ECOS is a journey over nearly 20 years which has resulted in a Pan European Sculpture symbolised by 12 standing stones around an amphitheatre on the campus of Frome Community College in Frome Somerset UK. It is a piece of Land Art which stretches across Europe linking Young People in 12 geological locations. It is a seed, a germ of potential, which is continually producing new growth as part of an inbuilt process. Most importantly, it has involved the creative energies of a massive number of people across the European Community to promote Sustainable Life in the 21st century. It encapsulates and follows in the tradition of the late 20th century artist Joseph Beuys, mediated through his influential and visionary statement: “Everyone is an artist”. Contemporary European artists, in common with the makers of the Neolithic stone places, create artefacts which embody a conceptual framework of multiple resonances that take us beyond the arrangement of materials which we can see and touch.
My journey began with the massive stone heads erected on Easter island. These stone pieces, some up to 70 tonnes in weight, were quarried and carved in the middle of the island. They were subsequently dragged to the edge of the island, where they were erected on platforms; each one facing inwards from the sea. They are now believed to be ancestral representatives of the people who created them. . What interested me about Easter Island was the monumental collaborative community effort involved in the creation of these sculptures which had no obvious economic benefit to the people who created them. They stimulated in me a desire to collaborate artistically with people who had skills beyond my own.
As Artist in Residence in Frome Community College in 1984/85 it was my wish to create monumental colourful heads in metal, about 10ft high arranged, as representatives, around the edge of a sloping piece of grass out side the Merlin theatre. Eventually, only one such head was created, by Barry Taylor and the staff/technicians in the metalwork department in Park Road. The design was developed by me and Richard Hewer with Frome College students. The sculpture now resides in Lord Bath’s private garden, to the west of Longleat House.
I spent the next 2 years in London at the Royal College of Art, where my painting reflected an intense relationship with Cubism. The collective energy of that movement was a big influence upon me. Picasso and Braque “roped together like mountaineers” created canvases independently which were so similar that it was not easily possible to identify the hand which painted them. I was also interested in the primitive roots in their work and its relationship to ritual. My paintings began to take on an elemental quality.
When I returned to Frome in the autumn of 1987 I developed a friendship with John Fisher (Principal of Frome College), which at first centred on a mutual interest in Particle Physics and led to a series of paintings investigating the nature of matter, that logically followed from my study of Cubism. At the same time I began working with the composer Nigel Osborne on a project relating music, dance the visual arts. He held a firm belief that the art of the 1990s would centre on artistic collaboration between disciplines and across the arts/science divide. This prompted me to develop my proposal for sculpture on the sloping piece of grass outside the Merlin Theatre with John Fisher.
My proposal took the form of a political piece called community. At its simplest it followed on from the Easter Island concept – monumental figures arranged as representatives around the edge of the site all looking inwards. It was a kind of local parliament or forum referring to the City States of Plato’s Republic pointing towards the kind of democracy which would allow small communities to determine their own destiny away from mega politics. The materials for these representatives oscillated between wood and stone. The concept of an Arthurian Round Table also occurred as the site was adjacent to the Merlin Theatre.
It was at this point in 1988 that ideas for a performance space took shape in conversation with Mike Walker (director of the Merlin Theatre), and the artist John Nankivell. This was particularly attractive to me because it moved the concept much closer to collaboration across the arts. Mike Walker described the traditional image of an amphitheatre as “a space crying out for performance”. John Nankivell produced a drawing of an amphitheatre surrounded by the carved representatives.
The dialogue between wood and stone continued up to Christmas 1988 when Cuprinol turned down my £7000 application to create the concept out of totemic wooden figures. On a mid January morning in 1989 John Fisher turned the project on its head by taking me out to sit on a bench, outside his office, next to a standing stone which he had brought from Wales to commemorate his deputy head, Edith Butcher. The philosophy being that this was a physical representative from Edith’s homeland; in time bits would drop off it, and lichen would grow on it. On this basis, John suggested that, since we lived in a quarrying community, we could transform our local parliament into a United Nations of Stone. This was later, for political and practical reasons, developed into a European Community of Stones to celebrate the coming together of 12 European nations in 1992.
The Easter Island idea of monumental stone representatives, arranged around the site, was thus endorsed, but in conceptual form. The forum of 12 representatives was to be a Pan European geological one, initially uncomplicated by imagery or figuration. The idea was developing of a kind of garden or sanctuary for ecological and spiritual concern, looking out to communities beyond our own, for young people to share their beliefs and knowledge through artistic activity. At this point in March 1989 I put on an exhibition in the Merlin Theatre Foyer and invited John Fisher, Grant Beswick(chairman of Frome College governors), the sculptor Laurence Knee, and Mrs. Angela Yeoman (chairman of Foster Yeoman Quarries) who became principal sponsor to the project for the following 12 years.
From this meeting ECOS, the European Community of Stones, was born. An ECOS board was set up, which was eventually chaired by Mike Walker, to oversee the running of the project. I worked with Laurence Knee during 1989/90 to design the amphitheatre, starting from John Nankivell’s original drawing and taking the concept through to an organic plaster model which fitted the contours. We set up office at Foster Yeoman’s headquarters in Marston House, under the guidance of Peter Watts, to run the administration. We then worked with the civil engineer Grant Gellatly, from Balfour Beatty, to survey the site, draw up engineering plans, and secure planning permission. Through Chris Underhill (chief executive of Action on Disability and Development), an ECOS board member, we involved Margaret Daly our local member of European Parliament in July 1990.
