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MA students light up Plymouth’s South Yard with data driven artwork

MA Fine Art students Joseph Dodd and Susan Holmes worked together with Plymouth City Council, scientists at University of Plymouth and technicians at Plymouth College of Art to create a dynamic sculpture for the Oceansgate building in Devonport.

Two MA Fine Art students from Plymouth College of Art have won a competitive process to create a bespoke illuminated sculpture for the city’s growing Oceansgate area, inspired by scientific data derived from the behaviour of water in the adjacent river Tamar.

Located on the coast of Devon, Plymouth is known as Britain’s Ocean City, set just a stone’s throw from some of England’s most beautiful coastline, moors and prehistoric woodlands. A city where land meets sea and industry meets nature, nowhere is this more evident than where the industrial maritime buildings of Plymouth’s Dockyard spill into the mouth of the Tamar estuary.

The redeveloped Oceansgate, set in the historic South Yard where Plymouth Dockyard began, is a hub for marine industries, on the edge of one of the biggest naval dockyards in Europe. When Plymouth City Council set about commissioning an artwork for the new campus they wanted an imaginative installation that reflects the pioneering history and evolution of the site.

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The competitive open call for commissions was won by Plymouth College of Art MA Fine Art students Joseph Dodd and Susan Holmes.

“It felt amazing to win,” Joseph said. “The closer we got to the deadline the more confident I became because we kept putting the work into our pitch and I really believed in it as a well thought-out design aesthetically, conceptually and logistically.”

Noah Taylor, Technical Resource Manager for the Material Lab at Plymouth College of Art, called the project “an excellent example of the way that Plymouth College of Art routinely encourages collaboration between students, staff, industry engineers and other professionals and experts in their fields.”

“I feel honoured as a newcomer here to be able to make this mark on the city. In doing so I feel as though I've created a stronger connection to the place. It has felt like a form of rooting or weaving into the fabric of the city. I'm happy to be a part of that!”
Joseph Dodd, MA Fine Art student
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As part of the brief, Joseph and Susan worked with ocean science specialists from University of Plymouth. Their joint aim was to create an installation derived from the visual forms of data captured by complex local research.

Susan said: “The whole process was very fluid and dynamic. Collaboration with the architect, construction team and the fabricator was really professional. I would say the biggest challenge was converting the data into a relevant digital format for the fabricator.”

Marc Nash from Plymouth Architects Design Group was the project lead and is passionate about incorporating more art into the public spaces that exist on Plymouth's waterfront. He ensured the finished design reflected the buildings purpose as a hub for marine science. In particular, he saw this commission as a great opportunity for young talent from Plymouth College of Art to successfully showcase their abilities.

“The solution that Joseph and Susan presented was exceptional. They connected well with the professional team of contractors and fabricators and the end result is a credit to their persistent endeavour and creativity. Hopefully this learning experience has given them great confidence to take their skills into the wider economy.”

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For Joseph the project made him engage with a different set of skills than he ordinarily uses in his practice.

“It was vastly different from anything I've done before,” Joseph said. “I'm a metal worker, usually working in steel with hand-operated machinery or working directly with my hands. This hands-on element is important to me and having to take a step back was difficult at first. We ended up as designers more than sculptors or makers, which was a strange shift in thinking but a necessary one to fulfill the brief.”

Susan said: “I think the art work is important as it defines purpose. My intention was to create a sense of connection for the scientists who are going to work in this new development by using visual interpretations of marine science data. Once I had become aware of how data is extracted, I connected with a student studying ocean science. I wanted to use actual data from the Tamar in the metal work and I chose dates based around lunar cycles.”

Joseph and Susan used data from a range of sources, including computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a process that allows engineers to predict fluid dynamics based on variables including velocity, density and viscosity. Live information was extracted from the Tamar estuary using MATLAB, an algorithmic process that utilises sound technology to view the progression of multiple variables simultaneously. The resulting angular lines are in marked contrast to the fluid curves produced by CFD.

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MA Fine Art students Joseph Dodd and Susan Holmes

Bringing together these angular lines and fluid curves in their final installation, Susan and Joseph were able to create a distinctive visual representation of how South Yard and Oceansgate are evolving, by embracing both science and nature. The resulting sculpture provides a focal point for people entering the building, lighting up at night and giving a strong visual identity to the campus.

“I feel very honoured to be part of the project and leave a lasting legacy here,” said Susan. “I have a lot of love for the city of Plymouth and now I feel like a part of the city.”

“I feel honoured as a newcomer here to be able to make this mark on the city,” said Joseph. “In doing so I feel as though I've created a stronger connection to the place. It has felt like a form of rooting or weaving into the fabric of the city. Plymouth is a really interesting place with a growing arts and culture scene and a real sense of community that I haven't experienced elsewhere. It has a grass roots feel to it and there seems to be a really vibrant group of practicing artists contributing to the city in different ways. I'm happy to be a part of that!”