There is nowhere quite like Blackpool. Other seaside towns have piers, amusement arcades and donkey rides. But with a skyline dominated by a 150-metre tower and the skeletal twists and turns of its fear-inducing rollercoasters, everything about Blackpool appears bigger, brasher and larger than life.
The extravagance of the Blackpool experience reaches a peak once a year at the Blackpool Illuminations. Each autumn, as the nights gradually draw in, Blackpool’s skies turn into a glittering, gaudy spectacle that distracts attention from the creeping chill of a town getting ready to wind down for the season.
Coinciding with this year’s display, the Grundy Art Gallery is showing two exhibitions which explore the history and operations of the illuminations. The first, a set of archival drawings and films, traces the tradition back to Victorian Blackpool, showing how the designs have evolved over time, in line with technological and social developments.
The second, a newly commissioned short film by Manchester-based artist Chris Paul Daniels, creates an alternative, fictionalised narrative around the illuminations and their cultural significance.
Daniels gained behind the scenes access to the illuminations during a residency in Lightworks, the depot in which they are stored. He combines new film shot on 16mm and Super 8, creatively collaging together disparate pop cultural imagery. The result is a flickering, immersive tour through a unique visual language and landscape.
Viewers of Northern Lights are invited to imagine that they are visiting Blackpool for the first time. Their guides are ‘second sightseers’ from ‘another place’, lightyears away. Attracted to Blackpool by the brightness of its lights, they communicate through the photographic process of ‘déjà voodoo’. A calmly authoritative voiceover, delivered in the manner of an anthropological lecture, informs viewers that the now broken and ruined illuminations constitute an archive of historical relics and artefacts from another time, long removed from their functions yet seemingly offering clues to half-forgotten customs, ways of living and social organisation.
Often, this is comical: some aspects of northern life and twentieth century culture, it seems, just don’t translate across time and space. The script puns plentifully and it’s hard to suppress a chuckle when the roll call of celebrities enlisted to turn on the lights is read out. Those ‘brief idols’ highlighted as ‘torchbearers and conduits of the northern lights’ include ‘the Dad’s Army’, ‘the Red Rum’ and ‘the Status Quo’. The list also includes 1990s names such as ‘the Eternal’, ‘Dale Winton’ and, delivered with barely concealed bafflement, ‘Steps’. These reminders of a semi-recent moment in popular culture now seem as archaic as much of the black and white archive footage from decades past.
Graham Massey’s soundtrack is a subtle and gently atmospheric accompaniment. Its synthesised sounds at times suggest the rhythmic throbbing of electrical charges, and at others conjure the traditional seaside entertainment of the Wurlitzer organ. The overall effect is strange, abstract and dreamlike, although a dark, distorted and nightmarish undercurrent lurks beneath; the grotesque is never far away.
Presented in a darkened room that feels far removed from the made-made fantasies outside, Northern Lights enables a brief, yet quietly entertaining, pause for reflection on the world we have created for ourselves.
Northern Lights runs until 15 December 2018 at The Grundy, Blackpool.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester.
Image: Chris Paul Daniels, ‘Northern Lights’ (still) (2018) © the artist.