In the autumn of 1990 Bob Ward (vice principal of Frome Community College) asked Peter Chapman (public relations manager for FosterYeoman Quarries), to become project manager, and Frank Turner who had recently retired from teaching in Frome Community College volunteered to build the amphitheatre. In the spring of 1991 construction began on the site; Laurence Knee marked out the terraces. Frank Turner worked with local young people for over a year, to build the design. Peter Chapman travelled to Europe to choose the 12 geological representatives, and arranged their transport and installation on the site. Industry in the Frome area and across Europe, freely gave its services to make this project happen. Paul Williams worked with students from the college to grass the terraces. Mike Walker and Martin Dimery organised and directed the first ECOS festival, which involved bringing young people from the stone bearing communities all over Europe in July 1992 and hosting them in Frome for 2 weeks.
During the first ECOS Festival Aristides Varrias from the Greek island of Paros carved a small ‘Tree of Life’ on the Greek stone. This image has affected the meaning of ECOS over the subsequent years. The 12 standing stones carry us to a meaning beyond their appearance: a virtual 12 Way bridge across Europe for young people to promote artistic exchange, collaboration, ecological concern, and peaceful coexistence. We have discussed the possibility of a sculpture symposium to bring sculptors from their respective geological locations in Europe to culturally mark their stones with significant form appropriate to the nature of the project. I have drawn lines on a satellite map of Europe linking the stones in Frome with their geological birthplaces in Europe; suggesting that these might be ‘Songlines’ in the Australian Aboriginal sense: lines which we can travel along singing the world into existence and believing that we belong to the land rather than the land belongs to us. This suggested the notion of a Pan European musical instrument with internet strings connecting us geologically through the silicon chip.
During the 1990s Mike Walker toured student shows to communities in Europe. The ECOS site in Frome was host to festivals each summer. In conversation with Malcolm Ward, Education Advisor for Channel 4 Schools, my interest was aroused in the virtual aspect of ECOS. He suggested a kind of Intranet between the 12 geological locations in Europe. My collaboration with the composer Nigel Osborne (Professor of music at Edinburgh University) bore fruit in 1996 when we made a short film for Channel 4 Schools at Work with 72 Frome school children across the age range in the amphitheatre. The children formed 12 tribes, created designs and their own music with dance. Based on the idea of the Pan European musical instrument, the film attempted to vibrate those strings.
In the Millennium year ECOS 2000 explored and visited schools in the 12 European communities where the stones originated, leading to a virtual conversation in images between the schools on a large screen in the amphitheatre. The project was coordinated by Zara Johnson, with technical direction from Al Morrison who had recently retired as Senior lecturer in Media Arts at the University of Westminster. This is a concept which can obviously be further explored through Frome Community College’s Media Arts Status, as the technology increases and the links between the European schools are properly established. It is a celebration of the silicon chip representing the 21st century Stone Age! A hugely successful Community Play also took place, simultaneously, led by Nik Palmer and Lynne Porter of Parachute Theatre Company involving, at least, 500 people in Frome’s community.
The ‘Tree of Life’ has finally taken root, during 2003, in ECOS Phase 2 which completes the circle of stones with 11 Holm Oak trees and a Portland Stone Tree 4 metres high on a bank behind the stage enclosing the performing space. As a Sustainable Life symbol for our European future, which is in the hands of young people this is very appropriate. It also completes the traditional heritage of ECOS as a European forum, inviting performance, by combining the resonance of the Neolithic Stone Age culture with the rituals associated with the Oak Tree in European tribal history. The project was supported by Malcolm Lloyd, the current chairman of the ECOS Board, funded by local industry, and managed by Peter Chapman; plans were drawn up by Mike Swanson, and it was built by JA&R Brown.
The 12 colourful figures, designed by students, which are supposed to have danced out of the European stones, now lie, set in resin ‘tarmac’ courtesy of Sureset UK Ltd, on the new chorus tier stage. This will be a lasting reminder of the involvement of young people in the construction of the site. Each figure made up of glass and stone is a different colour, collectively they complete a colour circle. It is also a powerful image which will stand out, during the months when the amphitheatre is not in use, as a series of icons calling young people from the different cultures of Europe to join in celebration.
The silicon chip, as the symbol of 21st century use of stone (for communication) against a background of Neolithic standing stones (as monument) is shown by Matthew Haskins’ low energy illumination for ECOS, which subtly and without imposition draws colour out of the rock, highlighting the sculpture as a symbol representing 7000 years of technology. People moving through the space, changes in temperature, seasons of the year, or programmed control by the lighting board, can alter the lighting on the stones. Not only can the silicon chip communicate within the physical space of the Frome amphitheatre but it can communicate between the places in Europe where each stone was born via the recently built Media Arts building adjacent to the site.
The long term ambition of ECOS to build related sites in each of the other geological locations has been developed by Annie King in Bantry Bay where the Irish stone originates. This proposal over the next 100+ years has already made a promising start. The island of Paros, origin of the Greek Stone already has planning permission, and Bantry Bay in Ireland, where a recent ECOS Symposium was held is also keen to build an ECOS amphitheatre near their new school. To facilitate this, and create closer physical contact, Nik Palmer and Lynne Porter from Parachute Theatre Company, who produced the Community Play in Frome for ECOS 2000, are planning tours out to the other communities in Europe.
As virtual and physical contact is developed across Europe, so the ‘Tree of Life’ which Aristides Varrias carved on the Greek stone in Frome becomes more relevant: ‘a triumph of life over death’, friendship takes the place of misunderstanding, love replaces a history of enmity. New members of the community could exchange monoliths; other stone sculptors could make images in foreign places. Europe would create its own unique series of stone sanctuaries devoted to artistic exchange and peaceful coexistence; reaching across the continent, in the firm belief that Sustainable Life policies are the only way to survive. It remains a seed, which each one of us can take responsibility to germinate as we wish.