Blessed with a border that includes the majesty of the Pacific Ocean, Orange County’s Laguna Art Museum would always look to include marine based art for its annual Art & Nature Festival. This is a series of events that features films, discussions, lectures and commissioned works of art that engage with the concept of art’s connection with nature and our relationship with it.
There are few more appropriate choices to fulfil such a commission than the acclaimed artist and sculptor, Elizabeth Turk. A true local who was raised in Orange County and a recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and the Annalee & Barnett Newman Foundation Award, Turk’s work is internationally recognised with pieces displayed in collections across the USA. Importantly for our story, in 2015 the Laguna Art Museum presented Elizabeth Turk: Sentient Forms, which included works from the Seashell X-ray Mandala series. For the 2018 Art & Nature Festival, the Museum commissioned Turk to create a unique piece of performance art: The Shoreline Project.
On November 3rd 2018, approximately 1,000 volunteers gathered on Laguna Beach as dusk fell to perform Turk’s work with the very special prop of 1,000 specially designed umbrellas lit by an LED illumination system designed by one of the UK’s premier specialists in unique art and entertainment commissions, Specialz. To design, build and ship 1,000 umbrellas over 5,000 miles with an eleven hour flight in between may make Turk’s choice of Specialz to be a little unusual but as Elizabeth herself explains her choice has been completely justified on all fronts.
“The original concept for our performance was inspired by the desire to create a situation where our community would come together joyously. We hoped to create a shared memory of happiness on our much cherished Pacific border and wanted a design of symbolic depth. Shelter and light bring us together. Seashells are the original ‘mobile home’; mandalas a symbol of completeness, hence the seashell mandala artwork that was used on the umbrellas – a form of ‘shelter’ familiar to everyone.”
“The idea of incorporating lights within the umbrellas was there from the very start. We hoped participants would lose themselves in “play” and, when filmed by drones, a greater whole would be illuminated. The pools of light spilling from each umbrella and overlapping with one another was beautiful.” Yet, even Elizabeth herself will agree, “There was something quite surreal about 1,000 umbrellas on a Southern Californian beach.” The event itself would be seen by visitors watching from nearby cliffs and beachside properties, people gathered on the shore itself and as a film created by drones capturing the spectacle from above.
Once the concept of the commission was established, the next step was to translate it into a workable reality. “Mick Curbishley from Tait Towers recommended Specialz from the outset; he felt they could bring that element of collaboration and understanding to the project that would work for us. From my first conversation with MD Dave Smith I recognised that Dave has an ability to frame the issues so that design decisions would be augmented rather than compromised. That, and Dave’s riotous British humor at 5am PST time; there were many such long conversations!”
Smith himself is more than happy to agree, “Yes, I would like to think it was my bizarre and hilariously funny sense of humour that swung the deal, but I think it was more to do with being proactive, actually listening to what Elizabeth wanted. The brief was to convert one thousand umbrellas, printed with two of Elizabeth’s seashell mandala designs, fitting them with lighting that would illuminate both the shaft and the canopy on separately switched circuits with balanced light levels. Due to the nature and location of the performance, the battery supply needed to last for at least three hours.”
The team at Specialz began with a single prototype and, over a period of some months, this was developed into a production model by February 2018. Smith fills in the details, “Before our first conversation, Elizabeth had already commissioned the canopy containing her artwork and a basic light powered by button batteries that lit the shaft. From the Jpegs and video she supplied, it was pretty obvious that the canopy artwork and the shaft were barely being lit. The first prototype was re-engineered with a larger LED to light the shaft and an LED array at the top of the shaft to light the canopy which immediately addressed the first basic premise of adequate and balanced light levels.”
“Subsequent prototypes then focused on other requirements. The batteries had to last for three hours and be replaceable by drug store batteries, so battery saving technology was developed and a new battery compartment designed to accommodate 3 x AA batteries which are freely available worldwide. We then added two switches so that the shaft and the canopy array could be controlled independently by each volunteer performer. Finally, the aesthetics of the art came in to play, which involved custom made transparent cable to supply the canopy array and finally the end of the handle was shaped into a blunt spike so that it could be sunk into sand on the beach. The last refinement was a hole in the blunt spike to enable a wrist strap to be introduced.”
As the development process had been one of mutual trust and collaboration, Specialz were confident that they were able to deliver a product that far exceeded Elizabeth’s initial expectations. Smith again, “Well over half of the components for the umbrellas had to be custom designed and manufactured with extensive barrel polishing once assembled and finally anodised. Altogether, there were well over 34, 745 components in the one thousand umbrellas. The first shipment went to California by early June 2018 so they could be used for rehearsals and checked for light level evaluation in situ.”
Unlike a number of stage projects where the audience remain relatively distant from the end result – just seeing the effect it is creating, these umbrellas needed to work on a far more intimate level. “The umbrellas were part of an art exhibit and, as such, as an art piece itself, it was important that people could see the engineering close up and to be able to touch and feel the unit; it had to work on several different planes. Visually artistic, tactile to the touch, simple practicality and of course, it had to work for three hours and function without fail! There was also no planned obsolescence in this project. The umbrellas were meant to be a keepsake for a special piece of performance art and were given away to the volunteers after the performance and had to work for more than one successive battery changes.”
Final rehearsals took place in October and Dave Smith flew out to Laguna Beach to oversee the umbrellas deployment for himself. “I went out as it was a brave and almost audacious idea to have a unique piece of performance art on a public beach in California. I also wanted to support Elizabeth and the team as it was their first foray into this level of performance art. I took out spares and jigs in case I had to repair any of the umbrellas. Thankfully, it was not required.”
“From the first introductory email from Mickey Curbishley, looking online at her portfolio and range of sculptures which are truly breath-taking to our first phone call, I knew it was a project that I’d like to get involved with. Elizabeth knew what she wanted and explained it in terms of the art she wanted to see. Translating that into a final design was a pleasant breath of fresh air from some enquiries. It was an absolute pleasure working with Elizabeth and her team. All were motivated and enthusiastic and the performance benefited from that commitment.”
“More and more we’re getting asked to apply our skills and expertise to either Public Art commissions, Abstract Exhibition pieces or to repair old art pieces as we are an approved contractor for Tate Modern,” concludes Smith.
Specialz were able to utilise their combined experience of over two hundred years in creating unique design pieces for Film, Television and Concert Touring productions. Bringing that sizeable back catalogue of work to the table provides the client with the confidence to trust the process Specialz offers as Elizabeth Turk confirms, “Interfacing with an engineering team, let alone manufacturers, is always problematic. This time I forgot the hurdles and allowed myself the luxury of pure creativity. Specialz input was more than significant; the elements had to work perfectly. There was no room for error with a single umbrella. We had one night, a single performance, to achieve the effect. Creating the impossible has been my forte; Dave and his team didn't let us down. The result was a magical evening set against a beautiful Californian sunset and I’m really glad that Specialz were part of that commitment.”