On Saturday 28th November, as the leaves fell from the cherry blossom trees in Christ Church Gardens, we had plans to meet under the trees to talk about the future. We (artists Rachel Jacobs, Frank Abbott and Caroline Locke) planned for an event where Caroline planted a new blossom tree to celebrate Tree Charter Day, to replace the tree that fell down in Storm Jorge, in the Spring 2020, for Frank to light up the tree, as dusk fell, with the names of the birds, for the Future Machine to make it’s first appearance in the gardens to witness the Autumn, 2020.
We were not able to meet under the cherry trees in the Spring as planned, as we went into national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic the week before the cherry trees went fully into blossom. This was a time of confusion, we knew so little of the virus and how to continue our work. We went fallow and locked down as much as we could. The Future Machine lay in bits in my studio at Primary, across the road from the gardens. Frank shielded at home in Nottingham. I locked down on my boyfriend’s narrowboat on the River Lea in Tottenham Marshes. Christ Church Gardens also lay fallow, the grass became overgrown, the litter began to take over (partly because someone set fire to the bin earlier in the year). Someone must’ve camped out in the gardens, leaving their tent and detritus. We left our poster for the cancelled event attached to the gate.
Frank made video diaries as he took a daily run through the gardens. Others, following the trees as they blossomed through this website and social media, helped us by taking photos of the blossom as it appeared. Others, not near the gardens, sent us photos of the blossoms close to wherever they were locked down as they bloomed. The cherry blossoms in Christ Church Gardens finally emerged, went into full magnificent bloom, and then blew away, layers of pink snow on the ground. The bright green leaves emerging and bringing the gardens to life.
Frank continued to make video diaries as Spring turned to Summer, as the pandemic continued. He continued his small interventions in the gardens including sanding and cleaning the bench. I managed to return to Nottingham in the summer and we met, on the bench. We planned to meet if we could in the Autumn, as the leaves turned orange and brown, in their turn falling to the ground. We took to litter picking, careful not to step on the Council’s toes. The bin finally got replaced, all shiny, silvery and new.
As the leaves started to fall, Nottingham’s cases of the virus, and worst of all people dying of the virus started to grow. Banksy graffitied a wall down the road from the gardens and people queued to see it, a girl doing the hula with a bike tyre. Another month’s national lockdown was announced, this time people could continue ‘non-essential’ work even if they couldn’t work from home. Performances were allowed without live audiences. We debated how to continue, how to somehow mark the Autumn. Again I was locked down in London, this time with the Future Machine in Finsbury Park, preparing to perform with Alex, Dave, Indira and Miles.
Caroline was still committed to planting her trees for Tree Charter Day, organised with Nottingham City Council, she planted trees in different locations across the city. Her beautiful, astounding Tree Charter Bell was placed next to the trees as they were planted, ringing out across the city. A celebration, a warning, a memorial to our lost year and lost lives, a bold declaration of hope for the future, of renewal, new life planted across the city. The Tree Charter Bell-Town Crier, performer Bruce Asbestos, called out a declaration, and the trees were planted.
Frank Abbott planned his daily run to coincide with the tree planting in Christ Church Gardens, hovering in the background as the ceremony took place. We used Zoom (of course, what else for 2020?) to video call with me and the Future Machine, in place at Furtherfield Commons in Finsbury Park. Linking two of the places where the Future Machine is due to appear every year as the seasons change.
Alone outside Furtherfield Commons in Finsbury Park, with people noticing the strange machine out of the corner of their eye as they walked past I waited for Frank’s call. The image from his phone was pixelated, we couldn’t get it to stay in landscape. We decided I should use my laptop for my end of the zoom call to make it more stable. I set it up in the doorway, with my DSLR camera behind it. I sat next to the Future Machine and watched the events unfold in Christ Church Gardens, in Nottingham, wishing I was there, aware of Finsbury Park and being alone, shouting at my laptop with joy at the tree, the bell, the town crier.
The Future Machine watched with me. Webcam images taken every minute from the top of the pole at the back, with the weather station on it. The weather in London was recorded, it was a fine, mild and happily dry Autumn day. It looked similar in Nottingham.
After the tree planting and bell ringing ceremony I pushed the lever on the machine to the future position, turned the hand crank to start the Future Machine up, it chimed a countdown as I invited Frank to leave a message for the future, from Christ Church Gardens. He stepped towards the wall of the memorial gardens and pointed to the gravestones leaning against it, and spoke of this strange and difficult time, loss, hope and the future.
There was something uncanny, as most of us have experienced this year, about being present both in Christ Church Gardens and Finsbury Park, alone there, whilst simultaneously being with friends and my community in Nottingham. Of the Future Machine being present but not present in the gardens and the park. Of no one meeting around the machine. Whilst Caroline, Bruce, Alex (from Nottingham City Council) and Caroline’s friend met (socially distanced) around the tree and bell. Of Frank trying not to ‘meet’ them and get to close, as he hovered in the background with me and the machine.
Supposedly they felt the Future Machine’s presence, even as a small shape inside Frank’s phone, they felt witnessed. Somehow this conversation about place, time, uncertainty, hope and our desperate need to plant more trees in urban spaces was expanded by our presence, remote and physical. Of the Future Machine being able to finally witness the changing seasons and uncertain times of 2020.
The newly planted cherry tree sapling already has tiny buds, heralding the future and the Spring. We hope that we will be able to meet when this tree blossoms in 2021.
Frank will be continuing his daily run through Christ Church Gardens through the winter, making video diaries, watering and keeping an eye on the new tree.