Interview: NVA's Speed of Light at Edinburgh International Festival 2012

This article is from 2012

Interview: NVA's Speed of Light at Edinburgh International Festival 2012

Sport and art combine to make Arthur’s Seat a spectacle of light and colour

Arthur’s Seat will be a dramatic spectacle of light and colour thanks to NVA. Claire Sawers talks to Angus Farquhar and some of his runners ahead of this ambitious meeting of sport and art

When Sandy Brindley got involved with the Speed of Light project last year, the organisers asked if she’d be a guinea pig and help develop the prototype lightsuits. It meant running 30 times in the outfit to test its durability and comfort. She went for her 7am jogs and after-work runs around Glasgow’s Southside as usual, only this time she wore a catsuit – jet-black with red, green and blue LED stripes stitched around it – looking not unlike a human Christmas tree.

‘It was so interesting seeing peoples’ reactions to it,’ she remembers. ‘People would actually stop to take photos of me on their phones, and I had cars beeping at me too. That’s only one person and one suit, so you can only imagine what it’ll be like on the night, with 150 folk running about in the dark.’

There’s something very Tron about this summer’s Speed of Light project, an ambitious mass choreography spectacle, which will feature hundreds of runners zigzagging across the iconic Arthur’s Seat. All of them will be wearing the neon suits, creating glowing streaks of light across the hillside that will be visible up to two miles away.

Brindley is one of 30 leaders who’ll be directing groups over the hill in a series of carefully mapped-out patterns, creating human waves and squiggles, which weave and intersect over the sleeping lion’s famous silhouette. ‘We’ve had a few practice runs, with a small number of runners and it just looks stunning.’

The project is described by its organisers NVA as ‘a remarkable fusion of public art and sporting endeavour’. The Glasgow arts charity put out a call for runners and walkers, and received almost 4500 pledges to take part. Volunteers will range in ability, from total newbies who didn’t own a pair of trainers before signing up, right on to hardened marathon junkies.

But as with all their events, NVA are keen that this is as non-intimidating and accessible an experience as possible. ‘You don’t have to be a mountain goat to take part,’ jokes Angus Farquhar, NVA’s creative director. ‘You can be totally inactive in fact, and gear up towards the event with some light training. We’re not prescriptive about it.’

Farquhar began NVA in the early 90s, and likes the idea of landscapes eliciting an emotional response from the people taking part in his projects. In The Secret Sign, an audience slipped into waders and hard-hats and walked through the Devil’s Pulpit in Finnich Glen near Loch Lomond. NVA tweaked the glen’s setting with lights and fire, turning the gorge into a massive installation of sound and music. The walk took place at night, featuring a soundtrack inspired by animal calls and waterfalls, with birds of prey having been trained to perform as part of the spectacle.

‘I like the idea of keeping the basic idea fairly simple, but creating something … mesmeric,’ shrugs Farquhar. In another installation at The Storr on Skye, night walkers were given headlamps and walking sticks and led along an artfully-lit path. As they negotiated their way over the tough track, live solo singing drifted down the ridges through the mists.

‘We all know that old saying about the weather here,’ says Farquhar. ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather in Scotland, just bad clothing. We tend to think of interplay with the weather as part of the overall experience. Yeah, it might be hammering it down when we’re doing something, but maybe it’s those wilder nights that create a more intense experience. Maybe it makes everything that little bit more remarkable.’

Farquhar’s been a marathon runner himself for 14 years, and likes the physically challenging side to NVA’s projects, but he’s also excited about creating a visual feast that will be as impressive from the summit as it is for spectators at ground level. ‘People have seen fireworks before, or maybe a dramatic searchlight, or lit-up monument, but this is far more subtle. It’s the first time we’ve worked with these LED suits, and hopefully there will be an almost sci-fi quality to the end result, in a very natural setting.’

To design the routes for Speed of Light, NVA collaborated with Litza Bixler, a choreographer who has worked on TV commercials and music videos. The pathways had to be simple enough for groups of runners to be able to follow en masse, but also dramatic enough to create moving works of art at the same time.

Although Sandy Brindley is an experienced hill runner herself, and was asked to take part by Farquhar after meeting him six years ago at a marathon, she likes the idea of the project attracting first-timers. ‘When people think of hill running, they are probably pretty apprehensive,’ she says. ‘They’re worried it’ll be really challenging, but if it’s done at a nice, easy, steady pace, it should be really satisfying. You’re going to get a real sense of achievement, come away with a bit of confidence; who knows, maybe they’ll end up hooked.’

Hamish Brown, digital editor at The List, is taking part in August, and although he jokes that he signed up just for fun, he hopes to get something a bit more rewarding out of it. ‘I’ve never been a runner, always a walker. I have a six-week training schedule planned, so I’ll be running after work. I’ll be anticipating looking back at the whole episode and laughing, but I’m also quite ready for a transcendental experience of heightened awareness.’

Henry Northmore, The List’s clubs editor, has also been in preparation, running two or three miles a couple of times a week to improve his level of fitness before the event, but is also very honest about what he has in mind as his post-run reward. ‘When I try and describe to my friends what I’ll be doing, I say I’m basically going to be covered in lights, running around Arthur’s Seat at night, which to me sounds pretty awesome. I chose the Saturday especially so that when we get down from the hills we can have a few guilt-free beers and stuff our faces with unhealthy food.’

And will Brindley have room in her lightsuit for a hipflask of something strong in case the going gets tough and she needs a boost en route? ‘No way!’ she laughs. ‘There are no pockets in those suits, but I’m sure I’ll find space to stash some jelly beans for energy. And if I start to flag, the views from the top, and the thought of a hot peppermint tea and a bar of chocolate at the end, will definitely keep me going.’

Speed of Light is as much about the audience as it is about runners. Audience members walk through the terrain of Arthur's Seat in groups, each person issued with their own light and sound-emitting walking stick, making their own contribution to the event. As Brindley says, ‘from the ground, or sweating up the hill, I think it’s one of those things people will look back on in years to come and remember it as a once-in-a-lifetime thing.’

NVA: Speed of Light, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park, 0131 473 2000, 9 Aug–1 Sep (not 13 & 14, 20 & 21, 28). Guided walking groups meet every 15 minutes between 9.15pm–11pm, £24 (£18).

Audience walking tickets can be booked in advance via or on the night from the Speed of Light base situated by the car park in Holyrood Park opposite the Scottish Parliament building. 10% discount is available for groups of 10 or more. Call 0131 473 2089 or email

Please note: All walking participants will require a level of physical fitness to climb Arthur’s Seat and sturdy footwear must be worn. Participants must be aged 12 or over, with children under 16 accompanied by an adult. For those interested in participating as a runner, you can register as a reserve.

NVA's Speed of Light

NVA's Speed of Light

Three short films reflecting on NVA's celebrated public art event Speed of Light.

The Making of NVA's Speed of Light

NVA. NVA are renowned for their challenging public art works, often devised for remote landscapes. Speed of Light takes place on Arthur’s Seat and involves hundreds of walkers and runners illuminating this landscape in choreographed animations each night. Members of the project team will introduce the ambitions of the…

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