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Artist Tom Milnes rewilds Plymouth Hoe in ‘Ashnihilation’

Augmented reality project at the Hoe and Smeaton’s Tower raises awareness of ash dieback in the South West

The city of Plymouth’s iconic Hoe and landmark Smeaton’s Tower is the focus of a new cutting edge augmented reality experience created by artist Tom Milnes, as part of a wider project commissioned by Plymouth City Council through Plymouth’s Green Minds (funded by the ERDF/Urban Innovation Actions) and created in conjunction with Arts University Plymouth and with support from Devon Wildlife Trust.

Tom Milnes’ innovative interactive artwork, which is called ‘Ashnihilation’, is designed to raise awareness of the effect of ash dieback, a chronic fungal disease affecting ash trees in Europe.

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Tom Milnes (middle)

‘Ashnihilation’ utilises Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headsets that allow participants to watch 3D animated creatures populating the Hoe and Smeaton’s Tower, in a guided visual experience which enables them to learn about local biodiversity and the importance of ash trees within our local landscape. Creator Tom Milnes lectures in BA (Hons) Fine Art at Arts University Plymouth and will take a leading role in the university’s new BA (Hons) Creative Technologies when the course launches in September 2023.

Tom Milnes said: “The overall aim of Green Minds is to put nature at the heart of our decision making and the goal for this particular project is to bring the issue of ash dieback to the attention of local people in a fun and imaginative way. I wasn’t aware of the problem of ash dieback until I spoke to Devon Wildlife Trust and Green Minds. A variety of flora and fauna rely upon the ash tree for food and shelter, which means that its loss would have serious consequences for wildlife in the area.

“To make the project relevant to the city, I wanted to bring Plymouth history and culture into the project, so I created the animated species in the Augmented Reality artwork by using 3D scanning of local buildings, monuments and key features of the landscape. This is an extension of work and research that I already do in my post as a Lecturer in the School of Arts + Media at Arts University Plymouth and I was lucky to have the support of the fantastic team and facilities in Fab Lab Plymouth. I’ve worked like this previously, using scans and creating living virtual worlds in projects such as ‘Invisible CIties’, which was shown as part of the Wellcome Sanger collection and at Illuminate 2021.”

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Selected community groups from across the region have been invited to participate in the digital augmented reality experience on the Hoe, meet artist Tom Milnes and see a range of fantastical costumes created by Arts University Plymouth BA (Hons) Costume Production graduates Samuel McCready and Rebecca Rattray to complement the experience, and find out more about the Green Minds project.

Members of The Village Hub in Stoke, a Community Benefit Society intended to build on existing community spirit in Stoke and Devonport in Plymouth, have already taken part in ‘Ashnihilation’.

Rachel Dobbs from The Village Hub said: “It was great to explore 'Ashnihilation' on the Hoe with our ArtGoSee group from The Village Hub. I loved being greeted by the costumed assistants at sunset. It felt really cinematic and special. Seeing the animated creatures move around in front of us got us thinking about the bugs and birds that we might not be so aware of that live in our local area, and how these are threatened by the climate emergency, disease and species extinction. We had great fun bringing up the Instagram filters on our phones and reading more about each of the creatures in the zine. I didn't know that so many different species were reliant on Ash trees as a habitat, and I am going to look out for these on the remaining Ash tree in Blockhouse Park (our local park in Stoke Village).

“It was the first time that any of us in the group had experienced an artwork made for Hololens, and was a really memorable and unique experience. I think it is super important for more people in our local communities to have the opportunity to explore in this way. At The Village Hub we're working hard to get more people involved in local decision-making, especially about our local green spaces and how we look after them. Creative projects like 'Ashnihilation' allow us to have new conversations and think about things that really matter in new ways.”

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After the current programme of community groups taking part in ‘Ashnihilation’, a QR code will be widely shared to allow members of the public to experience a version of the rewilding on their smartphones. Check artist Tom Milnes’ Instagram account for updates on when the QR code is released.

The state-of-the-art Microsoft HoloLens augmented reality headsets, used for the ‘Ashnihilation’ creative commission, were funded by Green Minds as part of Arts University Plymouth’s participation in the Green Minds project. HoloLens is part of a growing suite of digital tools and resources available to staff and students at Arts University Plymouth as part of the university’s commitment to exploring innovative technologies in the context of culture.

Launching in September 2023 at Arts University Plymouth, BA (Hons) Creative Technologies is an expansive, future-facing course of experimentation at the intersection of art and technology, covering everything from virtual reality, creative coding, data visualisation, projection mapping, interactive installation and 3D scanning and printing.