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Archive for June, 2018

Great Expectations

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Last Friday we stood in the entrance of Newcastle’s majestic Central Station. Waiting. Looking up at the clock and list of departures. Watching the seconds tick by. Fairly normal activity for a station and we certainly didn’t seem out of place (apart from the observing TV camera crews). We we waiting for a sign. A signal. The starting gun. Only it definitely wasn’t a gun. This was a family friendly cultural event.

As the seconds ticked down – 40… 45 .. the anticipation grew. It was quite literally any second now. Then at 10 seconds to the hour the first pip sounded. A loud and confident sound from over in the concourse. Swiftly followed – within the same click of the seconds – by another, fractionally lower pitched peep. Then a third, more distant outside, across the road.

The next few seconds seemed to last minutes. The most pregnant of pauses. Then as the seconds, minutes and hours flicked over to 13:00:00 it arrived. The unmistakable blast of steam engine whistles. A dissonant chord, a cacophony of tone that filled the voids of the vast Station building, its great curving roof, its cavernous imposing portico, and bursting out the doors into the city beyond.

Elsewhere, another dozen whistles were bursting from rooftops – their ringing bouncing off the walls and windows of the city.

This is Whistle. This is the start of the Great Exhibition of the North.

The Great Exhibition of the North is an 80 day event spread over 50 venues across Newcastle and Gateshead, showcasing the best in art, design and innovation from the wider North of England. over recent years there’s been an increasing awareness of the ‘Londoncentricity’ that’s pervaded arts, culture, economy, media, politics. pretty much everything. The concept of the Northern Powerhouse was a way to devolve some decision making and profile to places north of London. The idea of a Great Exhibition of the North was launched by the government back in 2016 with northern towns and cities invited to tender as host for the event. In the end it went to a joint offer from Newcastle and Gateshead. There’s a lot of politics involved in the concept, decisions and role of the event, which apart from occasionally being a bit murky and occasionally insulting, is mostly unfortunate as at the core is actually quite a good thing and better off if you ignore the politics.

The nub of the idea stems from the Great Exhibition of 1851. This extravaganza, held in a vast contemporary glass and iron construction (later to become the Crystal Palace) was advertised as ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ – although in reality it was to promote the industrial superiority of Victorian Britain. Businesses from across the world showcased exotic materials or used specially commissioned artworks to promote their place in a fast moving technological time. Over six million people visited the exhibition in London and the profits generated from ticket sales went to establish the Kensington Museums (the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the V&A).

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‘Opening Day of the Great Exhibition – 1st May 1851’ by David Roberts RA. image © The Royal Collection Trust

Great concept to recreate. Somewhere to show off all that the North of England contributes to the world. I envisioned all the major industries and hundreds of smaller and newer businesses showing the cutting edge of technology and innovation within the context of the historical powerhouse of invention and industry that is the North of England. We were promised water fountains the height of the Tyne Bridge, George Stephenson’s Rocket back in the North East, John Lennon’s last piano and the largest free event in the UK the summer.

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Having lived north of Preston for most of my life, I’m passionate about the area and the influence it has on my work, so naturally I wanted in.

I wanted to do something that looks at the industrial heritage of the North, celebrates Newcastle as a place and utilises current technology to link that ongoing narrative. despite it being in an urban environment I also wanted to say something about the landscape. It’s the landscape of the North of England that gives it identity and character and the reason it was the birthplace for so much technology and industry.

A few years ago I had done a pilot piece for a large-scale landscape installation using steam engine whistles in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. We’d done fair bit of research and development on that project to get to a point where it was possible and viable, but for a number of reasons had never been fully realised. The role of the North East as the birthplace of railways made it seem appropriate to revisit this piece.

There was a an open call for projects last year – something I don’t usually respond to – but I was taken by the whole idea of an exhibition for the North and it’s potential to realise ambitious projects so I put something in. The idea was for a mass of steam engine whistles to reverberate across Newcastle and the river once a day. The sounds echoing off the buildings and the river valley. Marking time and place – both the 1 o’clock in Newcastle, but also where we are in the 21st century in a digital world, with a reminder of how we got here. A fusion of past, preset and future in the spirit of that first Great Exhibition in 1851.

And so, standing in that 1850’s John Dobson designed train shed of glass and iron to hear those whistles from the age of steam ring out with split-second accuracy to open a new Great Exhibition, that spirit rose again.

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