Observations on Being, August 2021

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One of the key events in Coventry’s City of Culture calendar has arrived in the city — Observations on Being, a series of newly commissioned and existing immersive landscape installations set in London Road Cemetery.

Only on until Sunday 15 August. Book now using code VISIT to receive 2 FOR 1 Tickets: https://coventry2021.co.uk/what-s-on/observations-on-being/

The immersive art collective, Marshmallow Laser Feast, has collaborated with artists Natan Sinigaglia and James Bulley to bring a set of ecological meditations to Coventry, working alongside several extraordinary scientists, including Merlin Sheldrake, Katie J Field, and Stephan Harding.

Each experience situates the audience in an encounter that traces the threads of our co-existence with nature, expanding our sense of self beyond our bodies. Throughout time, some of the most profound and erudite thinkers from across all cultures have described how humans are inseparable from the natural world — we are entangled, imbricated, and symbiotic.

By mapping the journey of breath from different scientific and cultural perspectives, Observations on Being uncovers the living world both beyond and within us to reveal the deep and beautiful truths that lie just outside the limits of our perception.

Observations on Being - Digital art in the Anglican ChapelLuke Wilson sat down with Marshmallow’s Creative Director, Barney Steel, to unpick the project, where music, voice, and spatial sound design converge to form a sensory portal into the deeply nested natural worlds that surround us, blurring the space between ‘self’ and ‘other’.

We start with the location. Designed by Joseph Paxton, London Road Cemetery is near to Luke’s old school within the confines of beautiful woodland that gnaws at the edges of the city centre.

The cemetery weaves a path through a wonderful collection of native and exotic trees ranging from Giant Sequoias to English Elm and Oak. The site has been active since 1845, and it’s interesting to think about how those spectacular trees are intimately entangled with those buried there.

Comprising seven smaller sections for audiences to tour, technology plays a key role in the project. Where science has pushed the boundaries of what we can see, our understanding of the natural world has grown with it:

CT Scans can now reveal the inner branching beauty of plants and humans, while microscopes help to bring that beauty into view, showing a world that exists at dimensions way beyond the limits of our eyeballs.

Observations on Being delves into nature to

explore those unknown dimensions and then bring them back into the field of human experience,

explains Barney.

It’s a fascinating overture of what to expect: where many shun the idea of technology and nature together, it’s these working in tandem to heighten our understanding of nature that sets Observations apart.

Ecological meditations, reaching beyond the boundary of our skin as the defining layer that separates us, inside, from the rest of the world, outside.

Togetherness runs at the core of the journey, helping us to see beyond our physical makeup, where too often we see ourselves as detached from nature. Barney and the team have tried to lift this separation, sloughing off the hazy layers of our own awareness:

In some ways, it’s an optical delusion of the senses. Invisible threads weave through the web of life, unseen, but essential to our existence. It’s by exploring these threads that you dissolve the boundary between you as a separate individual and you as nature.

‘Optical delusion’ is a phrase that catches Luke’s attention, seeming to riff off many artists’ enduring search for the rhyme of existence in the natural world — a dreamlike state where many creators find themselves. Matthew Arnold did it in Dover Beach, recognising loss in the ebbing tide; likewise, Coventry-born Philip Larkin, who sensed grief through the changing seasons in The Trees.

Observations on Being strikes a different tone, far less concerned with grief; still, there’s a sense of life’s meaning as being connected, inseparably, to the passing of things through time. There’s also the closeness of London Road Cemetery with its sprawling memories of lives lived. And what of breathing itself: breath and death as entwined together, whereby the first inhalation marks the beginning of life and the last of which draws it to a close.

This congruity between life and death is an important feature of the event. Barney refers to Richard Powers’ writing on the boundary between life and death, where one quickly discovers that “the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.” It’s a quote from The Overstory — and one that shows the vast range of influences that Barney and the team have clearly considered in producing Observations.

Barney relates this to the project’s historic Coventry setting:

Every time you take a breath, it’s connected to the out-breath of photosynthesising organisms, whether that’s the cemetery’s trees, algae, or cyanobacteria, that out-breath becomes the in-breath of an animal and, in turn, your exhalation becomes the inhalation of the tree.

Oneness is something that he hopes audiences will soak up during the journey. Creating an experience of being part of nature, not just a concept or description, but how it “translates to a multisensory experience.”

The conversation turns to audiences visiting the installations. In the same way that the project’s tech seeps into nature’s pores, helping it to unveil its mysteries, it strikes me that the city encroaches onto the woodland. Visitors arrive from bustling streets into serene greenery, swapping the hiss and crack of daily life for a meditative experience. Barney is conscious of this: using the project’s innovative technology to prepare people will be important, priming them for the journey ahead through Charterhouse’s greenery.

On arrival, we’re going to calibrate people’s senses through a multi-sensory walk. People will then go into a series of immersive spatial sound and music installations, featuring large projections and interactive screens. It’s a mix of visually stimulating audio-visual pieces spaced along a relaxed walking path.

The day will cater for everyone: children can explore pathways with friends and family, even taking time to sit back on the custom-made furniture, gazing up at the trees, as audio falls from above and sounds ooze upwards from the soil.

The journey will offer different meanings for people, but one thing remains the same for each visitor: that of tapping into the essence of being itself, eased into a gentler openness to the connection between nature and self, at once striking, but never overbearing.

Luke mentions that conservationism is a powerful theme, that of environmental safekeeping, and ensuring its safe passage for future generations. Barney stresses the importance of environmental stewardship on a local and global scale:

There’s this disconnect that goes hand-in-hand with living in an urban environment, especially when we’re living in a time of globalisation. As you reach for something on the supermarket shelf, through the smokescreen of logos and advertising, your arm can extend around the earth causing a devastating impact on ecosystems you will never encounter. Because the real impact of our consumerism is so far removed from our lived experience, it’s easy to partake in destructive behaviour without realising.

It’s an earnest final thought; however, it’s also one that Barney treats with care, hoping that the project might “nudge people towards a conservation mindset through offering an experience of being part of nature and not separate.”

After all, we are pattern-seeking, interconnected souls — seeing the natural world as more attuned to us and less random, Barney hopes, link by link, we can rekindle a new appreciation for these spaces. Observations on Being is one of those links.


Thanks to Luke Wilson for these words and the interviewObservations on Being - Digital art in the Anglican Chapel.

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