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Green Space Dark Skies - Behind the scenes

Publication date

We caught up with Liz Pugh, Creative Producer and co-founder of Walk the Plank, to get an exclusive insight into UNBOXED commission Green Space Dark Skies.

Group of people holding lumenator lamps in Brecon Beacons

Tell us about the type of work Walk the Plank usually makes.

Walk the Plank has been making work in public spaces for 30 years, with a reputation for creating ambitious bespoke events that engage citizens in heartfelt acts of civic celebration. The Return of Colmcille with Frank Cottrell Boyce for Derry/Londonderry UK City of Culture 2013 animated the city for an entire weekend on a scale never before seen in Northern Ireland; while Zara,(2019), a collaboration with Mind the Gap conceived by Joyce Ngayu Lee, put stories of learning disabled parents into the public eye through the arrival of a giant baby bigger than a double-decker bus.

From immersive installations like BODY – conceived by Richard Babington and most recently part of Ireland’s Science Week in Dublin in November 2022 – to fire gardens, parades and podcasts, Walk the Plank consistently attracts acclaim and showcases talent. One of the company’s best loved events, the Manchester Day Parade for Manchester City Council, began in 2009 and continues to engage diverse groups in one of the North West’s most colourful community celebrations.

What has made Green Space Dark Skies different compared to anything you’ve done before?

Green Space Dark Skies is almost the antithesis of all that I just mentioned. It had no live audience and no spectacular ‘wow’ moment with fireworks or giant puppets. Only those who had signed up in response to a call out in each of the 20 locations [Green Space Dark Skies held events in], or those specially invited to participate, were told the exact location of each event. And the journeys that happened at dusk, in places of natural beauty, had no spectators. Instead, more than five million people watched the finale film, written and directed by Mark Murphy with music by Nainita Desai, as part of the BBC Countryfile special episode broadcast on 30 October 2022.

It’s been Walk the Plank’s most far-reaching project to date – inviting thousands of people to journey into landscapes across Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England – and one of 10 commissions for UNBOXED, celebrating creativity across the UK. It has resulted in a suite of 16 films capturing each unique location, and the national broadcast partnership with BBC Countryfile and BBC Nations was a first: with films by BBC Wales, BBC Scotland Landward and BBC Northern Ireland, in addition to the BBC Countryfile one-hour special; all available now as downloads on iPlayer.

“We responded to UNBOXED’s initial R&D call out in November 2020. We liked the unusual and bold nature of the call, with its focus on building a team, and an expectation that we would bring together people from science, technology and engineering as well as the arts. There was a provocation to bring in younger people, especially from culturally diverse backgrounds, or prioritise the talents of people interested in working in a cross-disciplinary environment, and that was exciting.” John Wassell, Creative Producer, Walk the Plank and Green Space Dark Skies  

The Green Space Dark Skies team was built around National Parks UK, young engineers from Siemens, artists and creative practitioners gathered by Walk the Plank, with the University of Salford as academic partners, and Landscapes for Life: Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the National Trust as additional partners.

The timescale was very tight, especially while working through a pandemic, but the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in April 1932 gave us both a non-negotiable start date and huge inspiration – we focused our enquiry on people’s relationship to the countryside, exploring our rights and responsibilities to the landscape. The Mass Trespass had led to the ‘Right to Roam’ movement and, indirectly, to the establishment of the national parks. So the Peak District, home to the moorland area of Kinder Scout and the UK’s first national park, was where our first event took place.

What are the themes underpinning the project? What was the response from participants?

Access to green space had undoubtedly become more precious to all of us during lockdown; Green Space Dark Skies was conceived in those extraordinary times – and against the backdrop of the increasing climate crisis. There’s an urgency, we feel, around the need to bring people in a closer connection to nature, so that we might all become better guardians of the planet. The project provided opportunities to thousands of people to experience the outdoors, many of whom had never set foot in a National Park or been invited into an AONB before. More than 25% of our participants were from targeted groups whose economic disadvantage, disability, cultural heritage or age means they have experienced more barriers to accessing the UK’s green and pleasant lands. Young people in towns not far from our National Parks can’t easily get there as there’s little public transport, and research commissioned pre-pandemic showed the lack of representation of Black, Asian or ethnically diverse communities in the National Parks’ visitor profile; and more incidences of hostility faced by those who are not white, middle aged and middle class.

