invisible drawing in landscape.  My bicycle was vehicle, virtual drawing instrument and packhorse, sometimes negotiating paths as rough, steep and muddy as described in “Lorna Doone”, sometimes being put under distress by cars roaring along A-roads.  I experienced many diverse localities and environments in close-up, met people in- and outside their homes or businesses and documented observations en route:  wilderness, farm animals, landscape features, domestic sculptures, roadkill...

I found it's not a big cat but rather the motorcar that sheds most blood on Exmoor.  Yet this Beast of Anywhere is seemingly indispensable due to the lack of rural public transport provision.  While I left a negligible carbon footprint during my excursions in the National Park, few people can afford to take 5 days time to cover 70 miles or so, as I did while Circumambulating the Beast of Exmoor (19 - 23 June 2008).

Outlook 1: Hands-On Land

Subsequently, I drew my hand outline over the map of Exmoor’s Public-rights-of-way network map and asked a former colleague, now adept in various mind-body-spirit practices, to conduct a psychic reading of the palm on the map.  I expected generic interpretations on the National Park’s character, even its future, but the chiromancer directed her focus towards my cat-shaped journey route, which apparently intersected some vital hand lines.  While the “Loop of Intuition” corresponds with R. D. Blackmore’s Doone Country, Exmoor as a whole, by way of a strong head line, appears to be governed by a rational sensibility.
Outlook 2: The Flood

During a conversation in Wheddon Cross, a retired Exmoor farmer couldn’t see the point pf the National Park Authority's Mire Restoration Project.  "Who wants to see bogs?  There is nothing to see."  After a long professional life in the livestock industry, notions of bogland as water retainer (i.e. flooding prophylaxis) or carbon sink seem rather irrelevant.

In clear weather, Ada probably had a decent view from Ashley Combe over the meadows of Porlock Marsh and the Bristol Channel, watching the age-old interplay of land and sea.  In 1996, that view changed significantly:  the sea defences broke, the meadowland of the marsh was flooded.  Not many plant (or animal) species could survive in the salty earth, as testified by rows of bark-less, bleached-out skeletons of what might have been alder trees.  Those plants which do survive are the pioneer species of the dawning age of rising sea levels.  The Porlock area is also an indicator of global climate change –– a very 21st century notion of the Sublime.

Look Back

While I was working in the orchard, visitors came to chat by the apple trees about my project.  A person from Porlock brought along his own extensive archive of historic photographs and other documents of Ashley Combe House for me to view in the prevailing drizzle.  I also met the man who plans to open to the public the site of Ada Lovelace's house and the Philosopher's Walk, where she and Babbage discussed analytical engines []. I hope he will succeed.

Laura Lee writes in her review of "Zeros + Ones", 'Ada's world was one in which footnotes and peripheries revealed a new conception of the world, one in which she could see the "interconnectedness of everything" by "crisscrossing the complex topical landscape".' [].

While negotiating Exmoor's complex physical landscape, I found little of the sublime terror which the Romantics enjoyed conjuring up, but rather an overall sense of manageability –– of wilderness, animals of all kind, conflicts of interests, countryside aesthetics, tourist traffic...  It is hard to imagine that a large feline predator roaming the moor could escape discovery for decades, or that the gentle protrusion of Dunkery Beacon (Exmoor's highest point, 519 m above sea level) would once inspire awe in travellers.  Yet this may be the very point that attracted the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blackmore, or, on a less literate level, would make the TV wildlife presenter and ‘local character’ Johnny Kingdom a modern celebrity:  being able to access Exmoor's undoubtedly impressive scenery and wildlife at comparatively low physical risk and effort can free one's imagination to reinvent the sublime experience for oneself and others.

* Sadie Plant: Zeros + Ones / Digital Women + The New Technoculture; Fourth Estate 1998;              ISBN 1-85702-698-5



Contact info:

About: Harald Smykla is a German artist based in London since 1988.  He studied painting/printmaking at the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Art (1981-86).  His recent practice –– often ephemeral, cross-disciplinary, intermittently collaborative –– tends to merge live art with unorthodox notions of drawing and print.  (Some of these were presented at the Symposium “Prints on the run: On escaping institution”, Victoria & Albert Museum, London 2006.)

In the public realm, he creates site- and context-specific interventions that investigate, respond to and transform given physical and social environments.  Relevant methods include non-profit street market trading, e.g. playing chess with produce ("Fruit/Veg Chess") or 're-facing' current banknotes with market visitors' contemporary features ["Face Value"]; other eccentric notions of portraiture such as sculpting dental portraits by eating apples; process-based collaborations with non-human life forms; marking time through externalizing his and other people's heartbeats in cardiographic "Ticker" performances; cathartic procedures in his peripatetic "Centre for Research into Emotional Hygiene through Art (C.R.E.H.A.)"; mapping, travelling and interpreting journey routes as representational drawings; introducing new historic narratives; joining the circus ['Psychological Art Circus', 2004-06]; re-appraising the outmoded overhead projector through 'Reprojections', i.e. drawing physical reality onto itself with light [].

Harald has performed and exhibited across the UK and internationally –– recently in Israel and Croatia during the MAP Live 2007 Performance Art Exchange programme [] and as part of 'East Wing Collection VIII' at London's Courtauld Institute []. Following his Exmoor residency for Triparks, he completed a commission for “Haus der Vorstellung” in Berlin, Sep/Oct. 2008 []






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