Simon Werrett

Image 1How long have people been going “ooh” and “aah” at fireworks? Searching the words ‘ooh, aah, fireworks’ in Google Books reveals the term to be common, but there are no references before 1948. So what did people do before they began oohing and aahing in 1948? How we respond to fireworks has a history, and Matthew Tosh and Lucy Lyons did a brilliant job of enlightening the many dimensions of how we respond to fireworks in the “Transformations” workshop on June 30. Roger Kneebone spoke in the first workshop of understanding events as intersections of emotions, gestures, human interactions, instruments, bodies, and past and anticipated experience. Such intersections and interplays were very evident in the Transformations workshop. Anticipation was a dominant experience – I waited with some anxiety, a certain excitement, and an expectation for pyrotechnic effects which Matthew presented at close quarters, an anticipation which he knew expertly how to enhance. I experienced an assault of fires, colours, plumes of smoke, flashes and booms, which confronted my senses with powerful light, noises and smells, some pleasant, some less so. Smell was dominant for me – the odour of burned sparklers was hugely evocative of the past, of childhood fireworks, of places and people, of research, and the possible future ramifications for our hosts, the Institute of Making! Matthew made clear how these experiences belonged to a bigger intersection. Personal emotions emerge in an interplay with the objects (fireworks), with people (audience, pyrotechnicians), with the environment (sky, earth, theatre) and with past and future knowledge and experience; the pyrotechnician crafts these experiences and emotions through a complex choreography of light, colour, noise, height, spread, intensity, saturation and surprise. I know as a historian of fireworks that these skills are old ones, but rarely remarked on in the historical literature. The emotions are more transparent and the historical record suggests they change over time. No-one in the workshop found the effects sublime, but this was a common response for two centuries. No-one in the workshop found it hard to tell natural from articifial fires, yet early moderns worried about this. No-one in 2014 gets “vengeably afeared” of fireworks, but this was the reaction of a hardened Knight in the age of Elizabeth I. We share enough with people of the past to recognize their responses and make sense of them, but not enough to repeat them. As was the case in previous workshops, fireworks highlighted an inbetweeness, a constant conjunction of predictability and surprise, order and messiness, as characteristic of material intersections and typical of history.

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