Let there be light

Light Nelson was a venture into the unknown last year - and its public appeal proved overwhelming. With Light Nelson II just a few days away, Naomi Arnold shines the spotlight on the phenomenon.

Last year at the first Light Nelson, when it was finally time to drive with his family to Queen's Gardens to see the installations in their full glory, Brian Riley's 10-year-old daughter piped up from the backseat: "How many people will be there?"

"I have no idea," he told her. Even as chairman of the Light Nelson trust, he and the team behind the event weren't sure how many people had seen the publicity, and were relying heavily on social media to spread the word. "It could have been just our friends, for all I knew."

CROSSING THE POND: Ben Clegg and Enfys Bellamy’s ‘‘Rainbow in the Dark’’ installation last year.
CROSSING THE POND: Ben Clegg and Enfys Bellamy’s ‘‘Rainbow in the Dark’’ installation last year.

In fact, he was pleasantly surprised - then astonished. Thousands descended on the gardens during the first few hours, and over the three nights of the festival 16,000 people would walk through, taking in the glowing artworks dotted through the trees.

The response blew away the upper limits of the trust's visitor projections. "Had 4000 people turned up, we would have been over the moon," co-founder and trust member John Paul Pochin says.

The exhibition reclaimed Queen's Gardens at night, a time when many people wouldn't feel comfortable walking through.

The artworks that they saw worked with light in all sorts of variations, from its most primitive form - fire - to its most technologically advanced - lasers. Pulsing, glowing, changing lights and colour, reflections on the water, and lots of opportunity to run around and interact with them as well.

"People really responded fantastically," Riley says. There were all sorts of people, too. Star-struck children in pyjamas carrying teddies and dragging their parents from one spot to the next. Groups of teens, young couples, old couples, a bunch of people on mopeds. One woman sat and wrote a poem inspired by Ben Clegg and Enfys Bellamy's Blue Lotus.

Riley spent some time on the gate the following night, looking after the park, saying hello and bidding farewell to visitors. "Without fail, every single one of the parents that came out was talking to their kids about what they had seen," he says. "I thought that was fantastic."

Why was it so well-received? Maybe one part of the triumph was the runaway success of another magical light show held here recently: Piki Mai, the free 2011 Nelson Arts Festival audio-visual event that lit up the Christ Church Cathedral and grounds with a carefully-choreographed river of colour and image.

It drew crowds of thousands to its nightly display, with people watching enraptured as the show played on a loop. Some stayed for several showings, as entranced as people might have been when watching their first-ever moving picture in the last years of the nineteenth century.

It was a good example of what free public artworks can do to fire the imagination. Riley says he was impressed with the response to the show, and Pochin says Piki Mai "certainly helped".

"It was really good timing for that. Seeing how people reacted to that was an indication that something like [Light Nelson] could work.

"We didn't start off with quite the budget of Piki Mai but it got people's imaginations going. It was one of those things that built up over the Arts Festival and everybody went. Everybody was quite sad to see it go, so it was quite nice Light Nelson came along to continue that."

So we could have been primed by Piki Mai; or perhaps people are just looking for something to do on a cold mid-winter night. After all, that was part of the genesis behind the original idea.

Pochin had been in Germany for Christmas a year or two before, and noticed how differently Germans approached winters, compared to summer-drunk New Zealanders who tend to hibernate in front of the TV when it gets cold outside.

"Lots of markets, events; and everyone's out," he says. "Whereas in Nelson people go away or stay in."

He and a friend, Tutty, had worked on a few art projects together and were entranced with the idea of lasers for their next one.

"I'd always fancied having one and wanted to do a project around light," Pochin says. "Originally I thought of it as a project within the Winter Music Festival with music and light, so I ordered a laser from Singapore and we started having a play."

Once they did, the pair started thinking that an entire event would suit the scope of the equipment better.

"Unfortunately the Arts Festival wasn't suitable - it wasn't dark enough early enough. I did try it out one year, but by the time it was dark it was half past 9 and a lot of families missed out on it."

So they conceived of a separate event, based only on light. They shared the idea with Riley and artist Anne Rush, both of whom have office space in the same building as Pochin; and from there they got together a bunch of people, all of whom were keen to see the idea brought to, well, light.

