Exhibition review: 'The Danger Tree' - Scarlett Raven, Liverpool
Describing herself as an ‘Augmentist’, Scarlett Raven paints impressionistically, then uses augmented reality to help peel back the layers to the creative process. Following her landmark exhibition in Greenwich earlier this year, ‘The Danger Tree’ -taking its name from the only tree and therefore “shelter” on the site of the Battle of the Somme- is now in Liverpool; fitting perfectly with the one hundred year anniversary of the end of this brutal conflict. In an exclusive interview with Writing by Seán, Scarlett, joined by manager and collaborator Marc Marot, explains how these paintings came to be and how the journey through technology, animation and painting helped bring these stunning images to life.
So let me first just ask, am I right in understanding that you were inspired to use augmented reality by a bottle of Heinz tomato sauce?
Marc: Yes, that’s correct. I run a management company and we have loads of clients. At that time one of those was Jessie J and we were approached by people encouraging us to use this technology on an album cover. At the time all that was available for them to showcase this was a bottle of Heinz tomato sauce. Now while it didn’t do much to persuade Jessie J or the label, I remember seeing it and thinking ‘Wow, now that’s great technology. We can do something better with it”. I was already working with Scarlett and the first thing we did was an exhibition in Castle Fine Art called ‘The Eleventh Hour’, So Scarlett was already working on that…
How many pieces were in this exhibition?
Scarlett: Thirty Three.
Marc: Yes thirty three for that exhibition. So we thought “Sod it, let’s give it a go!” So we post-rationalised it and then, using this on the thirty third piece; we just rushed through and a painting that would have normally taken Scarlett a month to do, we did in about four days – by working really intensely on it – with the camera on the ceiling and the canvass on the floor and we captured every daub of paint. But it was very simplistic; it was simply the journey of the painting, rewound. So when you ‘ignite’ it, you’re seeing the finished painting, but then you see bits of it peel away, so it goes backwards in time and it was amazing for people because they’re seeing what the painter is thinking and what the journey of the paint is. We gave that picture to the Royal British Legion and they then sold it for a record sum for their charity ball.
Scarlett: The Legion put a big print of it up in Trafalgar Square during Armistice Day.
Yes, and of course at the moment there is a similar style print, here in in Exchange Flags which is really quite stunning. So now tell me about the process because by now you’ve got stories; you’ve got green screen, images, music… what was the process of building all of these things in?
Marc: The process was fascinating…
Scarlett: A two and a half year process!
Marc: …at the time Scarlett was working in a barn where tractors where being fixed next to her and that’s where the camera was set up. So we had this one particular session where I’d learned a little bit about chroma keying and blue screening and green screening and so we went and did a whole days work and I put it into my laptop. Now Scarlett was actually painting on a giant, blue tarpaulin at the time. So anyway, when I started chroma keying the blue disappeared and then I stopped and yelled “Scarlett come look at this!” because this footage of soldiers I had from YouTube… well, it was amazing, they appeared to be coming out from the canvass! And it was a complete mistake!
Scarlett: You see as the majority of my work is landscapes and seascapes with skyline, there is a lot of blue, so then we would take war footage and in my paintings where there is this story of the poppies being built up, we’d also have these soldiers just running along the skyline. So then we were able to, within our process, orchestrate when the bits of blue or green appeared and so we’d start to write stores to say that at certain points something was going to happen.
So you would do a sort of story board for each piece?
Scarlett: So with the Eleventh Hour Exhibition, it was about the symbolism of the poppy but for me, someone who is really dyslexic, I found learning about the subject quite intimidating. But you know I well, we, learned a lot about the symbolism of the poppy and there was this flow of storyboarding and all these ideas came.
Marc: Yes and you’ll notice that when Scarlett does paint she will often paint a square or circle of blue and that itself is her giving me licence to put something in there; an image of a soldier, a face or another image.
So when you are putting down those blue shapes you’re making a decision there that this part is to have some sort of augmented image and you’re consciously deciding that whatever image this is, you prefer it represented this way than through paint?
Scarlett: Yes and that’s why this collaboration between myself and Mark works so well because there is always so many layers; stories and other paintings beneath my paintings.
Marc: And I must add that there always was, even before the augmentism.
Scarlett: So I had started to do really amateur animation and stop motion photography; nothing like what we’re doing now. One clip had the paint bleeding from my eyes and down my body, onto the canvass and floor. This would just be one of the layers of my paintings but of course all of my paintings had these layers and layers that no one ever got to see.
Marc: Now I had seen this stop motion clip and I thought of my tomato sauce bottle and that was the sort of ‘eureka’ moment really. So then we went on to add the poems. Now I am dyslexic and Scarlett is very dyslexic and so it was a challenge when it came to the subject. So I found these short clips that Channel 4 had made in 2014. They had made these little, interstitial clips between add breaks as part of their commitment to the remembrance if the beginning of the First World War. So I had seen Christopher Ecclestone doing ‘Dulce Decorum Est’ and I’d seen Sean Bean doing ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and I thought they were fierce and really powerful and so we licenced the clips for our augmentations, but also Scarlett was listening to them on a loop while she was painting and using them for inspiration.
