Through using VR and AR to trace the boundaries between the past and our present, we began to explore the ways our own narratives are shaped, and changed, by the spaces around us, mapping our real and virtual journey through the digitisation of these spaces.

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Working in collaboration as an artist and poet presented some very interesting dialogues. We were both interested in the ways that Orkney is a landscape of narratives, both natural and human-made, constantly changing, shaped and reshaped by time and nature. Through the archaeology and geology of place, we can piece together stories that show the movement of people throughout millennia. Each ancient site is a portal into another time, another life. We started to explore the idea of how we impact and alter the space around us, not only in the tangible sense, but also in the intangible – the way we leave traces of energy, invisible marks within a landscape, echoes of our existence.

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Expanding this, we looked at how every landscape carries echoes of those who have gone – connecting us with every presence before and after our own footstep. From the mark making of Vikings in the runic graffiti of Maeshowe to the almost invisible undulations of earth that reveal a once vibrant settlement, this notion of echoes and traces became very important to our collaboration. Using VR-AR to map out and draw in these traces allowed us to expand on this concept, and make visible the invisible. This, in turn, lead us to explore through writing the relationship between the mutability of the sea, memory, loss, and the process of grief, looking at the metaphor of the sea, memory and loss.

What was fascinating was how our different approached and art-forms communicated and took us in new directions and depths. Our process was largely independent – both present in the landscape but responding separately. At the end of each day, we would come together to talk about what we had been doing, sharing notes and sketches, and finding correlations and conversations that took us deeper into the narratives. It was really interesting to work this way, because very often, what was discovered through poetry would engage and deepen the understanding of the VR-AR sketches, and vice-versa. What allowed us to do this was having the shared anchor of the quote from Judith Butler, itself a ‘happy accident’ of random discovery when staying at a bothy in Evie.


We chose Orkney because, it is a landscape of narratives, both natural and human-made. From the ever-changing shape of the islands themselves, to the tangible presence of multiple World Heritage neolithic sites such as the imposing Standing Stones of Stenness, to the intimate spaces of village life in Skara Brae and Birsay Broch, to the mystical cairn of Maes Howe, Orkney is rich with portals, through which we can enter into an alternative space and time.

We used these Neolithic sites as our source material. Unsurprisingly, we had a great success using AR in these outdoor spaces, with the portability of the technology lending itself well to our experiments. Our VR experiments were a bit more challenging. What we wanted was to be able to take it outdoors on-site, but our current VR set-up meant that there were some expected obstacles.

These were, namely, power and stability issues — it needed mains power that was not available in the very remote locations and Orkney is also quite windy. We also encountered an unexpected issue: sunlight. It turns out that the VR-Vive headset and controllers cannot be exposed to direct sunlight, which working in an outdoor location in Orkney during a particularly dry midsummer, proved to be a major challenge. We overcame these obstacles by locating our VR equipment in barns and other shelters that were as close to our source material as possible – not quite outside, but not within a designated studio space either. We certainly got some interesting looks creating with the VR-Vive in Betty, a bright orange classic VW camper provided by Orkney Campervan Hire!

The digitisation of space is happening around us – for example, cloud point data can now be collected online via photos to create 3D representations of the world. Google maps show us the world in incredible 3D photographic detail along with height and GPS data. Faced with the ancient sites of the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, could we be looking at the first example of mapping virtual space – cycles of light and dark, birth and death? By creating an astronomical device on the ground, the early Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney were mapping time and space through the sun, moon, and stars, connecting their own narratives with the earth below and skies above. These standing stones make the transient meaningful and permanent, acting as a guide and a map to the future, and therefore, back to the past.


Virtual Reality creates a separated reality a space within reality, often sold to us as access to representations of a physical space that we couldn’t otherwise inhabit – back in time, out in space, in deep oceans…magical and transformational experiences. Stories do this too, using words to create a virtual space in our minds where we can experience things, feel emotions, inhabit another person’s ‘reality’, and visit alternative places, spaces, or times. We wanted to explore that point of boundary between spaces, using poetry and VR to trace the boundaries between real and the virtual. To do this, we needed to access a digital set -up suitable for outdoor use. Currently, there is not an affordable VR set-up that is mobile enough to take outdoors, so we have had to create one ourselves. We use the HTC VR-Vive kit with Google Tilt Brush, a laptop with an external eGPU, a Playstation and PS-VR headset and Move Controllers with Cool VR , and an iPhone 8 with a range of AR apps including Paint Space AR and LightSpace, both of which are very mobile and allow us to draw in outdoor/indoor spaces.

Example of AR video capture – “Beach Circles”

I found drawing complex representable shapes difficult with the AR app – shapes were jagged and sometimes jumped away from my location – I resorted to trying to make a human mark in the landscape – I achieve this with a circle motif, made with a circular arm swing from my shoulder and outstretched arm. Another technique we experimented with was walking along a line – shorelines and tide lines in the beaches were great starting points, and while holding the Phone to my hip allowed it to record my walking motion along the landscape.

Example of AR video capture – “Beach Line”

Supported by an a-n bursary, we mapped out an initial three-week self-directed residency, travelling around Orkney as a family, staying at different points in a bothy, campervan, brotchie, and hostel. In order to create an immersive response to the space, we dropped ourselves into an immersive experience, our anchor being a single word — ‘trace’, constantly bringing us back to a point of exchange and discovery. Each location of the residency divided our time between exploration, research, reflection, and creation.