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Digital Arts Project Takes Flight

Papier-mâché Great black-backed gull head in video conference
Great black-backed gull in Video Conference for the Birds | © Marcus Coates

Artist and naturalist Marcus Coates’ work 'Video Conference for the Birds' launches On-Site/Off-Site, a new digital arts project led by Newcastle University in partnership with the Bewick Society, National Trust and Arts&Heritage.

Newcastle University and the National Trust have a long history of collaboration around contemporary art and heritage. Now, four new creative digital commissions will explore the potential of digital technologies to support contemporary art commissioning for heritage sites in the On-Site/Off-Site project.

The commissions will respond to the work of Thomas Bewick who himself embraced the latest technologies of the eighteenth century to manifest his love of the countryside and nature through exquisitely detailed prints, drawings and engravings to reach wide audiences.

The project is launched by Marcus Coates piece Video Conference for the Birds. In 2019, Coates responded to Bewick’s Northumbrian birthplace Cherryburn. He created Conference for the Birds, installing seven large papier maché bird’s heads in the Bewick print style in Bewick's birthplace cottage. Visitors were invited to sit under the heads and listen to a group of birds discussing their life, their habitats, and their concerns for the future.

Now, for his new digital work, Coates has gathered the birds together once again to conduct their discussion in a video conference Video Conference for the Birds.

Marcus said: “Thomas Bewick used wood engraving because the medium suited his extraordinary drawing skills, 'I know no drawing so subtle as Bewick's since the fifteenth century except Holbein's and Turner's.' John Ruskin 1819-1900. But, importantly it also enabled printing costs to be lower than more modern techniques, meaning his books were affordable to more of the population and therefore knowledge of the natural world was able to become more widely known for the first time.

“This desire to bring the natural world to a wider audience resonates with me, this is part of the motivation for re-presenting this work in a digital form. Also Bewick was a keen observer of mankind as well as the natural world, he celebrated the 'life of his age', offering depictions of human traits and traditions in his 'tail' pieces, bringing these worlds together in his books. Video Conference for the Birds, 2023 attempts to do this also, to give insight into both the perspectives of the human and the bird world.”

Papier mache bird heads on video conference call
Video Conference for the Birds Marcus Coates | © Marcus Coates

Project lead Professor Vee Pollock, Dean of Culture and Creative Arts at Newcastle University, said: “We are delighted to be working with Marcus Coates again as part of our On-Site/Off-Site project. It has been really interesting to see how Marcus has brought his imagination, thoughtfulness and skill to the challenge of revisiting Conference for the Birds to create a new piece of work for the digital realm, and I'm sure audiences will be equally intrigued. This is the first of four works we'll be launching over the next few months and look forward to hearing audience responses."

Cherryburn’s Visitor Operations and Experience Manager Kay Owen said: “We’re really excited to be part of the On-Site/Off-Site project and to see Marcus Coates reimagining of the work he produced at Cherryburn. Marcus has commemorated Bewick’s contribution to art and natural history by turning his engravings into life-size sculptures. Video Conference for the Birds is a celebration of Thomas Bewick’s work that is still very much relevant today.”

The other artworks which form part of the project - a revisited piece by Mark Fairnington and two newly commissioned pieces by Hanna Tuulikki and Ruth Ewan - are also digital-only and will be released across the rest of this year - watch this space!

Video Conference for the Birds can be viewed by visiting the On-Site/Off-Site website

Two adults and two children bend over a table looking at leaflets at Cherryburn with museum cabinets in the background.

Things to do at Cherryburn 

There’s lots to discover at the birthplace of Thomas Bewick, from watching a printing demonstration and seeing his intricate artworks to spending time in the tranquil garden.