Art at EIF: Angus Farquhar talks Speed of Light
“I like that form of creativity – trying to treat everyone as a non-consumer. Everyone involved is a producer, which is sort of counter to mainstream culture because mainstream culture is trying to treat you as a consumer to see how much money can be made from you. And I think there is a great subcultural history across the world, that I grew up with in Britain, which is the idea that you do work which is about taking direct inspiration from people, using their own lives.”
So says Angus Farquhar, responding to a suggestion about the impact of the latest project from NVA (an abbreviation of nacionale vitae activa, a Latin phrase describing ‘the right to influence public affairs’) on the individual lives of its several thousand participants. Speed of Light, a vast public, performative, nocturnal light and sound artwork will play out in the peaks and valleys of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags during the Edinburgh International Festival. Epic in scale, it will take place at night and include runners in LED light suits following intricately choreographed routes, an audience of walkers brandishing specially-designed light sticks ascending the steep westerly edge of the hill and an accompanying sound work created by anarchist radio station Resonance.
“I’ve waited to do a work on Arthur’s Seat for 25 years. It’s funny, I found one of my old diaries and in 1986 I think I was sketching out ideas for a large scale performance on Arthur’s Seat. So when Jonathan Mills, the director of Edinburgh International Festival, began talking to us about making a work, this was really the place that I wanted to be. And in a sense it’s just serendipity that it coincided with the 2012 Olympics coming to the UK.”
A keen runner himself, the commission led Farquhar to look more closely at the potential of hill running. “All those other sort of subcultural sports like BMX or snowboarding are really deeply commercialised now, and hill running has resolutely avoided that. It has a certain purity because people do it for the love of it, for the obsession, for what it brings into their lives. Perhaps within its lack of visibility it contains a truer Olympic spirit – if you wind the clock back the notion of an Olympic spirit often refers to a certain romanticism about an untainted version of sporting endeavour."
Looking beyond the physical, the sport of Speed of Light, the work is also deeply embedded in the tradition of Land Art. The runners’ routes have been carefully mapped out by Litza Bixler, a choreographer with a background in Hollywood film, and translated onto the tough terrain of the ground by the run leaders, a team who have been grafting for a year to make the animations a physical reality.
The finished whole may sound awe-inspiring in scale, but Farquhar believes it to have a more meditative, subtle effect. “I’ve avoided using the word ‘spectacle’ or ‘spectacular’ because I don’t actually believe Speed of Light is spectacular; it’s a subtle accumulation of light moving at very slow speeds, like a durational sculpture viewed over a period of time. And while the space is big and the sense of darkness and being above the city has a real sense of scale, you’re really borrowing what’s there and bringing this other layer of intervention just to change the way you feel and respond to the world.”
The shapes formed by the teams of runners are deliberately abstract, circles and lines that could allude to reflected constellations, or the inside of an atom, or the deepest depths of the sea. “When you look at it as a viewing audience it really feels like time’s been suspended because patterns just slowly evolve and they coalesce into very definite shapes, and then they dissolve and diffuse back out into abstract patterns until the next pattern is formed. It’s the idea that you’re observing energy, observing the source, observing light itself moving.
“The interesting thing is the scale shifts. So you can’t see if you’re looking at the inside of an atom and the vast spaces between particles. Or whether it’s something that’s on a planetary scale, and it’s all constellations moving. It depends what you bring – from that summit field I guarantee the festival audience will have a thousand different reactions. I like it because it’s not a directly political work, it is rooted in something larger and more abstract. How we view energy itself, how we expend it and how we witness it.”
Bearing in mind this description; the thousands of runners and walkers involved; the number of individual lives that will be touched by the magic of the light and the sound, or that have already been affected by the NVA's invitation to participate and found their enthusiasm stirred by the experience of hill running, it is difficult to concede that this work will not be spectacular. Speed of Light looks set to be a truly once in a lifetime collision of art, performance, music and sport, tying together the physical landscape of Edinburgh with the cultural celebrations of August and even those Olympics.