Following in Obama’s footsteps

Guest blog from Creative Scene Director Nancy Barrett, attending the Tandem Europe partnership event in Athens with Heckmondwike art ambassador Simon Thirkill.

I’m getting a little concerned. Simon’s flight arrived two hours ago and I’ve still not heard from him. I’m due to shepherd him to the hotel and then on to the Benaki Museum where we’re making our first public presentation of our project, ‘Taking Our Place’.

Over the past 16 months, Creative Scene’s Producer Vicky has been part of a network of 25 young cultural producers selected to take part in Tandem Europe. The ‘Tandem’ is a partnership working together on creative solutions for social innovation.

Vicky has been sharing the model of community commissioning that saw Simon bring a whole host of digital fun to the annual HeckmondLIGHT event.

I get a call. Simon’s already arrived, checked into the hotel and is at the Museum ahead of me, so I get my skates on and head off too. The Benaki is the oldest museum in Greece, now housed in a swanky new building. President Barack Obama, I read in the in-flight magazine, visited last month.

Simon and Vicky are in the midst of a large crowd as a panel of the project organisers is quizzed, game-show style, about the Tandem programme. The host is a man dressed in a long curly wig and a woman dressed as a snail is making her way slowly around the room.

We grab a glass of wine and settle into the merry throng. Soon, Simon and Vicky take up their place by their poster presentation and field questions about the project from the curious arty crowd.

It’s good to hear the interest in how local people in North Kirklees are working as co-commissioners and producers with professional artists, and to see Heckmondwike take its place on the European map.

Simon must be tired – he had an early start to make the flight to Athens – but you wouldn’t know it. He’s found other ‘light-art’ projects around the room, is sharing experiences with fellow enthusiasts, and making plans to visit.

The Momentum Wheel begins to turn

[Continued from “Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”]

Inside the Market Hall Eleanor, Chemaine and Lou from The Brick Box have set up their Electric Fireside installation. Adorned with twinkly lights the three hosts have also created a ‘drawing room’ where rolls of wallpaper hang from the ceiling.

Five-year-old Thomas is doing his best with a length of bamboo cane with torch and marker pen taped to one end.

cs_261116_098“We only recently moved from Brighouse and I was determined to bring my grandson to the lights this year,” says his grandma Ellie.

“He’s going to have someone’s eye out with that,” I say as Thomas charges about with his giant pen.

“Bizarrely my old neighbour back in Brighouse, who is now in her 60s, recalls her father bringing her to Heckmondwike for the lights each year. He used to say it’s the best in the region. And I can see it’s still lovely.”

As Eleanor and Chemaine predicted earlier in the week, people are gathered around their glowing fusion of fireplaces and mantlepiece. The young people I met at the West Yorkshire Drama Academy are here with friends and family and the Salvation Army is setting up in the corner.

“We’re now going to watch a drama piece by Lucas,” Eleanor says into the mike, “so do all gather round, and next up we’ll have the joy of the Salvation Army choir.”

cs_261116_118cs_261116_140Back on the green the Skiband are whipping up the ever-growing crowd with a rendition of  I’m in the Mood for Love.

“Listen kids,” jokes one of musicians into a little megaphone, “when you go back to school on Monday, work hard and pass all your exams… or you’ll end up doing stuff like this!”

cs_261116_198Father Christmas and his single elf make their way through the tweating mechanical birds of the Aviary Arcadia towards the bandstand stage. The amazing digital projections from the 154 Collective give way to a mesmerising performance by Flame Oz, the warm up act for Santa.

“Hello Heck…mond…wike!” he bellows once on stage. “Did you know Heckmondwike has had Christmas lights for nearly 150 years?” A big cheer follows. “I think you should be especially proud of this great tradition of your wonderful community!” Another cheer.

Once Santa has promised presents to everyone who has been good, he is passed a blow torch to light the blue touchpaper. “Shall we all count down from ten? Ten… nine… eight…”

As planned there are HISSES and WHIZZES, CACKLES and BANGS. The Momentum Wheel begins to turn and a series of digital animations appear in its centre.

cs_261116_309“Ah look,” says a woman to her friends next to me, “it’s a bird. What is it called? It’s a flamingo.”

“A pelican,” I say from behind my camera.

“Oh yes, it’s a pelican.”

As the images complete their cycle the WHOOSHES provide the signal and somewhere in the background Ben switches on the Heckmondwike lights for the 148th time.

“ARHH,” says the town.

cs_261116_322Simon is beside himself afterwards. “Absolutely fantastic,” he says, as if he’s about to wipe away a tear. “People have just taken to it so well, it’s unbelievable. There are people down here from all over Heckmondwike. This is about building communities, this is the way to do it.”

“I thought it was really good,” says Sarah who is here with her friends, Sophie and Helena. “We’ve been coming since we were kids. It’s not the same as everywhere else, is it? And that’s good for Heckmondwike.”

