Boughton House
East Midlands

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”.[1]

“With the destruction of history, contemporary events themselves retreat into a remote and fabulous realm of unverifiable stories, uncheckable statistics, unlikely explanations and untenable reasoning”.[2]

Guy Debord

The last weekend of February and first weekend of March 2012 saw HERO installed in the grounds of the Grade I listed park and home of the Duke of Buccleuch; Boughton House, Kettering.

This was the latest site-specific artwork as part of FLOW, which, according to it’s own publicity, is the “flagship project within the 2011 Igniting Ambition Festival in Northamptonshire and part of the Cultural Olympiad in the East Midlands”.[3] This allegedly takes the “London 2012 Games as their inspiration to create once-in-a-lifetime cultural opportunities for audiences and communities”.[4]

Sadly it was an experience, a lived experience that I hope does only occur once in my lifetime. The official story says otherwise, and as Debord knew, this false spectacle will be all that remains.

HERO was already described in the press release in advance of the actual lived event as an “exquisite laser-light art installation by acclaimed British artist and NESTA Fellow Jo Fairfax and team”.[5] The piece consisted of a series of green laser beams placed in close proximity to the River Ise, which passes through the grounds of Boughton House, becoming canalised by the 300 year old landscaping of the Dutch gardener Van der Meulen. The press release explains, “We felt that the potential relationship between the formal canalised river and the straight lines of the lasers would create a quietly stunning resonance“.[6]

Making my way towards the installation, and viewing from various points along the river, I waited patiently for something quietly stunning to occur. The quietness was interrupted by the HERO team who played, fiddled or otherwise adjusted the beams – often quite brusquely. Although well within the advertised event start time, this had the hallmarks of a dress rehearsal. But as the evening progressed it became clear that this was it. There was no stunning resonance. In fact the only shared moment of significance for our apparently inspired audience was the noise from a flock of geese flying overhead, reminiscent of the flying ducks on Hilda Ogden’s wall, except alarmed like the rest of us at what the green laser beams were doing there.

It would only be fair to criticise the installation (which I’ll come to) from the perspective of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, if I accept that for me the event itself was affected by the prior knowledge, or at least the prior promise, of the press release. In truth, I imagine the installation would have been quite intriguing for the unaware to stumble upon by chance, whatever the geese may think.

But this was prevented from happening as unlike Fairfax’s previous FLOW installation, 180° of Light, a laser installation linking water towers in Rothwell, Desborough and Corby, and viewable from several places in between; this was on the Duke’s private land, and almost impossible to see from beyond it. In fact had the group I was visiting with not had over 100 years worth of collective knowledge as to the whereabouts of the entrance to Boughton House, the signage was so poor that it is unlikely we would have seen anything. The effect was an unsatisfactory compromise between not being able to stumble upon the installation if you didn’t already know about it, and being frustrated if you did.

It’s questionable that publically funded cultural opportunities for audiences and communities should take place on private grounds in these circumstances, and is probably beyond the scope of this review. But it certainly lends support to the scallies nicking Henry Moore’s off private estates, melting them down to something the majority of the population will then actually experience[7].

There have been significant participatory art works and events during the FLOW commissions, and one wonders what previously commissioned artist Charles Monkhouse could have done in the grounds with the beautiful starlit night. The choice to recommission Jo Fairfax can perhaps be explained away by the blokish comments passed between the 180° team unashamedly on the FLOW website[8]. Unsurprisingly the resulting HERO, devoid of any real value despite the over reaching press release, had the sense of boys playing with their toys on a grand scale.

At this point I should make a concession that at first glance may appear hypocritical, but actually goes on to clarify quite what was wrong with HERO. As the installation lost my attention the clear, star-filled night became far more appealing, at which point I turned my back to the laser beams and viewed the night sky through an App on my Smartphone. As I played, locating Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Ursa Minor, the alignment of Van der Meulen’s garden took on more significance: the Ise made to run almost perfectly from North to South. The astrology of HERO by contrast would suggest that the only thing rising was from Uranus.

Any augmented reality device, such as the Smartphone, by definition requires a real life to augment. Successful AR technology can and does enhance the moment. But HERO didn’t enhance the moment or the location. And the subsequent representation of the event is only a virtual reality, replacing the real world with a simulation, yet passing it off as one and the same. A false reality.

The small audience in attendance consisted mainly of members of a local camera club. The result was a plethora of stunning images of the event lived through the lens of a camera, through long exposures and the photo opportunity as Boughton House momentarily lit itself up, only to plunge back into darkness once the moment for camera had passed. The actual lived experience by contrast was far less exciting. This was installation for photograph.

Walter Benjamin remarked that art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently become based on the practice of politics, as the means of production destroyed the authority of art.[9] This is heightened in the age of electronic reproduction and the Internet. The artificial images of HERO are already circulated and the (non) event as it was, forgotten. This is the trap that initiatives such as Google Art Project[10] and Culture Cloud[11] fall into. Instead of web-based works existing within and revealing the limitations of that domain, they present real world artwork online as if it were authentic, cheapening the authority of the real world.

But in the public realm participation has to be genuine unless we are all to live on planet Google, abiding by her laws rather than understanding the world through our own verifiable experience. If this is what is in store for us with future FLOW commissions, it is time to turn off the tap.

Gerald Wiley

[1] Debord, G (1995). The Society of the Spectacle, Translated by Nicholson-Smith, D. New York: Zone Books. p12.

[2] Debord, G (2011). Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Translated by Imrie, M. 3rd ed. London: Verso. p13.

[3] Callister, G. (2011). About FLOW. Available:

Last accessed 26th February 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Northamptonshire County Council, 2012. FLOW – HERO. Press release, 16th February 2012.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Townsend, M. and Davies, C. (2009). Mystery of the stolen Moore solved. Available: Last accessed 26th February 2012.

[8] Callister, G. (2011). WOW!. Available: Last accessed 26th February 2012.

[9] Walter Benjamin (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Translated by Underwood, J. A. London: Penguin.

[10] Google. (2012). Google Art Project. Available:

Last accessed 29th March 2012.

[11] New Art Exchange. (2012). Culture Cloud. Available:

Last accessed 29th March 2012.