Artificial Sunshine

In a voluntary capacity, Ian Banks was on the Editorial Board of Art & Architecture Journal (A&AJ) and more laterly listed as joint Deputy Editor. He wrote regularly on public art in the North of England.

A&AJ was a printed quarterly art magazine published between 1980 – 2009, and edited by Jeremy Hunt. AAJPress is the successor to the A&AJ and currently presented as an online blog, providing information and communication on public art commissions, projects, collaboration and architecture based in the United Kingdom.

This article, part of the Lighting Edition of A&AJ 65 from May 2007 looked towards Blackpool and the beneficial “artificial sunshine” effect its historic Illuminations has had on the towns part and now, looking forward to a new Festival of Light – and all part of a greener, sustainable, cultural future.

Artificial Sunshine: Waiting for the (Blackpool) Lights to Turn Green

Above: ‘A cow attempts to deceive the butcher by pretending to be a fairground attraction’ – temporary installation of fibreglass cow and 540 animated fairground lights by Michael Trainor.  Shown in Woolworth’s window as part of Blackpool’s festival of Light 2005.  Image by M.Trainor.

In autumn 1879, Blackpool spent £3500 on lighting technology, with eight Siemens Arc Lamps as stars of a show shining so brightly, they were hailed as ‘Artificial Sunshine’. Combined with fireworks and a carnival atmosphere, a dazzling display attracted 100,000 visitors who filled up every hotel and lodging house for miles, and unexpectedly extended the tourist season. The rest, as they say is history, with today, more than 3.5 million annual visitors over the nine week duration of the six mile long electrical extravaganza. In fact, so innovative was the original application of Blackpool’s Illuminations 1, that the town became the first in Europe to boast its own electric street lights, and even preceded Thomas Edison’s patent of the humble electric light bulb by one year. This creative spark launched Blackpool’s initial growth with those early pioneering days marked by a lightning bolt, which features on the resort’s coat of arms, and its ongoing association with light and electricity. Nearly 127 years later, Blackpool remains high in our national consciousness and affection. Indeed, Blackpool Tower, has just been announced as making the second wave of English icons to be selected by public vote in ICONS – A Portrait of England 2 (part of a DCMS-sponsored Culture Online project 3 ). Increasingly, however, over the years the town has become something of a paradox with regard to its own perceived iconic image, and one where a romantic and gentle past is now replaced with a more hedonistic and risqué present and perceived future. It has become the destination for loutish binge drinking and lewd stag or hen parties, and it is also clear favourite to receive the only super-casino licence in the UK. It is easy to forget that as well as being a holiday centre, Blackpool is a town with a resident population of c.150,000 people, a significant number of whom experience multiple deprivations and often feel excluded from the activity happening around them. This is a problem now being addressed by Blackpool Council, and increasingly, it is culture rather than a tourism-based economy, that is seen as a way of engaging with them more effectively. 

In 1996, a major coastal protection scheme invested in the physical infrastructure of Blackpool. At the time, the flood defence works also acted as a catalyst for a challenging 2-kilometre long public art gallery along the south promenade. The Great Promenade Show 4, was created and managed by artist group The Art Department 5, and has since resulted in ten specially commissioned works, involving both established and emerging artists. The Great Promenade Show was a small but important cultural sea-change for the town in terms of its engagement with artists. Now, £1 Billion worth of visionary regeneration is reportedly being planned for Blackpool, following masterplanner Jerde 6 and EDAW’s 7 engagement by Blackpool Borough Council in 2002 and the creation of a new Urban Regeneration Company 8 in 2005. Their collective brief is to help the town reverse its decade-long decline, and has resulted in a ‘Blackpool Vision and Masterplan’ and a ‘Public Realm Strategy’ to develop the three key themes of upgrading the urban environment; tackling seasonal economic weaknesses; and uplifting the overall tourist attraction. 

Above: ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’  Award winning temporary animated light show by Greg McLenahan and Blackpool Illuminations Department on Michael Trainor’s supersized mirrorball. Photo by Joel C. Fyldes