Next I catch up with Pam and Bill from Southport who are down for the weekend staying with the grandkids. “Lovely, really lovely,” says Pam. “It looked amazing. You could really feel the togetherness of the community.” Job done.

“Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”

It’s just after four o’clock and the bright, clear day is giving way to a cold, clear night. All the performers, technicians and volunteers are in place. The stage is set, literally, for HeckmondLIGHT 2016.

“So what can we expect?” I ask Simon Thirkill, stalwart of the Heckmondwike Community Alliance and local café owner.

“That guy on the bike is projecting animated images inspired by the Heckmondwike illuminations,” he says, “and over there are cages with animatronic birds that flap and tweet as you walk past. And then there’s the Momentum Wheel…”

“Which is the centrepiece for the lights switch-on,” I suggest, noticing the ‘blue touchpaper’ elevated by poles, linking the stage and the specially-commissioned sculpture.

cs_261116_253For Simon and his colleagues HeckmondLIGHT is more than just flashing lights and fireworks. “Creating a time and a space for people to experience things together is really important,” he says. “It’s a priority for me to help create those opportunities.”

cs_261116_235Volunteers Sonia and Zane are in position next to the tweeting birds. I’ve met these teenagers before. “So what makes you spend your Saturday evening volunteering at Creative Scene events like this?” I ask Sonia.

“It’s a great way to get involved with the arts, isn’t it?” she says. “There are so many interesting opportunities,” – she and Zane were both ‘lay performers’ at Batley Festival back in September – “and I like the way Creative Scene is making the arts accessible to people in this area.”

“It’s a good way to get to know all the other volunteers,” says Zane. “We’re like a big family, all supportive of each other. That’s why we keep coming back.”

cs_261116_054Zane has helped out at Batley Festival for the last two years, “… and I did  HeckmondFRIGHT last year,” he says.

“I missed that but I saw the film. It looked great.”

“It was really good. We had to carry a coffin around town and the police stopped us and asked if there was a body in it. That was funny.”

Still at school, fifteen-year-old Zane tells me he wanted to be a pilot. “But now I’ve seen what Creative Scene does, I think I want to do something creative like drama or contemporary art.”

cs_261116_222Back near the bandstand Chris from Impossible Arts – co-creator of the Momentum Wheel – is in animated conversation with hi-vis-clad local contractor Ben Hardcastle. Ben and his family have installed the lights in this town for years and it’ll be his job, behind the scenes, to actually flick the switch.

“The firecrackers are quite loud: BANG, BANG, BANG,” explains Chris, “but the final bit is the WHOOSH of the fireworks, that’s your cue to switch on the lights.”

“So when I see the WHOOSH and not the BANG,” reiterates Ben.

“That’s right. The WHOOSH and not the BANG,” says Chris. “Brilliant, that’s great.”

There’s time before the big switch-on at 6.30 to take a look around. Next to the park the bus hub has been transformed into a mini funfair with waltzers, a trampoline and vendors selling the obligatory flashing light sabres and battery-powered windmills. Excited children, wrapped up against the cold, grapple with bags of candy floss and dodgy-looking burgers.

Across the busy road artists Rozi Fuller and Liz Walker have taken over Simon’s Blue Moon Café. With a light box of sand and some technical wizardry they project festive animations onto the window of the caff.

cs_261116_062cs_261116_066“Would you like a go?” ask Rozi.

“No, thanks,” I say abruptly. “I’d love to but there’s so much going on, I’ve got to get round everything.”

[Continued in The Momentum Wheel begins to turn.]

Elephants and gorillas roaming Heckmondwike

“That looks like a likely wall,” says Chris as we drive into town.

Simon and a couple of his HeckmondLIGHT volunteers are waiting for us in the Westgate 23 pub. There’s Liam – he has his own sound engineering business – and regular supporter Connor.

“So, what’s the plan?” asks Creative Scene director, Nancy as we all stand under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth.

“Tonight’s a test,” explains Chris from Impossible Arts, “I’ve brought a generator and large projector. Because it’s so wet, we’ll have to project from inside the van.”

This is the first of a number of ‘guerrilla projections’ where Chris parks close to a suitable ‘screen’, fires up his projector and advertises next week’s light festival to passers-by.

“So no gorilla outfits then?” jokes Simon, “I’m quite disappointed about that.”

Chris heads back to his van as the rest of us walk towards the bus hub. “Not long to go now. Is the excitement mounting for HeckmondLIGHT?” I ask Simon.

“Excitement and trepidation,” he says.

“Why’s that?”

“The Festival is much bigger this year. It’s a massive leap forward. When it all kicks off with the Momentum Wheel, I think people are going to be in awe.”

Simon and Chris have collaborated closely this year, wining an Arts Council of England grant to construct a bespoke structure that will make the switch-on go off with a bang.

Last week Simon visited the hilltop workshop of mechanical sculptor Andy Plant to check on progress of their giant ‘wheel’. “What did you make of it?” I ask.

