I recently had chance to take part in one of the most amazing running experiences ever. Really. Yes, yes, I know I’m occasionally prone to hyperbole but wearing an LED light suit and running in choreographed formation for four hours a night over the course of several of weeks was, I think you’ll agree, pretty special.
I was working for NVA, a Glasgow-based arts charity, who devised a project to highlight ‘ordinary’ runners, the millions of You and Me runners of this world. The way they did this was to take us ordinary runners and make us as absolutely extraordinary as they possibly could!
The Artistic Director, Angus Farquhar of NVA, and Choreographer, Sharon Watson of Phoenix Dance, worked together with a lighting designer, admin and tech teams and 10 Run Leaders (including me). They imagined shapes and features and we ran wherever they told us to as they designed the work in situ. The project was based in Salford Quays, an unusual urban megalopolis to start with; the home of the BBC in the north of England, the Lowry theatre and gallery and the new Imperial War Museum, it’s a sprawl of steel, glass and post-industrial waterways on reclaimed land. It’s a divisive space – I’m a big fan but many find it too futuristic. Putting runners in light suits there was an artwork in itself. Having them fill the space with colour and movement added a whole other dimension.
Photos by Zsolt Sandor at MothershipUK
The light suits are made of elastic, velcro and strips of LED lights – devilishly simple yet fantastically effective. A battery pack sits in the small of the back and a sensor on the back of the headset picks up wifi signals so that the lighting team can programme the colours of the suits. To the untrained eye, it may have looked at times like the suits were changing colour at random. Not so – weeks of rehearsals went in to making sure that everything happened at precisely the right moment. If we turned blue (or red, orange or sky blue pink), it was because we were supposed to.
It was the same with the running. For each show, we ran about 6km in total, our moving bodies filling the space with bright, dynamic colour. What the audience on event nights saw was a stunning spectacle of light and movement. What they didn’t see was how many hours the creatives had put in to designing every single second of the work. Nor did they see the number of 6ks we ran round and round, up and down, back and forth, over and over again until we got it right! There were some very long and complex Garmin readings on rehearsal nights, let’s put it that way.
Over several weeks, the team met, we Run Leaders donned our light suits and ran, allowing the creative team to visualise how it might all look once the 100 volunteer runners joined in on event nights. Yes, 100 – and all volunteers! The blurs of light that you see in the photos represent 10 people who had ran the course many times before and 100 others who mostly hadn’t. That meant we as Run Leaders had to know exactly what we were doing because if we didn’t the people following us wouldn’t either. No pressure there, then.
It was amazing how smoothly it all fell into place. At the beginning, way back in January with just 10 of us running around the Lowry piazza in the snow, it sometimes felt like we were doomed to fail (or freeze!) Bit by bit though, as the choreography became more concrete and we Run Leaders learned to use our walkie talkies – Roger, copy that! – it all started to make sense.
It was performance art at its finest intended, as NVA put it, to engage ‘participants physically and creatively in redefining urban and rural landscapes.’ It certainly did that. The shows were a triumph for NVA; the audience loved them, as did all of the participants; the runners were positively buzzing at the end of each show.
It was a brilliant project – the camaraderie, the fun, the fitness, the mad outfits! – and I’m really glad to have been involved. Keep your eyes peeled for NVA’s next version of the project. They’re taking it to the Ruhr, where they’re planning 120 mile riverside run – yes, complete with light suits and choreography. If you can say ‘Roger, copy that!’ in German, you might be able to join them 😉