Scarlett: I just have to tell the story of when we were taking the photographs (laughs). So I thought we were filming a ‘making of’ alongside it, so I got more involved in some of the photos. So you have some of the photos with me out, some with me in… but it worked out there were quite a lot with me in!
Marc: Every sixth picture! Doing this: (thumbs up)
Scarlett (laughs): Yes! Every sixth picture of two hundred thousand photographs!
Now you mention the number two hundred thousand. I saw that one of your pieces involved over nine thousand pictures, just on its own?
Marc: Well yes, I mean for Mind we did one which was twenty two thousand images -that was just of the paint. Then you add into that the thousands of images people submitted with their worst fears written on Gaffa tape, plus then the animations. So there’s probably about thirty thousand images in that one, yeah.
And this of course explains why it’s taken you two and a half years to get this far.
Scarlett: Yes, especially with all the mistakes we made at the start. I mean, we’re a lot quicker now, but it has been a long process. I think the best things that we have done along the way have actually come out of our mistakes, I mean this process, it’s never been done before so we didn’t have a template, we didn’t have any model but the learning process taught us more than we expected.
Now I just have to ask about the soil. I am right to understand that some of these paintings have soil mixed into them?
Well with the ‘Eleventh Hour’ exhibition, you know the theme is really daunting and I wasn’t sure I could do it any justice and so my dad, he encouraged me to talk to him every day about it; he was really supportive. It turned out that the night of the opening of the exhibition was the last time I saw him; the next day he went off to visit the site of the Battle of the Somme and to the Danger Tree. He was sort of on a pilgrimage himself; he really believed in it you know. So he collected some soil and sent it back to me in a brown box, telling me to put the soil into the paintings and how important that would be. He died two weeks later, so that was the last gesture he made. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have approached the subject of the poppy without his encouragement.
Marc: I mean Raphael Ravenscroft was himself a very famous musician (he played the sax for the iconic song ‘Baker Street’) and in fact, he wrote the music for the first of our augmented reality pictures. If he had not passed away he would still be doing the music for us now.
Scarlett: And it’s how I know Marc, through my dad, as Marc is big in the music industry and so I knew of him when I was growing up and from that I decided I wanted him to manage me.
So Marc you came in as a manager and yet there now appears to be, what was referred to earlier as a ‘collaboration’?
Marc: Yes that’s absolutely right. I mean for years I’ve been known for one thing and that is the management of artists in the music industry but very much I have always been aware of being on the ‘other side’; making decisions, promoting others…, and while I have always had a very artistic understanding of things, it has been put into other people’s creativities, which of course is fine. When I started working with Scarlett, I was enabled to ‘come out’ artistically as we worked on these collaborative pieces and bring in my own different angles and perspectives to the work. So I have Scarlett to thank for it, really.
Scarlett: On every piece he does fifty percent so it would unfair to say it isn’t a joint effort. He does all the digital an editing and I do the painting and so that’s how it came to take on this form.
So let me just ask about the set. I mean I’ve been to lots of exhibitions and I’m quite used to plain, white walls in a square-shaped room, but this…
Scarlett: Well firstly the paintings themselves are like nothing that’s been seen before and so with the augmented reality this needed to be reflected.
Marc: Well yes that’s right, we just thought this was an opportunity to take you somewhere else. So as a music supervisor in the film industry I called a good friend of mine; Mark Samuelson, the film producer. After telling him what we were doing and that we needed a set designer, he said; “There’s only one person for the job and that’s Kave Quinn”. She was fantastic. She’s known for the likes of Trainspotting, Woman in Black and so on. So we said quite clearly we want: “June the 30th 1916, four miles from the front; Beaumont-Hamel, burnt down, bombed out; a completely destroyed art gallery and the only wall left standing need to have want to hang ten paintings on!” Then there was a short silence! But the, replied that she could see it and she came into my office and we agreed a price and that was that. She did brilliantly.
And it is an incredible set. A work of art in itself. So I just have to ask… what next?
Scarlett: Well we are definitely excited by the journey we have been on so far and there are lots of ideas that we are already thinking about so yeah, there’s certainly a few things that we are looking to try out next and explore ways to expand with the use of augmentation.
‘The Danger Tree’ is on display until the 18th of December at the Dr Martin Luther King Jnr Building, adjacent to the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the Albert Dock. International Slavery Museum
Dock Traffic Office, Albert Dock, Liverpool Waterfront, Liverpool, L3 4AX - 0151 478 4499
Be sure to follow Scarlett Raven on twitter: @Scarlett_Raven
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