Northern Lights

The following article first featured in August 2005’s issue 23 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article highlighted a latest series of Northern Lights appearing the guise of some major Scottish arts-lighting interventions being used in cultural tourism and PLACE management. This includes notions on actual curation of cultural destinations to raise their game by best utilising inherent assets and natural gateways: The Aurora Borealis on Geographical Viagra shall we say.

 Northern Lights – Illumination of a Scottish Cultural Landscape

If one was to read of mass midnight pilgrimages, throughout August and September, to experience a sensory atmospheric phenomenon on the mountains of the misty Isle of Skye, then any amateur astronomer might be forgiven for thinking that the Aurora Borealis had temporarily been pushed to more southern latitudes. If there is any bad news here, it is that (as far as I am aware) there are no solar flare-ups to be seen from Skye. The good news though, is that one should still consider heading to the Highlands and Islands anyway – to experience at first hand a hugely ambitious but very temporary installation of some other Northern Lights (through the UK’s biggest ever light sculpture, with integrated Gaelic-inspired live music, poetry and performance) all around the mystical Old Man of Storr  –  the highest point on a long ridge of mountains that form the backbone of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula (and the huge Jurassic monolith recently described as the ultimate in ‘Geographical Viagra’).

Recreational drugs were not required to conceive this eccentric brainchild of Angus Farquhar, Creative Director of Glasgow-based environmental arts organisation NVA. However, the installation – titled The Storr: Unfolding Landscape – clearly has the potential to become a truly mind-enhancing experience, through participation in a cultural tableau on an epic scale. NVA’s previous major work, a smaller Millennium landscape animation called The Path at Glen Lyon in Perthshire, certainly had a profound effect on those who experienced it in 2000. It also brought a number of offers to recreate the event in other areas of Scotland. If it hadn’t been Skye, it is reported that NVA could have taken their pick from Lewis, Uist or the Cairngorms. The Storr project itself is breathtakingly bold in terms of its artistic ambition, scale, cost and logistics – or indeed whatever else you want to quantify it by. Costing nearly £1 million and being 4 years in the making, the project will run over the course of only 42nights – that’s six nights a week over 7 weeks, weather permitting from 1st August – with an estimated 10,000 people experiencing it at a cost of £25 per head. Included in the ticket price is transport from Portree or Staffin; a book containing photographs and a series of essays. Attendees on the night will go off in groups of about 100 (with one leader per 25) on a midnight climb up 1500 feet going around The Old Man of Storr and the high cliffs above Coire Faion – in all, taking about two hours. The walk will be accompanied by an ambient soundtrack to enhance the sounds of the forest and includes Bronze Age horns, recordings of Norwegian composer Geir Jenssen and Raasay-born poet Sorley MacLean. One sampled extract comes from MacLean’s poem, The Cuillin, where he describes the very same ascent as being like a “stripping away.”  On the descent, the audience will see a Gaelic singer perform and will look across the Sound of Raasay, to where a string of headland lights will mimic the constellations.


As if that alone was not enough to contend with, the project has also been set up as a the ultimate exemplar of eco-tourism – and this in an area already widely regarded as Skye’s most prominent Site of Special Scientific Interest anyway. As such, the project has had to consider a wealth of exhaustive environmental considerations – for example, working in consultation with Scottish National Heritage, NVA’s planning application ran to some 300 pages alone. The Storr will attempt to highlight political issues, such as land ownership, the right of access and the need for conservation. It will also set down a marker for the future interpretation of landscape and demonstrate how sound and lighting equipment can be run using renewable energy sources. As such, every speaker and spotlight is powered using batteries whose energy source is a nearby hydro-electric system. Marking the route are 4500 motorway reflective strips, which will reflect tiny spotlights that each person will have strapped to their heads – as people are seen as contributing to the work through the simple act of walking. The only loser it seems here are the infamously murderous Skye midges, who are to be cunningly side-tracked by an additional £25,000 worth of kit called Midge Magnets.  The Storr is a flagship project for something called Highland 2007, which itself evolved from the failed Highland bid for EU Capital of Culture in 2008.  To reach its audience, Highland 2007 will create a year-long programme of events that builds upon and develops a cultural infrastructure and legacy for the Highlands. A couple of these strands are called Reinterpretation of Traditional Icons and The Highlands as an Inspirational Place, and this is apparently where The Storr gathers its purpose to create a new culture, meaning and mythology.

Another bold example of commissioning cultural lighting has also recently been launched in Scotland, where, on the back of a long-running city lighting strategy, Glasgow City Council has unveiled their latest lighting installation on the banks of the River Clyde – which bathes colour up onto the underside of the Kingston Bridge. The £300,000 project called Chroma Streams (Tide and Traffic), funded by the City Council, is the work of New York artist Leni Schwendinger of Light Projects Ltd, and architect Ian Alexander of JM Architects.  A lighting sequence has a refined palette selection and highly orchestrated programming to allow for 144 sequences of unique colour mixes – which will be linked to the actual traffic patterns as data flows through sensors to the lighting control board. The city began its lighting strategy in 2002 and has now allocated more than £5m up to 2007, under its highly innovative City of Light strategy. Such has been the success of this Strategy that the City is now going to host Radiance: The Glasgow Festival of Light at the end of November 2005 – showcasing international commissions in light – as also occur in Turin and Lyon.


All three cities are initiators of LUCI (Lighting Urban Community International), an organisation for like-minded cities interested in light inaugurated three years ago. The association mandate is simply to help ensure that light becomes a major tool for urban life, architecture and development in the future. Angus Farquhar, of Glasgow’s NVA, has come to prefer more of a language of visual arts to describe NVA’s own lighting philosophy, and talks of it “working with atmosphere on The Storr to articulate the character of a place. His next project, he has revealed, will be in the Arctic Circle – where maybe there is still a chance of a biblical scale intervention with the Aurora after all.

Categories: Writing

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