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Star Moments with Oxford’s Star Light, Star Bright

Friday 23rd February 2018

Imagine if the stars shone just for you! Over the past six weeks, you may have noticed some strange, Black Mirror-esque installations pop-up around the streets of Oxford – maybe outside the Saïd Business School on Frideswide Square, or perhaps at Manzil Way Garden or Rose Hill Community Centre?

Star Light, Star Bright is the brain-child of Bristol’s Hellion Trace, winners of the first Smart Oxford Playable City Commission. We part funded the competition, “challenging creatives from around the world to produce an idea that puts people and play at the heart of the city of Oxford“. Smart Oxford worked with Playable City to select a project that captured the imagination of those who live, study, visit and work in and around Oxford. Applicants could come from any field, but creative uses of smart city technology was to be an essential factor. The panel were really inspired by the Hellion Trace submission.

Star Light, Star Bright maps the star constellations visible in the night sky above Oxford in January and February. Each star is represented as an individual step-activated light, so the idea is that strangers jump on and work together to bring a whole constellation to life. Now, as this ground breaking installation comes to an end, Science Oxford’s Digital Comms Officer Autumn Neagle catches up with Hellium Trace’s brightest star, Architectural Choreographer Laura Kriefman, to find out how it’s all been going..

Laura Kriefman is an 2016 INK Fellow, 2015 WIRED Magazine/The Space Creative Fellow and a 2011-2012 Fellow of the Clore Cultural Leadership Programme. Her company Hellion Trace (formerly Guerilla Dance Project) have won many awards for digital innovation and specialise in ‘Augmented Dance: the fusion between movement and technology.’ Resident at the Pervasive Media Studio, Bristol, they create interactive installations and spectacles that have been commissioned worldwide including USA, Brazil, Ireland, Croatia, Europe, India, and Indonesia. It was fascinating meeting Laura and the crew at the very busy launch six weeks ago, so I jumped at the chance to find out more..

What inspired you to come up with the idea of dance-able constellations for the competition?

I wanted to create a piece that was about the unique location of Oxford as a city and it’s place in the universe, that connected the amazing academic learning but also responded to the diverse nature of the real Oxford and which created an activity that could make us pause for a moment during the darkest, coldest months of the year, and encourage us to interact with others. I recently wrote an article on Medium about why I was inspired by Oxford and the Smart Oxford Playable City Commission to create this project.

Why are interactive installations good for us?

Interactive Installations create an opportunity for people to connect: creating a moment of community and shared memory and an opportunity for civic engagement. There’s something extraordinary about making a piece of work that could potentially make a memory for a city. It’s what drives a lot of my city-based work.

Why is ‘dance’ an important element of this piece, how does that work with new technology?

So this project is about inspiring movement and serendipity, rather than dance, though it uses a similar style of step-activated sensor that you might find in a Dance, Dance Revolution mat. I wanted to make a piece that was really democratic: that could go anywhere in the city, that could be activated by a wheelchair or a push chair or a walking stick, that wasn’t about phones, but having to work together unexpectedly with people.

Oxford – an amazing backdrop, how did you pick the locations?

We worked really closely with Oxford’s County and City Councils to try an identify communities and groups they wanted to reach, sites which would be accessible for power, and which would have relatively low light levels. We wanted a mix of iconic buildings, academic locations, commuter hotspots and spaces for locals (Like Manzil Way Garden and Rose Hill Community Centre). I’m really pleased with the locations we reached.

Have they engaged / inspired young people of the city? How about the skaters ☺

We know the kids at Rose Hill Community Centre are really engaged, and so are the students at the Mathematics Institute on Woodstock Road. I think the skaters are loving the constellations. They are all ramped, so that they’re accessible for anyone, and that’s a lot of fun for Skater and BMX; And if they can invent new tricks to turn on the constellations that sounds great to me!

Any technical challenges?

We worked really hard to make sure that the sensors were really sensitive. We observed, whilst we were prototyping, that lots of adults were just ‘dipping their toe in the water’ by gingerly tapping the surface with their foot to see if anything would happen. So we made sure that the lights turned on if you did that. It’s was also really great to tackle making something that was robust enough for the winter in the UK and the amount of rain we get!

Are we too reserved to have a go?

We, in the UK are quite reserved, BUT we’re actually instinctively curious, and I tried to create work that rewards that moment of “What’s that?…. What if I?… I wonder…” It’s all about making something intriguing and easy to engage with – just step on the lights and see what happens – you don’t need a phone or anything else.

What is your favourite reaction to an installation from a member of the public so far?

That has to be from the kids who make use of Rose Hill Community Centre. They’ve been nicknaming the stars, making parkour based games, dance routines and BMX tricks for the constellation. It’s been brilliant.

Do you have a favourite constellation (and why)?

My new favourite has to be Draco! It was a constellation that I didn’t know was so easy to find in the night sky, and it’s such a great shape. It’s also my favourite as Draco is at Rose Hill Community Centre, and we’ve had the most amazing reaction and level of engagement from the community there.

What are your top 3 star-inspired playlist tracks submitted by the public on Spotify / YouTube so far?

We’ve had some great suggestions from household classics to new artists. One of the first to be added was Doris Day’s Dream A Little Dream of Me, a fab addition. Ambient music artist Stoneygate suggested their song Sunrise on Twitter and a team favourite was the brilliant Space Oddity, the version with Kristen Wiig from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty soundtrack. Stars and light and the night sky inspire so many songs from such an amazing range of genres and styles! (Visit Spotify and YouTube to have a listen).

Can you see Oxford and Bristol doing more projects like this together?

I would love to work on more projects in Oxford, and definitely think that our regional cities should keep working together. There’s so much energy and commitment to public engagement and change making in both cities. Loads of great things are possible.

What do you think our ‘Playable cities’ will look like in the future?

Our Playable Cities will be for people – people centred, locally diverse and connected, and with a great sense of uniqueness, and opportunity for serendipity and different engagement from green spaces, the sports space, but all interconnected in a way that creates a democracy of movement.

What next for Hellion Trace?

Hellion Trace are about to start touring their show Kicking The Mic, and will working closely with the music industry as part of my fellowship with . We’re also hoping to tour Star Light Star Bright around the world.

Star Light, Star Bright comes to an end on 28th February. Visit for a map of the locations: Orion on Frideswide Square near the Said Business School, Cancer is at the Mathematical Institute, Taurus on Broad Street, Cassiopia on Manzil Way Gardens, Draco at the Rose Hill Community Centre.

Smart Oxford

Playable City

Autumn Neagle on Orion, Frideswide Square
‘Having a go’..

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