“It’s far bigger than I’d imagined,” he says as we cross the A638. “With all the chains and pulleys it has that industrial feel, doesn’t it? It has one foot in the past but then, with all the digital lighting, it has another in the future. It works really well for what we’re trying to do.”

cs_181116_061-editA huge projector points out of the van. Chris taps on his laptop and, after some tweaking, a series of animations begin, promoting the Festival and stirring the interest of passengers coming and going. Nancy hands out leaflets to a mother and daughter as they get off the 268.

cs_181116_085-edit“What’s all this?” asks one of the teenagers killing time in a shelter.

“We’re advertising next week’s HeckmondLIGHT,” I say. “Will you be coming?”

“I go every year,” says Lewis.

“Make sure you’re there for the switch-on at 6.30. There’s something special this year.”

Our next guerrilla stop is Firth Park across the way. Chris is keen to see how the projection works on a darker wall. Within minutes an elephant is balancing on a circus ball on the side of the pavilion.

cs_181116_139-edit“That works,” says Chris to Liam as they sit together in the back of the van, working through the technicalities.

“Liam provides a lot of the lighting for the local amateur dramatic societies,” explains Nancy as we watch the elephant wobble. “We’re helping him develop his projection skills with this project. It’d be good for his business.”

The rain continues to lash. “Let’s leave it at that for tonight,” says Chris. “I’ll be back again next week. We’ll have another go then.”

Preparations for HeckmondLIGHT gain momentum

“Where does the idea come from?” I ask Chris as Andy nips back to his kitchen to brew up.

“We were thinking how we could make the countdown to the lights switch-on more of an event,” he says. “Something special.”

cs_101116_059-editChris Squire from Impossible Arts has collaborated with HeckmondLIGHT for the last couple of years. This year he and festival organiser Simon Thirkill are using an Arts Council grant to create a showpiece light sculpture that will kick off this year’s event on Saturday, 26th November.

“So the Momentum Wheel was born?” I say.

“Exactly. Essentially it’s a giant Catherine wheel that’s triggered to spin as the fizzing blue touchpaper reaches it. It will appear to be powered by pyrotechnics but actually it’s powered by this hand-cranking system.”

We’re at the Hebden Bridge workshop of mechanical sculptor Andy Plant, high above the Upper Calder Valley, just metres from the Pennine Way.

Andy’s workshop has all the wizardry of a fabricating shop – a milling machine, band saw, welders – plus all the bizarre paraphernalia – segments of clock faces, bundles of willow, bits of drum kit – of an artist’s studio.

This afternoon, as the light fades, the giant wheel is being tested. With all its sprockets and chains, magnets and LED lights, it’s a mixture of traditional and contemporary technologies all of which have to work together.

“Do you take sugar?” asks Andy holding out a welcome tray of steaming tea and chocolate biscuits.

Dave Chadwick from the fire and pyrotechnic specialists pa-BOOM is here too, to discuss the firework element of the Momentum Wheel.

“It’s a bit smoke and mirrors really,” he says when I ask him if this project is particularly challenging, “we can’t have lots of wires dangling everywhere because the wheel is spinning, so we’ll be using remote firing boxes instead. The challenge is to find the right combination of pyrotechnics.”

cs_101116_062-edit“If we could tip it on its back it might be easier,” says Andy as they manhandle the structure onto its stand at the front of the workshop. “For the event I’ll weld some runners on so we can drag it along the floor. That will make a huge difference.”

The three men successfully assemble the five-metre metal Catherine wheel and Andy and Chris stand at its base turning the handles that rotate windmill-like arms above.

cs_101116_096-edit“On the outside the pyro effects will look as if its rocketing around,” explains Chris, happy that everything works. “In the middle is a digital image. As the wheel spins the LEDs show different parts of the picture. Once it’s at the right speed your brain is fooled into thinking it can see the whole image.”

“Very clever.” I say.

With Andy still cranking, Chris taps his mobile phone and a faint magenta image appears in the centre of the wheel.  “Can you tell what it is yet?” He taps again. “How about that?”

“It needs to get a bit darker yet,” says Andy.

cs_101116_108-editAs they wait for the advancing dusk, the three of them stand around the base of the wheel discussing the sequence of pyrotechnic events.

“The touchpaper should fizz,” says Chris, “and the wheel should start to move: SCHUMPH! SCHUMPH! SCHUMPH!”

“And then the fire cans go off…” says Andy. “PER-TOOPH! PER-TOOPH!”

“And the firecrackers… PER-CHEW! PER-CHEW!” says Dave, waving his arms.

“And then, for the finale,” says Andy, “maybe some loud firework from the very top of the structure. POW!”

“The bang could be the cue to switch on the lights,” says Chris.

“Absolutely,” says Dave “And I have some flamey things that would work well.”

“Flame would be good,” agrees Chris.

“Flamey things?” I ask, making notes. “Is that a technical term?”

HeckmondLIGHT is on Saturday 26th November, from 4.00 to 8.00pm