Lightpool at Blackpool Illuminations
Blackpool’s annual celebration of light has become more interactive. It’s no longer simply a promenade queue of traffic to see sponsored sparkles. The Illuminations (dating back over a century) are still there of course, but they’re joined by an illuminating art show. Lightpool at Blackpool Illuminations is a series of over thirty installations by celebrated and unknown artists as well as performances including dogs in fairy lights, musicians on fish projecting bicycles, a world class pyrotechnic collective and a mysterious Captain from Jupiter. We couldn’t resist the sparkling and went to check it out…
Return to planet earth
A space capsule emerges in a cloud of smoke, beaming light across the night sky, competing with the stars. Lights flash and a series of notes play as the capsule hovers above. Is it alien life trying to communicate with us? Our eyes are drawn to a group of unworldly people who seem to be communicating back. More smoke pours from the bottom of the capsule, followed by a pair of white booted feet. In a rush of spark and smoke, a silvery white figure emerges and stretches out to fly. It is Captain Kronos, returning to this planet from Jupiter. To save us? No, to dance.
This is not alien life. It is not real life either. But something in between. This is Blackpool on a Saturday night during the Illuminations.
Somewhere between alien and real
In reality the space ship is dangling from a huge crane over the church in St John’s Square. The people on the ground (kids from Blackpool and Fylde College) are dressed in tin foil capes with glitter stencilled faces. They are communicating back with light-up plastic cones. The music comes from a guy with a laptop strapped to his front and a woman with a speaker strapped to her back. The capsule opens with the help of some giant sparklers and flashing lightbulbs and Captain Kronos is a cross between Superman without the pants and an Abba Tribute band. And when the whole thing descends into a kind of flash mob disco with everyone dancing to Thriller, you can’t help but join in.
Blackpool doing what it does best
This is Blackpool doing what Blackpool does best. Mixing light with kitsch and producing something bigger than itself. Today and for the next few days, Blackpool has become Lightpool. Lightpool is a project celebrating light, fire and art, with around 35 light installations scattered around the town, only coming to life when the sun goes down. Check out the video here.
Of course, 35 light installations are small fry for a town that can get through a universe of lightbulbs in a single week in the autumn and has done for over a hundred years. Seen from the edges of the earth, the Tower must be able to compete with one of the big Vegas hotels, and when you add the miles of sponsored illuminations, the cost must add up to an electricity bill every parent in the land would fear dropping through the letterbox.
Blackpool, the Tower and, along the prom, the illuminated ‘Fluted Pylons’ by Jo Berry
A trail of light works
What’s changed over the last year or two is the tourist’s role in the whole shebang. The illuminations have always been a slightly passive experience. Something to drive through and look at from the back seat of a car. As a child I remember being excited for the first ten minutes and then feeling I was stuck forever in the world’s sparkliest traffic jam.
“Dad can we get on a tram?” Forget it, too packed.
“Walk?” Too far. Sorry. And too cold for granny.
With the addition of the Lightpool public artworks the visitor is invited to park up (town centre parking is cheap here – we paid £4 for seven hours) and walk around the town. To peer at and into boxes and trailers and cushions and benches. To follow men on bikes playing folk music and projecting wriggling shrimps into the night. To become part of the lights by buying and wearing bling. Oh so much bling!
An open invitation to enjoy street art
And so we attach flashing windmills onto our microscooters and take a tour. We weave around Steve Messam’s ‘When the Red Rose in Blackpool,’ stand under of Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace billboards and squint at the contents of Jo Berry’s Brain Container. We spend a couple of hours touring the installations and only get through a handful. (I would have liked to catch Goodbye Coco, the coffin of a fictional clown bedecked with over 500 fairground lights, and the other installations that make the word ‘Human’ into a meaningful sentence.)
There are helpers out in full force to explain the mission. “Yoko Ono has been involved,” I hear one say, and smile at the idea of the artist attending a council planning meeting. The council vans are out in full force as well, technicians flying down from buckets on trucks like wannabe superheros to install an exhibit or tweak the way a projection lands on a wall.
The event is a fascinating mix of elegance, tack, joined-up thinking, northern humour, stag night mayhem and old fashioned seaside fun. Walk past Knobby’s Karaoke Bar and Blackpool nightlife goes on as normal. The street stalls push out familiar doughnut smells. But the Sacred Heart Church is awash with Yoko Ono’s refracted light sculpture. And Blackpool Tower is as fabulous as ever.
It’s great value too. The art is free. The merchandise is licensed and cheap enough for a toddler to invest in. The Lightpool branded coffee is as good as you get at any public event. And we have fish and chips for four with the bill coming to less than £30.
The self deprecation of the north
And in all the overstatement, the humility and creativity of this northern town shines through. Blackpool is a master of self deprecation. It may host the finals of Strictly but isn’t afraid to boogie from a crane above students in silver ponchos that look like rollercoaster riders from a Pleasure Beach in a parallel universe. It maybe a marmite town, but there’s no dark gloopy stuff on show today. It’s all tinseltown wonder.
“Are you the artist who put this together,” I ask a man standing by the Punch and Judy lightbox that contains Hannah Fox’s Salvage Sideshow.
“I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I’m just a guy who makes stuff out of other stuff.” he replies.
Stuff out of other stuff
For four days Blackpool will be making stuff out of other stuff and lighting up the night sky and dancing with light. Catch the illuminated pooches in the dog show or the world class firework collective Les Commandos Percu. But don’t forget to buy a sparkly wand or a light up light sabre. Just in case you need to do battle with an alien on a crane.