Alex Hartley's Nowhereisland and Peace Camp in Northumberland aim to bring art to country's extremes
On the shore below the jagged-toothed ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, 420 domed tents have sprung up. White and dead-looking by day, they begin to blush as the unwilling northern dusk gathers, then they start to glow, pulsating with a pinkish light. If you walk among them, you begin to hear – above the batter of waves on rock – a fragmentary soundscape of poems about love, snatches of Sappho, Sophocles and Shakespeare.
At the opposite extreme of England, another mysterious phenomenon is about to appear around the West Country coast: a floating island, a mini-geography that is desolate and unfamiliar, composed of rock and moraine from the Arctic. "The thing I am most excited about," says its creator, "is the idea of a lonely man with a dog walking some isolated headland – and pausing as this strange island moves past him."
Both projects – Peace Camp, from director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw, and Nowhereisland, by artist Alex Hartley – are, in their different ways, about tracing and animating the British coastline. They aim to bring art to the extremes of the land, where it rarely reaches – just as that great gathering of nations, the Olympics, begins.
The curious encampment at Dunstanburgh is one of eight outposts of the project, from the Outer Hebrides to Cuckmere Haven in Sussex. According to Warner, whose previous work has taken her from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the Metropolitan Opera, "the idea was to ring our island with these encampments, to celebrate the huge poetic tradition of this country. "I hope that for the people who visit it might combine a sense of holiday and fun with an idea of pilgrimage. For those who decide to stay at a camp all night, there may even be something profound and spiritual."
As the work unfolds this weekend, Warner said she wanted people to be "wrapped around by the dark" as they listened to the soundscape. It has been woven out of readings by actors such as Eileen Atkins and Shaw herself, as well as by members of the public. Shaw gathered the material over the spring, recording more than 600 poems across the UK.
It is not clear whether this encampment is straightforwardly friendly, or simply celebratory. "Of course it makes you think about Occupy, or about camps of all kinds, whether they are armed camps or protest camps or refugee camps," said Warner. Many of the spots chosen for Peace Camp – including Dunstanburgh Castle, built in the 14th century and set about with gun emplacements and a minefield in the second world war – have a history of militarisation. There is a touch of something sinister about these silky domes.
Alex Hartley's Nowhereisland is similarly ambiguous. The artist, whose work in photography, sculpture and installation examines architecture and landscape, travelled to the Arctic in 2004. He found an island, 160 metres long, in a remote part of the Svalbard archipelago that had never been mapped – indeed, it had been revealed only through the retreat of a glacier. "I go walking a lot, and you're often eating your sandwiches wondering: 'I wonder how many people have sat here.' It was bizarre to realise that I was the only person ever to have stepped on this patch of land."
He decided to claim it as a new nation, and wrote to the governor of Svalbard. "All I wanted was a rejection letter, really," said Hartley, who had become intrigued by how contested this hostile, fragile land was, with its Norwegian sovereignty and Russian mining interests. To his surprise, after teaming up with Norwegian lawyers, he did get the right to name the island – if not actually secede from Norwegian rule – and in 2010 came a letter giving him permission to "remove up to eight cubic metres of loose material from the shoreline", from which he has fabricated the 44 metre-long Nowhereisland.
Hartley's idea is that his island is a kind of utopia, a place where observers can think about what nations could or should be. On a return trip to Svalbard in 2011, he took with him experts, from constitutional lawyers to feminist thinkers, with whom he discussed what it would mean to invent a new nation.
These ideas, as well other material documenting the geography and geology of the region, have been assembled in Nowhereisland's "embassy", a travelling museum that will accompany the island overland. "The feel is cabinet of curiosities, somewhere between Sir John Soane's Museum and the Pitt Rivers," he said.
They will appear in Weymouth on 25 July, then pause at harbours along the Devon and Cornwall coast, before rounding Land's End and finally, on 7 September, arriving in Bristol. It is, says Hartley, "the only nation to be bringing itself to the Olympics".
In the end, the organisers of both projects hope that by looking at the very edges of Britain, we can see something of it anew. "Nowhereisland," said Hartley, "is a one landscape travelling through another. I hope that will make people think afresh about Britain. It is a way, I hope, of drawing, or describing, our coastline. It has a utopian idea at its heart. In the end it is no one's island, and it is nowhere."