Beetle-juice to Betelgeuse – High-street-tech lights up Christmas

Thursday 21st December 2017

The Oxford Trust, parent charity to Science Oxford, part-funded the ‘Smart Oxford Playable City’ competition earlier this year. Winning commission ‘Star Light, Star Bright’ is an urban installation by Bristol’s Guerilla Dance Project, which maps constellations onto the city floor, fusing movement with technology and due to be launched in the New Year. ‘Cassiopeia’ was tested at the opening night of Oxford’s Christmas Light Festival, so our Digital Communications Officer Autumn Neagle went along to play with the city-wide art & tech pop up night….

‘Cassiopeia’ Guerilla Dance Project, Oxford Castle Quarter 2017

Humans have long been obsessed with mapping the cosmos, as thinkers, artists and scientists strive to make sense of the world – whether painting with ground-up beetles on cave walls, or capturing the wonders of the universe in light pixels with a giant camera.

The ‘Cassiopeia’ constellation was named after a vain and beautiful queen in Greek mythology, and most visible in our winter sky between September and November. Tonight, the somewhat modest looking human-made version was almost invisible in the dark. Being grown ups, we had clearly forgotten how to play and looked at it for a minute, until some kids jumped on and it came to life. 5 stars in a ‘W’ formation flashed underfoot as they energetically flung themselves about – and as they danced across the stars, I began to feel the magic.

Artists are no longer limited by traditional tools or processes, and the sky’s no longer the limit as they create increasingly immersive experiences. We’ve come a long way from Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ carved from the hardest Carrara marble to be marvelled at in the city square – and as Ai Weiwei’s remarkable feat of technology-meets-social commentary, ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’ pushes the traditional New York Christmas tree out of the way for the first time in 90 odd years, art and technology hold hands to step out of the frame, off the plinth and out of the screen.

It wasn’t about putting a sculpture on a pedestal but making something for New York City and woven into the fabric of the city.” Ai Weiwei (read article here)

As I wandered about, it was like opening little virtual advent calendar windows to reveal a strange, futuristic world, with illuminated, interactive oddities to be discovered around every corner.

Dickens-met-Dr Who with the Traveling Light Circus’ Pendulum Wave Machine, as two ringmasters entertained the crowd with the laws of physics – “..Feel free to woo and way?’ Ernst Mach built the first ever pendulum wave machine and used it to understand how supersonic travel might one day be possible. Twenty steel balls float before being set in motion to become a harmonious wave as the silver spheres fall mysteriously into line, then dissolve into chaos. It was a total hit with the kids.

Find out about the science bit here..

Our ‘personal’ data, shopping habits and Google searches are ‘valuable’ commodities and our whole lives are tracked at every turn – and there were echoes of this fascination with individual stories in ‘Memoryphones’ – quirky gramophone-like structures appearing ‘as if by magic’ in the Westgate Shopping Centre, Broad Street and the Castle Quarter. If you stuck your head inside, it was like pressing your ear to a sea-shell and plugging into disembodied voices of the past.

Artist Dan Fox ‘My Journey to Oxford’ project with Museum of Oxford & OCM

More personal stories layered the walls and streets with virtual mapping, light-tagging and pop-up projections on walls, pavements, doorways by young people with the iCreative project.. (watch video here) plus a film screening Pigeons over Paradise Square and the illumination of the Museum of Natural History frontage created from images and sounds in the collections of Oxford museums –  an unforgettable vision.

Luxmuralis partnership with Fusion Arts, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Pitt Rivers Museum and Bodleian Libraries

Another piece in the Westgate Centre, our shiny new cathedral to consumerism and an exciting community space to-boot – was Stuart Langley’s ‘Wheels of Industry’ inviting us to think about sustainability whilst peddling a kinetic bike, as stained glass rock icons ‘lit up’ in cars …

PICTURE The Wheels of Industry is a development of Stained Glass Cars originally commissioned by Artichoke for Lumiere Durham 2013.

Sea Glass was an animated light sculpture with digitally programmed sequences .. originally commissioned by Coastival Scarborough 2017, the piece had special programming for the Light Festival..

..and specially commissioned ​‘Wave’ in Bonn Square had a narrative of travelling communities and – strangely – felt a little like visiting a manger in a stable. (watch video here)

LiveDigitalDesign collaboration with Ian Nolan Events, with special thanks to Oxford City Council, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford Wood Recycling, Voices Unlimited, Ocean Networks Canada and Colin Potter

I loved the interactive stage lights, where even young children could control the lighting as musicians were performing (which was quite hilarious, as I discovered – as I also programmed the music on stage on Saturday evening!).

For me, the showstopper of the evening was ‘Ring Out’ – the last programmed piece, by Ray Lee and OCM. A symphony of electronically generated sounds droned from futuristic bell-like towers with laser eyes, as if aliens from the War of the Worlds had landed in the Clarendon Quod. It was so packed they closed the gates, and the excitement was electric as the bell structures soared up over the audience, genuinely breathtaking as they suspended in mid air one by one– and then swung down to gasps and general awe.

Ring Out’ Ray Lee and OCM, Clarendon Quod, Bodleian Library

Victoria Bosher – Deputy Director at OCM, told me “We’re always striving to create moments of magic or inspiration that bring people together and spark personal or social change. Technology is a tool that some of the artists we commission/present use to create those moments- it can give an artist the ability to create something that seems almost unbelievable, that surprises us.”

Our traditional celebrations still have a vital part to play, and we love a get-together, especially at Christmas. This year’s festival attracted over 140,000 visitors into Oxford’s historic city, and highlights a growing culture of creative commissioning and engaged public art. At a time where many children apparently spend more time indoors than inmates, and ‘natural’ words such as ‘conker’ have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, it’s good to get outdoors. As new interactive technologies emerge, ‘playable spaces’ can help us look up from our echo-chambers at the night sky, and come together to hang out.

Ask the experts: 

I asked the Events Officer at Oxford City Council, Rachel Capell about how she went about programming, and she explained – “Overall, our approach is to provide a springboard for people to exchange ideas, tell stories about Oxford and the communities at its heart.”

We want to make sure that our programme stretches from the easily accessible (everyone can enjoy the visual spectacle of the lantern procession) to the sometimes challenging and thought provoking (such as Ring Out by Ray Lee). 

Our ambition for broad engagement means that we strive to make everything free and primarily to use spaces in the city centre where people can happen across our programme rather than always needing to seek it out.  We also strive to build legacy into the festival by looking at how we can showcase local community talent alongside professional established and renown artists, providing opportunities for learning and hopefully building lasting memories.

Our thematic strand each year gives all our partners something they can be creative with and interpret in different ways – in 2018 our theme will be ‘Undiscovered Oxford’ and in 2019 it will be ‘Discovery’ –leaning towards scientific discovery.” So watch this space!

Thanks to Jeff Slade for the fantastic photos.

Oxford Christmas Light Festival is delivered by Oxford City Council and Ian Nolan Events. The festival took place on 17-19 November 2017 and is Oxford’s cultural launch to the festive season, supported with funding from Arts Council England.  For more information visit 

Get next year’s dates in your diary now: 16-18 November 2018!






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