TUESDAY October 6 sees the launch of what is hoped to be a radical new tourist attraction for Southend. So far, it’s looking good. The national press is picking up on the news, and it all seems very exciting. It’s a virtual gallery of sorts, a pioneering “world’s first digital art park” created by the arts charity Metal, in Chalkwell Park.

Every day, you’ll be able to walk around the grounds, and using your mobile phone or tablet, interact with various art, music and story projects, which kick in and correspond to certain points within the park itself, thanks to the marvel of GPS.

The area in Westcliff now has free wi-fi which can be accessed for all using the project. Instructions will be clearly given via new signage around the park created by Malcolm Garrett, a renowned graphic designer who has worked for the likes of Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Peter Gabriel.

The project launch starts at 4pm until 9pm at Chalkwell House in Chalkwell Park.

Speeches will be given at 5.30pm with presentations from the artists following on.

There will also be open days on Saturday October 10 from 11am to 3pm and Sunday October 11 from 2pm to 6pm, where tablets will be available on loan.

Everyone is invited.


WHEN I initially read about the concept of NetPark I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Words such as “digital”, “locative” and “augmented reality” can lack a certain kind of romance where the subject of art is concerned. If your mind is not exactly at the cutting-edge of technology, these sophisticated sounding schemes can all seem a bit too way outside the box.

Like most things techy though, you’ve just got to get stuck in there and use the product to realise how brilliant it is in its simplicity.

And despite any complications we can assume is going on behind the scenes, this project really is super user-friendly with aspects which will appear to all ages and tastes from your nan’s to your nephew’s.

Essentially, this is how it works: You go to netpark.zone and download whatever apps you might fancy using, to your phone or tablet. For now, (this project intends to keep on growing so there will be more), there are ten to choose from, five of which are “experiences” for want of a better word, and ten are “stories”.

Keen to understand more about Talking Trees, the “augmented reality” project I’d heard about, created by artist Jamie Gledhill, I started with that one.

Augmented reality is a live view of a real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computergenerated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.

Jamie is a Colchester based artist whose recent projects explore “art gaming”. He has brought several of the trees in the park to life (in a ‘virtual’ manner of speaking of course), giving them ordinary names, such as Cath or Ron. You hold your screen up to the tree, where you’ll see it through the view finder just as if you were about to take a photo or video. Then a face magically appears within the centre of the tree and it starts chatting to you, telling you stories in a playful way, bringing in historic facts and stories about the area, making it educational as well as fun.

“I hope you’re not smoking near me” said the tree of choice, whose name was Cath, the one in front of Chalkwell House in case you’re wondering. “I don’t want a spark to set me alight.”

Feeling slightly childlike, agape with the awe and wonder of the talking tree Cath, (despite a technological glitch which made her head lay on its side instead of being upright), I decided to save the rest of the story until I could experience it in my own time. I was there after all, to do serious chat with Simon Poulter, the curator of the entire project since its birth in 2011. He explained that it’s all evolved massively since its concept, a lot of challenges and a lot of hoop jumping apparently emerging along the way.

“When we first came up with the idea, I thought we could use one app for the whole thing” explained Simon, “but each app tends to be about 50mb. Although that sounds a lot, it isn’t. We realised we were going to have to let each project become an app on its own.”

Said app-projects look very individual design-wise despite all being under the NetParks banner, with the artists involved in each putting their own stamp on them visually. The story-apps are particularly beautiful, not least because they were structured from the imaginations of children from all the local primary schools, who worked with writers and illustrators to create the finished pieces.

Walking over to the front of Chalkwell House – using the GPS map on our screens which all comes as part of the locative experiences – we found ourselves near to the flower beds by the pathway which splits into four. We were now looking at the story-app called Cake Work, its beautiful illustrations corresponding to exactly where we were standing.

“Some kids from Milton Hall Primary School came up with this one” said Simon.

“When they came over here to create the story there was a little note left on a tree by someone who was having a cake sale. They structured this whole story about a cake factory being hidden in the conifer. They decided the cakes should get delivered by a helicopter because they saw one come over... the peacock they decided, can metamorphosis into a tiger...it’s brilliant because once a child’s imagination is engaged, they’re off!”

The writer of Cake Work was Jeremy Hardingham, the illustrator Zoe Barker and the artist Elsa James.

Of course, despite the huge benefits children can get from this project, whether they’ve been privileged enough to have been involved in the creation, or just enjoy the story, or it fires up their little imaginations and they run off who knows where with it, there will be those who’ll complain that this project just encourages “look down”

generation to keep looking down at their mobile devices, rather than be in the moment of enjoying the park. It’s something, as a parent, I might be concerned about myself. But if anything, the apps become a park pursuit bonus, even encouraging you to spend more time being engrossed in the surroundings.

As if to prove this point, Simon turns me onto the app Running to Flight, created by digital artist Rosie Poebright. I find myself standing in the middle of the park, listening to the voice through the headphones and enjoying a meditative experience. It tells me to walk along the path (I actually walk the wrong way, but that’s OK, as I’m guided back in the right direction via the voice in my headphones) and we take a wander through the park, over to the pond, taking it all in.

It occurs to me in all the years I have lived in the area – including the years I lived practically opposite the park – I’ve never just sat there in such a mindful way as that.

If so far the apps seem slightly whimsical, you might prefer the perhaps grittier project created by Baltimore-based electronic duo Matmos who have worked with Bjork.

“They had a residency in the Metal house while they worked, sampling sounds from the park to create their pieces.

“They’ve even got the peacocks in there” said Syd Moore, Metal’s press officer, playing me one of the tracks inside the Metal house. “As the band was playing the peacock samples, the real peacocks outside the house would respond, so they ended up having a jam.”

“It was funny because these two had a certain vision of our park, seeing it as very English and quaint” added Simon, “with the cafe over the road and its fry-ups and the school children walking through the park dressed in their neon vests – they’ve never seen anything like that –so they have put quite a humorous slant on their work.”

Outside the Metal base in Chalkwell House, I chat to Simon before I leave about the artists he used. He tells me how he deliberately got new talent, involved because he wanted to help give them a step up the career ladder.

“One of these was the illustrator Karl Lawson who created the images for the story The Epic of Scentopia”

Simon explains. “We had to fit everything around his hours at the call centre where he works. But we are very proud to have him.”

Where NetPark could lead is anyone’s guess. The possibilities are infinite.

Artists from all over are invited to submit applications for any ideas they may have to the Open Submissions scheme which runs every six months.

“We do want this to continue, and for it to be a tourist attraction” explained Simon. “We hope other arts organisations will establish digital arts parks, and we will be here to help with any advice.”

* NetPark is being developed by Metal with partners Calvium and the University of Brighton. It has been supported by Nesta – the digital research and development fund for the Arts, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

For details, visit metalculture .com/ projects/netpark/ and netpark.zone