A digital site map of Chelmsford's rivers.

What do you know about your local rivers? Sian Fan is an artist from Chelmsford who is passionate about using digital art to create innovative online experiences. She’s a rising star in her field, exploring the threshold between the virtual and the physical through digital performance, sculpture, video and installation.

Sian has been appointed for the Chelmsford and Essex 2020 Artist Commission, a partnership between Chelmsford City Council and Essex Diversity Project, to creatively respond to the rich story of Chelmsford and its waterways. The project is called ‘Current’ and City Life caught up with Sian to find out more.

Two women looking at a phone in Chelmsford.
ABOVE: Sian demonstrating how to use the technology involved in the project

What is your project ‘Current’ all about?

‘Current’ is an interactive website that digitises key sites along the river’s path which creates an immersive and creative digital archive. It will open with an overview of Chelmsford waterways with an artistic interpretation of a satellite overview of the Can and the Chelmer. It will have hot spots on different locations along the river and you can click into each of them which opens up its own unique webpage. This allows the viewer to deep dive into the location and explore in greater detail.

Within each page there is a selection of digital artefacts captured from the physical site along the river. Including 3D photogrammetric scans of objects and plants, sound recordings of the river’s ambiance and underwater footage of the riverbed. Additionally, each page includes a 3D lidar scan. This is a point cloud rendering of the location. The viewers can explore in 3D via the computer arrow keys, like a video game. The viewer can walk through the environment virtually, creating a sense of scale and physicality.

What inspired you?

I am based in Chelmsford and have found myself exploring my local area a lot more in lockdown. It has encouraged me to become a tourist in my hometown. I love taking walks in the countryside and immersing in the landscape. I’ve also seen things along the way that I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed before in my everyday life. This made me interested in creating something that encouraged people to explore Chelmsford and the sites along the rivers. Hopefully allowing them to discover details that would have passed them by previously.

In terms of my digital background, I almost fell into this kind of work. I have always had an interest in new technologies, but I come from more of a performance background. My BA is in Performance and Visual Art Dance. A lot of my work combined video footage with the live body. This was almost my first introduction into the more digital side. Since graduating, I started experimenting with different technologies and became particularly interested in how they shape our human experience. They are such an all-encompassing element to our lives, particularly now in our current climate.

Once lockdown restrictions begin to lift, what next steps do you plan to take?

A series of workshops. I managed to squeeze one workshop in when restrictions allowed it and I have four more planned. The idea is to visit four of the sites along the river with different community groups and together we will collect different digital artefacts using iPhone apps and a GoPro. The hope is that these workshops will provide a space for collaboration, learning, creativity. As well as the opportunity to learn a new digital skill in a way that is not too intimidating and where there is no right or wrong answer.

Has lockdown affected your work?

Yes. There has been a shift in focus to more of the primarily digital kind of work I do. It has made me think of different ways that people can experience my work with as little technology as possible whilst still experiencing something which is fulfilling, complete and complex. The website was a great way to achieve that. It’s something that people can access from wherever they are and allows them to dive into these locations and go on a journey of exploration whilst being in lockdown themselves.

What have you discovered about Chelmsford on your creative journey?

I discovered that there are many similarities and differences between the different locations I have picked. For example, a lot of the sites have locks which I have never paid much attention too before. Upon visiting, scanning them, and replicating them digitally, I realised that the infrastructure is the same across the locations. This got me thinking that there is body in charge of taking care of this which is something I had never thought about. I had always thought of rivers as something natural and a space that takes care of itself; but of course, there is a human element to them.

I also had so many great conversations with Roy Chandler from Chelmsford Waterways. He gave me a lot of insight into the infrastructure and history of Chelmsford’s rivers.

A young woman taking a photo of objects in nature in Chelmsford
ABOVE: Sian Fan working with the Chelmsford Creatives

How are you planning to involve the local community?

The workshops are a key element of the artwork. The material that is collected and hopefully the conversations and interactions over the workshop will help to form the content of the workshop. At the minute I have almost an empty shell that is waiting for these experiences and materials to populate it and fill it. I wish to work many individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds.

What work did you do with Chelmsford Creatives?

Due to the rule of six restriction in place, we split the day up into two sessions. They were so excited about the whole thing and super enthusiastic. They put themselves out there and really got involved in the technology and pushing it to its limits. I think this was the first day they saw each other out of lockdown so that was a nice moment to witness.

The group got a demonstration of the photogrammetry app. This is used to multiple take pictures of objects from different perspectives which is then stitched together on the app to make a digital model. We also used a GoPro to explore the riverbed to catch different footage, as well as exploring the riverbank, grass, and leaves. Bond Street was a great location to use as it was a mix of nature and the more city centric elements which was a nice contrast. A lot of the creatives were interested in finding the name of the app at the end which was lovely.

Are there any other pieces of work you are particularly proud of?

I am working on another commission currently which is for Site Gallery in Sheffield. This is a motion capture performance which I am quite excited about. Hopefully this will be finished and going live by the end of the month. This is exploring the more performative side of my work and digital bodies in a digital space.

How will your project benefit Chelmsford?

My hope when I pitched the project was that it would give people the opportunity to explore new elements of their environment and help people to explore if they are less able to travel. I wanted to be able to reveal elements of our local area that we are not able to see or conceive every day. Particularly the underwater river footage. This is inaccessible to most people in their physical reality but unveiling it in a digital reality gives you a new perspective of the space.

What have you enjoyed the most about your project so far?

I have enjoyed so many elements including discovering the rivers and learning to look at my environment in a different way. It was also rewarding and exciting to work with the Chelmsford Creatives and seeing how they responded to different materials.

To find out more about Sian’s project, visit the Essex2020 website.

Digital artwork of Chelmsford's rivers and sites.
ABOVE: A digital model of Chelmsford’s waterways which will be used in Sian’s website

By Charlotte Maltby

Charlotte writes stories about recycling and waste, parks, economic development, local democracy and planning.

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