As a result, and as an undoubted part-legacy of The Great Promenade Show, Blackpool Council developed the concept of a cultural Festival of Light 9 appointing Festival Director Philip Oakley in 2005. It was seen as an off-shoot of the Illuminations, with the difference being that it was also briefed with re-engaging the residents of Blackpool. The new festival, funded by Blackpool Challenge Partnership’s Single Regeneration Budget, involved a diverse programme of participatory projects, and provided opportunities for wider community engagement. Around twenty-five lighting-based projects and events were produced in 2005, involving seventeen community groups and giving local people the opportunity to take part in Illuminations for the first time in its 126 year history. The festival attracted well-established artists and designers including Chris Levine, Dianne Harris, Wok Media, Pieke Bergmans, David Stokes and Jan Kattein. Artist Michael Trainor, once part of The Art Department, revisited The Great Promenade Show in a project involving lighting projections onto his existing mirror ball artwork They Shoot Horses Don’t They? This project involved a collaboration with lighting designer Greg Mclenahan 10, known for his work at the Syndicate Superclub, with technology developed by the Illuminations Department. It was also animated with poetry reading and community-engaged dance events, and this year won a prestigious award in exterior lighting at the Lighting Design Awards. 11 Other highlights included an illuminated cow, a Bajra (peacock boat) from Chandanagore in West Bengal; a chandelier sculpture of Pulsar Chromaspheres; a parade of 240-illuminated Honda Goldwings 12; push-bikes and a Luminous Suit; an internally-lit sculpture with Recycle Blackpool, using discarded plastics and glass; a short silent film on the story of the Illuminations; and Zero Emission Luminaires designed by Jan Kattein and General Designs – powered by Blackpool donkey dung. In many projects, artists worked from the Illuminations Depot, which was a useful exercise in showing Illuminations staff the benefits of creative collaboration. Blackpool Council also set up a temporary workshop at the Illuminations Depot for community use during the festival. Consultation afterwards revealed an overwhelming demand for further development with 95% of participants wanting further work. Participants found working creatively with light in the context of the actual illuminations to be inspirational. In the future, The Festival of Light aspires to build significantly upon this. 

Above: ‘The Power and The Gory’ – a 5m tower of Blackpool’s own rubbish (straight from the council tip), reanimated and illuminated to ‘highlight’ recycling as part of Blackpool’s Festival of Light September 2005. Installation by Michael Trainor, images by Joel C.Fyldes on top of Blackpool town hall.

In this task, it aspires to infuse the outmoded technology of the Illuminations with a new and dynamic spark of ingenuity and experimentation, whilst at the same time embracing a wider spectrum involving truly sustainable practice, and radical new environmental and community programmes in the process. In January 2006, Blackpool Council made an unsuccessful attempt to gain funding from the £50m Big Lottery Living Landmarks fund 13 – for a sustainable lighting project called Green Light. This project proposal had four equal development priorities: as an international centre of excellence and innovation for show and celebratory lighting — a pioneering visitor centre for quality design — to promote the use of sustainable energy, particularly in lighting, but also in public transport systems — to develop community pride, engagement and ownership in Blackpool itself.  The emphasis of Green Light was concerned with advocating for a cleaner and greener environmental policy being adopted within the council through a series of piloted projects. The overall master plan for Blackpool refers to a ‘Return of Nature’ in the town, and Green Light was looking at more unusual methods of energy generation. The Festival of Light has already experimented with alternative fuels such as donkey dung, something not in short supply on its beaches. The project, if ever adopted, also plans to investigate other means of electrical generation – including wave power and bio-diesel fuel that can be made from waste cooking oil. What poetry and irony for Blackpool Illuminations to generate its electricity needs with a fuel produced through the almost magical process of ‘tansesterification of vegetable oils by means of alcoholisis’ – that’s recycled chip fat to you and me.

Sunshine and the enjoyment of culture undoubtedly makes for a better quality of life, and at no time is this more evident than during the winter off-season when employment opportunities in Blackpool are scarcer and natural sunlight is at a premium. Through Green Light, creative lighting and the arts could counter such Seasonal Affective Disorders, with the project promoting well-being through a wider social engagement of the community. A recent exhibition at the Solaris Centre *2 14 on the Story of the Blackpool Illuminations was an important step forward in recognising their significance as part of British culture, and not solely as a historical retrospective. Thus, Green Light aspired to harness both the enduring affection and popularity for the Illuminations, and to infuse outmoded technology with a contemporary version of Blackpool’s pioneering spark of dynamic ingenuity of 1879 – whilst embracing the wider sensitivities of truly sustainable community regeneration and the critical role of the artist in the process.

Architect Ian Banks is the Principal of Atoll, a collaborative art + architecture practice. He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Public Arts, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture.

*1. Poet Deryn Rees-Jones, working with Basic Skills Adult Learners Group from Blackpool & Fylde College for Blackpool Council’s ‘Poetry for the Promenade’ programme.

*2  The Solaris Centre is a joint partnership between Lancaster University and Blackpool Borough Council. The original derelict 1938 Art Deco promenade solarium in Blackpool has been transformed into a new centre of excellence in environmental sustainability


Categories: Writing

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