As a child, I was distinctly ambivalent about fireworks. Back then, I felt the same way about them as I now feel about rollercoasters: I like the wait, the breathless anticipation of watching the ride whoosh past full of screaming riders, I like stumbling off afterwards, jelly-legged, and clutching at an equally unsteady friend for support, exclaiming how incredible it was… but (if I’m honest) the sixty seconds inbetween are an eternity of eye-scrunching, teeth-clenching, gut-lurching terror.
In our house, fireworks were dangerous things. Although they might have been laid out behind glass shop-counters like exotic flavours of ice cream, at home they were always locked away. Don’t touch. We’d watch wide-eyed through the patio doors as my father took charge of the incomprehensively dangerous business of lighting the tapers. TV ads crammed between after-school cartoons reminded us that fireworks can kill. Perhaps that’s why, when I was little, my favourite part of bonfire night wasn’t the hissing sparklers and the screeching rockets, but the next morning. My granddad would take me walking through misty November streets, collecting the scattered debris of the spent fireworks. These terrifying, powerful objects, with their crisp candy-bright wrappers and fantastic names were magically transmuted into something that a small and easily startled girl could pick up, turn over in her hands, and gather into paper bags like some sort of post-apocalyptic easter-egg hunt. I loved those walks.
I’ve learned to love fireworks now, but the Transformations workshop reminded me of the time when these were terrifying, transgressive things. The power that small brightly-wrapped paper packages could hold over a young girl, because of the explosive potential they contained. Bringing these objects and interactions into a workshop space, where smoke and explosions might normally be unexpected, was powerful for that very reason. Acts of transformation are immersive. The smell of the smoke, so acrid you could almost taste it, the colour of the flames, the feeling of anticipation, the gasps and shudders as the assembled audience jumped in unison at louder-than-expected bangs and screeches. Experiencing these things together creates a sense of connection.
As an archaeologist, specialising in metallurgy, I deal with transformations on a different scale. The transformation of ore into metal takes place more gradually, sealed away from prying eyes. But the moment of revelation, where participants discover if all their work has been for nothing, is no less thrilling. The workshop brought home to me the need to consider not just the technical side of this process, but the emotions of the participants. The power to transform is not only a power over materials, but also a power over people. Who decides who can be involved in these acts of transformation, what is dangerous, what is forbidden, and to whom? I have always known that activities such as metalworking were community projects, but participating in the workshop reminded me that transforming materials also transforms our relationships to one another.