Digital park delivers talking trees and a fishy monster in the pond – The Guardian

A leafy expanse in Southend-on-Sea might seem like the epitome of analogue attraction, but the modest appearance of Chalkwell Park belies a radical twist. For this summer its verdant fields will be turned into a garden of digital delights.

The brainchild of “artistic laboratory” Metal, and dubbed “NetPark”, the project is bringing together an international team of artists, writers and musicians to unleash a host of virtual artwork within the park, from interactive stories to poetry and music. “The way that I think about it is [as] a 21st-century sculpture park where all of the pieces of work are in the digital layer rather than in the landscape,” explains Metal’s artistic director, Colette Bailey.

“[The commissions] are there as site-specific GPS-located artworks that will reveal the park to you in a different way and also ask you to interact with the park in a different way.”

To dive into this augmented world, visitors simply need to grab a mobile device, hook up to the park’s newly installed Wi-Fi, go to NetPark’s mobile site and tap through to the app that accompanies each work.

Among the works set to be embedded in the landscape is an immersive audio game created by real-world game designer Rosie Poebright, in which visitors are submerged in the internal monologue of a fictitious character. “We put people into a place where they’re somebody else for a bit and they are hearing the reflective memories of that person which change according to where you go in the park,” says Poebright. The upshot is a narration that gradually evolves to reflect the visitor’s own actions and choices. “It is not as much taking control as you become the character,” Poebright explains. And that, she believes, offers visitors a chance to reflect on their own life choices. “I’m hoping that it is going to be a little bit transformative,” she says. “I want people to come away feeling differently about their day and maybe about their lives as well.”

southend-on-sea

Southend’s many pleasures will be compounded this year. Photograph: Frank Doran/REX

Others have taken a more whimsical approach. Aiming to bring out the public’s playful side, digital artist Jamie Gledhill is developing an augmented reality experience that will explore the social history of the area by breathing life into the park’s trees. Selected specimens will not only be endowed with a virtual face, but a voice and personality to boot.

But you don’t need the powers of Jonathan Strange to commune with these truculent characters. “Once [visitors] have found a particular tree, they will be directed to a particular feature on the tree and then they will have to hold up their device and basically scan that feature,” says Gledhill. With their throats cleared, the trees will launch into titbits from the park’s past with visitors left to guess at their veracity – among them the tale of a “Mediterranean monster” discovered in the park’s pond.

The project will also feature music from Brooklyn-based electronic group Matmos, in residence at Metal’s Southend site this month, while local children have added their touch, with five primary schools teaming up with writers and illustrators to create their own interactive stories around particular locations in the park.

Funded by a variety of bodies including Nesta’s Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, the AHRC and the National Lottery and set to launch in September, Southend’s Netpark will have further works added over time, adding to the fusion of the natural and digital. It’s a juxtaposition Bailey and the team are keen to see catch on. “I hope people will see that it won’t be working in opposition to the idea of enjoying a stroll outside in the park,” Bailey says. “What we are doing is just adding an artistic layer to that.”

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