This workshop, ran by pyrotechnician Matthew Tosh and artist Lucy Lyons on 30 June 2014, was a wonderful exploration of the emotions involved in both performing and responding to material transformation in the form of fireworks.
Matthew’s fireworks demonstrations triggered ‘live’ emotions in the participants, which he pointed out and compared to the emotions he felt as the instigator of the various effects in the ‘backstage’ of firework displays.
We felt excited anticipation even before Matthew began as we sat around the cordoned off area filled with his dangerous-looking equipment. Then it was simple wonder at the sight of a lit sparkler, our smiles undimmed by Matthew’s warning of the threat that this seemingly benign effect carried (three sparklers produce enough energy for welding!). As he progressively introduced noisier set pieces, our nervous giggles betrayed a combination of fear and pleasure at being scared. The demonstration of how a loud bang is produced, introduced with a warning that some people might mind it, had me cover my ears and cower a bit: pure fear. Throughout the demonstrations, everyone seemed uninhibited in responding to the effects. Someone pointed out how a fireworks display seemed an acceptable place for the expression of raw emotions. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for their popularity?
What pyrotechnicians go through, Matthew explained, is a different set of emotions. Although they too are excited before the show, they are calm and in full concentration during. Their first concern is safety, which they ensure through testing and practice and an adherence to strict rules of practice. Their main motivation, however, is aesthetic and creative: “we start with a blank sky; that’s my canvas”. Symmetry, precise choreography and conjuring up elaborate images are key. Pyrotechnicians are also very much aware of the sense that they are conducting a live (and unrehearsed!) performance. They are very calculating of the emotions that they trigger in the crowd, which they manipulate for maximal effect. Matthew points out the importance of having variety, working out a sequence and building up towards a finale. I realise that he is similarly controlling our emotions at this demonstration, a thought that would in a different context worry me but that here encouraged me to let go and get taken along the ride.
The ‘transformation’ from the workshop’s title refers to both the material and the emotional and links them in a very direct way. The performative aspect of skillful material transformations is perfectly captured in this exaggerated example: oohs and aahs may not be vocalised when we see a carpenter carve a rough piece of wood into a delicate spoon, but the skills employed in this transformative act of making evoke admiration and awe, and play a part in our aesthetic appreciation of the final artefact.
The two exercises that Lucy put to us were great for deconstructing the separate emotions that come into play when engaging with fireworks. For the first, we were asked to record our emotional response to a pyrotechnic explosion that Matthew was about to demonstrate. We held our pens or pencils loosely over our notebook page, tip resting on the paper, and closed our eyes to focus on the sound of the impending bang. Here is the trace of my reaction: a short and blunt line.
I felt it captured my gut reaction perfectly: having grown up in a war, the bang of fireworks taps into an instinctive fear that I do not enjoy. This is the reason for which I am quite ambivalent about fireworks: I love the play of light and am in awe of the magical transformations, but I can just about handle the sound.
Lucy’s second exercise, happily, dealt with the more pleasurable emotions associated with fireworks and even gave us insight into the emotions involved in producing them. We were presented with sheets of paper that Lucy had painstakingly painted in watercolour gradations of blue and black or in elaborate colourful patterns, and we were invited to splatter bleach on them to “make our own fireworks”. The choice of materials was perfect. Each splattering of bleach crumpled the paper a little as it grew into a bright mark lighting up the sky-like background or an enlivening spark revealing coloured patterns; and wondrous oohs and aahs resonated across the table. This also gave us an insight into the pleasure of being the instigators of such dynamic effects: it’s great fun to see how a hand gesture becomes a brightening mark that continues to grow on its own.
Overall, I felt that the workshop made a great case for practice-based demonstration and experimentation as tools in inquiries about materials, technologies and artefacts. Even if reconstructions and re-enactments can’t quite tell us what it would have been like for people in a particular time or context, direct engagement with materials and processes takes advantage of their more universal and long-lasting affordances and offers an embodied understanding of what might be at play.