OK here we go… deep breath, and begin.
Well 2020 was a rollercoaster year that’s for sure. My original plans changed, and changed again; it actually feels like way longer than a year. Astonishingly I had one of my most successful years to date, and I ended up working on my biggest project so far : Laser Light City.
But it was a hard journey and an upsetting year and I had it way better than most. My fellow artists have seen their sector decimated, with government support inconsistent and patchy at best. I can never stop being grateful for my good fortune, and do what I can to support others.
So let’s start at the beginning of the year, when all we had to worry about was a looming Brexit and a disastrous UK election!
My big ambition for 2020 was to make progress on my ongoing ambition to replace fireworks. I spent most of January putting the finishing touches on my interactive light sticks; these form the basis for my Electric Laser Flares project ready for their first outing at Spectra Aberdeen in February.
I loved working on this project, the sticks themselves were a complete redesign from the ones I used for Lightning Catchers. I added a copper wire touch interface, and this time I used custom manufactured PCBs rather than LED strips – a huge upgrade. And mechanically they got more complex too, they now detach into two separate halves which makes transport and servicing a whole lot easier.
It was really fun to synchronise the connection between the LED chase effect and the laser projection coming out of the end of the light stick. I love working on those details and they can really bring an extra flare to a project.
I had two more large bookings for this project and I was all set to go into full production and produce 20 light sticks over the summer ready for events in the autumn. Little did I know what was coming next…
Like everyone I was in shock when the coronavirus hit, but I managed to throw myself into 3D printing and designing PPE gear. I was somewhat involved with the volunteer organisation 3DCrowd, and even did some of their radio and newspaper interviews (including the hate rag Daily Mail!).
But after a while I was itching to get back to lasering and I realised that while people were clapping the NHS every Thursday night, I could show my support the only way I know how. By pointing big lasers out of my back window.
People responded really well to the lights in the sky and on buildings and it was an important reminder of why I do what I do and why the arts are so important to our mental health and well-being.
This led me to thinking about what I could do on a large scale while in full lockdown… and the answer is Laser Light City.
Laser Light City
I was lucky enough to get some emergency funding from Arts Council England which helped me buy some really big lasers and develop the idea into something I could offer Light Festivals. And the idea was to fill a city with high power lasers that could be seen from miles around, along with a web interface that let the public take control and change the position, shape and colour of the beams.
Weeks of testing over the summer, followed by a prototype event in Brighton early in October and we were ready for our biggest outing at Light Night Leeds, where we installed lasers on 7 different sites and I gathered a crew of over 15 expert laserists from all over the country.
We also had a really successful event in December at Worthing’s historic pier. This was one of my favourite locations because it was so dark and the beams were so visible. Followed shortly afterwards with another install in Brighton as part of the wonderful Burning the Clocks from Same Sky.
We were all set to do another really huge installation in Newcastle for New Year’s Eve but the emergence of a new strain triggered a minor panic and it has been postponed.
Honestly it was a huge disappointment – the project works fine even in lockdown but PHE just put a blanket ban on all events without really taking into account the details. But we’re looking forward to the rescheduled Newcastle event in October this year to coincide with the rugby World Cup.
BBC Click featured the project twice, once after the NHS laser tests, and then again after Leeds.
Aside from the laser projects, I’ve also steadily been growing my YouTube channel. A fun collaboration with Tom Scott kicked off the year, and further collaborations with train nerd Geoff Marshall and TV scientist Steve Mould were really fun. Those collaborations have had millions of views between them and they’ve been a great boost to my channel, which now has over 10,000 subscribers.
I also made videos about lasering for the NHS and a fun project making a mini working DEFCON sign from War Games.
The RI invited me back for this year’s Christmas lectures but this time, behind the camera. I created a laser sea effect for Dr Helen Czerski’s episode about the oceans.
It’s not gonna be a year I forget in a hurry. But there’s no doubt at all that Laser Light City was the major highlight of the year. It was a huge success and I’m so grateful that I could get something positive out of such a disastrous year.