Green Space Dark Skies set out to remove some of those barriers. People walked at dusk carrying a controllable, low impact ‘geolight’ that uses GPS positioning technology, sometimes listening to a soundtrack created by local poets or musicians, sometimes responding to the guidance of a choreographer. The people became pixels and the patterns they made in each landscape were captured by drone cameras; the experience was magical.

It wasn’t just the technology which was exciting, and it wasn’t just the sense of collective endeavour required to climb the UK’s four highest peaks, or illuminate the waters of Loch Insh in the Cairngorms, or light up Dunstable Downs, or sing in the rain in the Giant’s Ring near Belfast, or navigate a huge open cast copper mine in North Wales. Over and over, participants told us that they loved the chance to be together again with friends and strangers in green space, as the sun set and night fell.

Participants told us it was “a stunning, life-affirming experience” and that they “had an amazing time” meeting people and having “fun with the lights in a beautiful location”. One said: “Mind blown on Mynydd Parys last night. Felt really privileged to be part of a mass gathering celebrating nature in natural landscapes. Proper magic.”

The Dark Skies element of the project was important too. As the negative impact of light pollution on insects and wildlife becomes clearer, we wanted to prompt people to think about how they might enjoy more darkness. For many of us, being outside at night usually involves the bright lights of a city, the glare of streetlights. The chance to be outdoors after dark in a wild place – with just the small glow from our geolights, moving through the landscape for an hour at dusk – was a precious gift. The environmental impact of a temporary light source carried at dusk by people who were invited at all stages to think about how to leave no trace was minimal, but very significant in terms of educating people about the issue. The education resources available to schools and group leaders have reinforced the message around the value of cherishing our Dark Skies environments. In the Orkney islands, the smallest of our 20 events happened at the invitation of some of the inhabitants of North Ronaldsay – the constellations of stars created for 20 minutes on the beach (and swiftly removed in the face of the advancing tide) marked the island’s successful designation as a Dark Skies area, which extends their tourism offer into the winter months. 

We put environmental responsibility as a key consideration at every stage – from the decision to reduce the numbers of people at each event, to providing shared transport for everyone that wanted it, to using battery-power lights charged via renewable energy sources; or reducing the need for generators on site by working with large rechargeable battery packs to power all the technical equipment and hardware. The project will be certifiably carbon net positive once all the data has been gathered and the behaviour change stimulated in the professional teams will undoubtedly ripple through the arts sector, as those freelancers involved take new standards of good practice into their own future projects. The project has won the Best Sustainability award at the National Outdoor Events Association Awards 2022 and the website, by digital agency Corporation Pop, has won Gold in the Accessibility category of the global Web Excellence Awards.

What impact has the project unlocked?

As well as setting new standards, the legacy of Green Space Dark Skies sits within the new partnerships established between creative practitioners, National Parks and AONBs; with the viewers of the films, who might decide to visit those places and adopt a ‘leave no trace’ approach; and with all the participants, who might cherish dark skies a bit more after experiencing them for real. It is evident in the young people from Salford, who had never left the city limits and had their first taste of the countryside when we took them to the Peak District to take part in the first event in April – we made the deadline of the Kinder Scout mass trespass anniversary! We made every subsequent event happen as planned too and managed to create joy from collective endeavour even when it was wet, cold or windy, because we put the welfare and the experience of our participants as our number one priority.

Walk the Plank would like to thank all the partners, especially cultural partners like Activate (Dorset), Extraordinary Bodies (Diverse City and Cirque Bijou), Red Herring, Bardd, Oasis One World Choir and many others (there are full credits on each film); the tens of thousands of Lumenators who signed up to take part; the half million people who have already watched the films online; and every single one of the over 600 people employed on Green Space Dark Skies.