Pochin says there was "a really positive vibe" right from the beginning.

"It wasn't a particularly easy year; it's been a lot of work but it's been a really good opportunity for established artists to try something different.

"I think what comes across constantly is the collaboration aspect of Light Nelson. It's people coming together to help each other out, think a bit differently and try something new. For some people it's that they hadn't thought of themselves as artists . . . [they are] getting themselves involved, sometimes just as a technical side, or showing an artistic side they might not have before."

Now Light Nelson is gearing up for its second three-night outing, beginning at 5.30pm next Friday. Though a 2013 video on its website features an elated Pochin standing in the gardens and saying: "I couldn't imagine it being better than this", there are, in fact, improvements afoot. Organisers are optimistic about a big turnout, but they also want to raise the bar.

"It's created a big expectation now, of course," Pochin says. "But it's good for Nelson."

Among the trust's aims are growing both the Winter Music Festival and Light Nelson, and attracting people from outside the region to both. It wants to encourage collaboration between artists, and the science, IT, and tech industries, and also demonstrate the use of solar technologies.

Pochin also hopes it will simply inspire. "You can imagine young children growing up with that in the back of their mind. It might inspire them to do something in the future."

Thirty-five artworks have been accepted this year, up from last year's 29, and the trust has received $37,000 in sponsorship from Nelson City Council. They also have ongoing support from what Riley calls a "fantastic" bunch of donors, dubbed their "Luminaries".

Businesses around town have also proven keen to get involved; Riley says corporates see it as "a really good community and family event", though the Light Nelson website notes that part of last year's success was "probably at least partially due the fact that not only was the event free, it was also kept free from any commercial activity", with no merchandising, donation boxes, or sponsor's logos that would detract from the artwork. This year, there will be donation boxes scattered around to help keep the event running.

There will be a little more lighting on pathways and the artworks will be spread over a wider area. The event takes its first footsteps into town with installations in Albion Square and Christ Church Cathedral, where a neon synth band comprising Brendon Grant, Minuit's Ryan Beehre and Paul Hargreaves will play nightly.

In the future, the team want the event's impact to continue spreading beyond Queen's Gardens, with lots more potential in town.

Riley says it's important that people get out and enjoy the town as well as the art. "We're always going to be in Queen's Gardens but we're going to expand; we want the city to come to us.

"If we get the same response this year as we did last year, and hopefully that's the case, after this year I would say we start taking it out into Trafalgar St and along the Maitai Walkway."

He envisages installations all along the walkway and even right through to Tahuna, with huge scope for lightworks dotting the sea, rocks, beach, and Haulashore. "Can you imagine? Walking around there all the way?"

There were several out-of-town artists this year, and Riley says they're keen to see more, as well as possibly create a co-event with Auckland. "People put a lot of work into their installations and if they can [display] them somewhere else, that's great."

To have an artwork considered, artists put in a written submission, or sometimes sketches, and a selection committee allows itself to be convinced by the idea, or not.

"They may not technically know what they're going to do, but we can put them onto people in our artist's collective to enable them to do what they want to do," Pochin says. "Artists, technicians, visualisers, a whole gambit of people who can help out. It's not just people working in isolation . . . if you do involve other people you can get so much more, and come up with things that are much more interesting."

Inevitably, as with any new art project in the city, there are mutterings of "the next WoW" - a new big event that might cement Nelson's reputation as a national arts capital.

Timed as it is to coincide with the Nelson Winter Music Festival, the trust is definitely hoping to make that weekend in July an annual destination for people from around New Zealand.

Nelson Tasman Tourism ran a heavy media campaign, including an appearance on TV One's Breakfast show, billboards in Palmerston North and towering over the road as people drove onto the Interislander in Wellington. Nelson Tasman Tourism domestic marketing manager Angela Hunter says the point of it was to further cement the region as a creative arts capital and a destination in winter, and there has been a huge response on NTT's website to the media nudges, from people hopefully considering an artsy winter weekend Nelson, taking in Art Expo Nelson, Light Nelson, and the Nelson Winter Music Festival.

"The potential is phenomenal," she says. "From NTT's point of view we're proud to be able to work with locals and promote the region. It's the biggest thing NTT's ever done in terms of a domestic campaign. We can only really grow from here."

The Nelson Mail