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Welcome to Amberwald

I arrived at an interest in visualisation and interpretation of heritage and environment later than I would have liked. I'm here now because a suite of technologies and standards has emerged that enables me to pursue a childhood flight of fancy...

When I was very young and riding in the back seat of our Ford Cortina, driving through narrow lanes, sleepy villages and wide countryside, I would notice little nuggets of architecture, twisted trees, crooked gravestones, fractured walls, mats of moss etc. These forms and textures had some quality that made me want to bring them together, to a distillation of things that evoked in me a sense of enduring connection to the fantastic. For me, these details were the way the past seeped into the present. Taken together, all these disparate elements would populate an imaginary place in my mind in which mysteries, exploration, discovery and magic were all possibilities. It was a place of dusty books and decrepit ruins; a place constructed entirely out of elements that met my simple arbitrary standards by reminding me of some facet of the latest book I was buried in.

My ambitions were frustrated not only by the sheer impracticality of relocating substantial bits of buildings and lonely crags, but also by my limited means . Unbeknown to my 10-year-old self, there was already a tradition of manufacturing one's own environment, piecemeal, from pleasing oddities. The architect Sir John Soane had long ago decked out the interior of his grand London house with sarcophagi, gargoyles, death masks and chunks of architectural salvage, bringing them together with a collector's aesthetic sensibility, and reconfiguring their arrangement to accommodate new acquisitions in an organic way.

Soane revelled in the eccentricity of his creation, fabricating a detailed field study that imagined how future archaeologists might interpret this strange assemblage.

A little later, in north Wales, Sir Clough William Ellis constructed Portmeirion over the course of half a century (1925-1975), borrowing from Italianate traditions and reincorporating architectural relics into original buildings to create his own subjective mediterranean idyll.

I haven't researched either man sufficiently to know to what extent there was a grand design, or whether their follies were just playful inventions, but both Soane and Ellis were men of substantial means and vision who were able to bring their dreams patiently into reality.

For me, one of the most profoundly immersive imagined environments I've encountered is the creation of author Christopher Priest. Over many short stories and novellas, Priest has sketched out the landscape - political, physical and meta-physical - of the Dream Archipelago. The Archipelago is a loose but expansive confederation of islands of every conceivable description, united by neutrality in the setting of a perpetual war being waged by two super states. Aptly, the Archipelago conforms to a malleable yet believable dream logic, being impossible to map, contradictory and subject to fluid temporal anomalies.

Each reader will imagine their own Archipelago to satisfy their visual interpretation of the stories. Mine is drawn from bleak Hebridean horizons, Balearic olive tree forests, and Vanuatan ports. I have been lucky enough to travel quite widely and Priest's stories often have strong itinerant themes that resonate with me.

Like many, I have been a failed storyteller, often losing faith in a story halfway through its execution. You can find me by following the trail of abandoned novels! What always remains of these stories is the scaffolding for yet another imagined world and I started to wonder if this scaffolding might, in itself, be a sufficient creative outlet for me. Perhaps if I simply started to decorate these worlds with people, things, and fragments of stories, might something worthwhile emerge? Borges' short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is a satisfying exploration of this approach. The story itself is a masterpiece, so multi-layered and steeped in semantic sleight of hand, that I couldn't possibly hope to describe it in any way that would do it justice. I have a very superficial take-away from this story about the nature and solidity of invented places and histories.

I can't presume to speak to Priest's motivations in creating his backdrop for his own stories, though I was fortunate enough to correspond with him very briefly about the nature of his Archipelago. I came away with the sense of having brushed up against a very considered and powerful intellect and the humbling understanding that I needed to refine my questions. He was quietly resistant to my ill-formed ideas regarding exploring immersive technology to emulate the experience of travelling through his Archipelago, and rightly so. In truth, I had very little sense of what I wanted to do other than that it would be vital never to compromise the unsettling sense of infinite paths and parallel truths.

It is fitting then that it was in a dream of my own that I came across a place that sits in an imagined rural hinterland of the M25. In this dream I was driving, following signs to somewhere called Amberwald. For some reason, the name didn't dissolve on waking and an internet search turned up nothing that indicated this was a real place. In the dream, I never reached Amberwald though I woke with foggy notions of what I would find if I did.

I am not hugely attached to the name Amberwald itself. It sounds vaguley Germanic to my ears, and not particularly well suited for a village in the south of England. It was important though that the name was not contrived to evoke anything in particular and I chose not to modify it.

I decided that this name alone, Amberwald, might be as a good a point as any about which to let my ideas accrete into the Place I'd imagined as a boy in the back of my Dad's Cortina. I would start without a plan, unhurried, and let Amberwald grow in the form of photos, sketches, prose, and digital visualisations, and maybe eventually it could become somewhere I could explore in ways that would surprise me.

Finally the means have arrived (in terms of computing power, accessible tools, infrastructure, and generous guidance), for me to construct my own little world.

I don't have an agenda with Amberwald apart from it being a sandpit for all the techniques and methodologies I'd like to play with in digitial, and occasionally analogue, creativity.

My day job presents ample opportunities to experiment with digital tools in an academic research setting, so I'll be using Amberwald as a playground for creative ideas and methods which will inform my professional practice.

Our Lady of Amberwald

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