The architects of Dun Elm City

A group of students from Belmont School Community Arts College spent the weekend creating an imagined world, a Dun Elm city which both is and is not Durham, drawing on all parts of the artistic spectrum, from the commedia dell'arte of the Italian renaissance to the digital techniques of the twenty-first century, combining words and gestures, sounds and images.

The project drew its inspiration from the Stravaganza books, set in a fantasy recreation of sixteenth century Italy, and a highlight of the weekend was a visit from their author, Mary Hoffman (centre in the photo above with, from left to right, Sara Punshon, Matthew Watson, Adam Grant and Helen Pace).

The first task was to lay the foundations of the city: how does it differ from the Durham we know? With the help of poet Kevin Cadwallender, the group drew up an alternative myth about the city's origins: the legend of the dun cow becomes the tale of a "peesh", a fantastic sheep. The city is supplied with buildings (Mary Hoffman was particularly impressed by the Tower of Illusions) and a full cast of characters, including a villain with a very sinister moustache.

Digital Audio Artist Nicola Zena Lumley helped the team to create some atmospheric sounds which could be worked into the digital embodiment of their city; they also had the opportunity to work with some commedia dell'arte masks, and study how gesture and exaggeration could be used to convey character.

The first day of the weekend ended with author Mary Hoffman comparing notes with the aspiring team of city builders. Her own Stravaganza books had started in the city of Venice, on a gondola ride. She and her family had taken the train from where they were staying, for a day's excursion to Venice. Obviously, the visit would not be complete without a trip in a gondola, but this was fabulously expensive: 50 minutes in a gondola cost as much as the entire family's train fares to Venice! Mary Hoffman found herself wondering what it would take to make the experience perfect, and decided she would like more sunshine, and a good-looking young gondolier, instead of the solid, middle-aged man who was conveying them around this ultimate romantic city. But what sort of place would ensure that the gondoliers were all young and handsome? Well, one where they were appointed by a woman. And how might a woman come to have that sort of power? And so, step by step and question by question, she had constructed the land of Talia.

In the final session of the Dun Elm workshop, on Sunday, participants worked with digital artist Graham Morley of SUMO Design to produce a web interpretation of their material.

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