NVA’s “Speed of Lignt”. Edinburgh, August 2012.

Speed of Light” was an interesting experience: simultaneously brilliant and disappointing. NVA, the company behind it, have worked a lot with light in the environment (their installation at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 2008, “Spirit“, was beautiful, and I heard great things about their work in Skye and Glen Lyon).

Speed of Light is hard to describe: I think installation works best, except that the whole point was that it consisted of volunteer runners, choreographed to create patterns. At night. On Arthur’s Seat. Wearing light suits.

You may see why I was attracted to it: the moment I heard about it, I knew I wanted to see it.

But – brilliant and disappointing: I clearly have conflicting feelings about it.

Brilliant first. At a very basic level, it made me look at the world in a different way – what I believe art should do. It took a familiar landscape – I must have climbed Arthur’s Seat fifty times or more over the years – and made it afresh. The audience, equipped with light sabres light-emitting walking sticks (or “staffs” – all a bit Gandalfian…), were part of the choreography, part of the creation. The runners made amazing patterns on the (east-facing) slopes of Salisbury Crags, and the audience walked up the path to the east of this, the runners creating patterns against the dark of the landscape.

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The “WOW!” factor was immense: people were vocally awestruck (but see below…!). It had an immediate impact. It was stunning.

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So why the disappointment? Mostly for reasons that were nothing to with NVA or Speed of Light, at least not directly. In part, it was because my expectations were very high: I expected great things. I saw great things. But then it all got a bit blase: the whole thing took nearly three and a half hours, from my arrival for the 10pm slot to leaving at 1.15am. (We didn’t leave for the walk until 10.30, what with health and safety talks and the like.)

The walk lead up Hunter’s Bog between the Crags and Arthur’s Seat, during which the runners were in complete dark, and then curved up the south and south east route to the summit. Despite being asked beforehand by the walk-leaders to keep as quiet as possible, many people on the walk chatted, non-stop – for 2Ā½ hours! Their talk was very intrusive and distracting. (I could have asked them to be quiet, but I was aware that I was taking a lot of photographs, which others may have found distracting; and so many people were talking, one would have spent the whole time asking people to stop!)

Below the summit was a flat piece of ground where we waited, watching the runners. The lights of the light suits competed with the bright lights of the city. It wasn’t much competition: the city was much brighter, and in some ways more spectacular. With the city spread across the west below us, and its lights appearing over the tops of the Crags, Speed of Light was very diminished. We waited quite a while as the patterns of lights weaved across the crags, becoming normal rather than spectacular. Despite being part of the event, watching them runners from above made them feel distant – more of an observer than, say, standing in a gallery looking at a painting – a curious effect, really.

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From the summit, the choreographed lights couldn’t be seen – a problem of geography, perhaps, but a little disappointing itself. The walking sticks – which had been emitting rather discomfiting sounds since we had arrived at the viewing place below the summits – were dismantled and the top light-tips used to make a cairn.

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Coming off the hill, we walked slowly down, with little apparent activity now from the runners – and the city hidden once again behind the crags. At the bottom, leaving the tents that acted as the venue, many of the runners were coming off the hill: they received a round of applause.

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So: brilliant and disappointing; fascinating and distant; engaging and irritating. But a wonderful experience, and one which changed the way I look at the city.

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