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Shedding light on Tyneside heritage

Shedding light on Tyneside heritage

It may bring to mind the light display used to contact aliens in Steven Spielberg's film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the new art installation on the river Tyne celebrates more earthly technology. The 12 eight-metre columns, fitted with blue and white LED lights, have been installed at Hebburn Riverside Park with the intention of celebrating South Tyneside's industrial heritage.

The artwork, called Flash@Hebburn, gives out sequences of lights that evoke the flashes and sparks produced by coal mining, shipbuilding, steelworks, generating electricity and other heavy industries that in the past dominated the banks of the Tyne and Wear rivers.

The artist behind the piece, Charles Quick, was first inspired by a visit to the British Short Circuit Testing Station in Hebburn in 2001, when he was invited to watch a series of experiments that developed ways to control massive arcs of electricity. "It was a formative experience as 10-metre streaks of lightning were produced," he says. "I was left with the feeling of the bang in my chest and the smell of ozone in my nostrils."

Over the next few years, Quick researched the town's industries, from the shipyards, which locals told him looked like "firework night every night" because of the arc welders, to the coke works, which one resident described as looking like a "dragon's mouth". He realised that these industries had become as integral a part of residents' day-to-day life as sirens and buzzers sounded day and night to announce the start and end of shifts.

This is reflected in Quick's artwork - visible more than three miles away in Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead - as it produces 17 different light sequences at different times of the day and year. He says: "For me, the light performs a task and, in Flash, it's a metaphor to represent all those wonderful past industries that Hebburn is so famous for."

The sequences include a special midnight display that will celebrate new year - synchronised with the traditional sounding of ships' sirens on the river - and eight 15-minute sequences that come on automatically at dusk every night.

These were devised with different local groups and individuals, and reflect how they interacted with the piece. For example, a local women's walking group helped him devise a sequence that gives "a sense that the lights are walking up the hill at different speeds", while a local youth group helped create another that was like nightclub strobe lights.

The piece will be a permanent part of the landscape, and Quick hopes it will be used as a focal point for festivals and other local events. Its opening last month attracted 400 locals who brought torches to create a mass flash across the river and into the sky before the lights were switched on.

Quick says: "I wanted to produce something that commemorated the loss of the area's industry, but that had an element of celebration to it."

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