The Guardian G2 26.02.04
How does this field of lights work?
The 1301 fluorescent tubes are powered only by the electric fields
generated by overhead powerlines.
Richard Box, artist-in-residence at Bristol University’s
physics department, got the idea for the installation after a chance
conversation with a friend. ‘He was telling me he used to
play with a fluorescent tube under the pylons by his house,’ says
Box. ‘He said it lit up like a light sabre.’
Box decided to see if he could fill a field with tubes lit
by powerlines. After a few weeks hunting for a site,
he found a
the local farmer £200 and planted 3,600 square metres
with tubes collected from hospitals.
A fluorescent tube glows when an electrical voltage is set
up across it. The electric field set up inside the tube excites
mercury gas, making them emit ultraviolet light. This invisible
light strikes the phosphor coating on the glass tube, making
it glow. Because powerlines are typically 400,000 volts,
is at an electrical potential voltage of zero volts, pylons
electric fields between the cables they carry and the ground.
Box denies that he aimed to draw attention to the potential
dangers of powerlines, ‘For me, it was just the amazement of taking
something that’s invisible and making it visible,’ he
says. ‘When it worked, I thought: ‘This is amazing.’’
Daily Mail, Letters Page, 21.02.2004
Tall and short story
often heard of the phenomenon of fluorescent tubes glowing when placed below
power lines (Mail) but have never witnessed
I was one of the team
who built the pylon shown. Working for BICC (now part of Balfour
Beatty) in the sixties,
the huge pylons that supported the cables feeding the national
These varied in height between 150 and 210ft, and weighed
up to 50 tons each, depending on the type.
The pylon shown in the photograph is not typical, but one
of a handful specially designed at reduced height for use
the 400 KV line came near the flight path to Bristol International
The cables may be lower than normal, and there are certainly
more of them than would normally be the case.
Higher Education Supplement 20.02.2004
Physicists pylon the praise for artist's insight
It is only as the sun sets that the collaboration between installation
artist Richard Box and Bristol University's physics department
comes to life.
A sea of household fluorescent tubes lights up around an overhead
power line close to the M4 motorway, giving substance to the
otherwise unnoticed electrical field that permeates the
The work, dubbed Field, was inspired by Bristol physicists'
pioneering work on the effects of magnetic and electrical
fields on human
Mr Box has spent the last year working at the department. He
mostly collaborated with its glass blower to create art from
But he also talked to Denis Henshaw, professor of human radiation
effects, whose research has inspired an investigation by the
National Radiological Protection Board.
I wanted to describe what happened within the field," Mr Box
said. "There is always a power loss along any overhead
power line, and the fluorescent tubes- all 1,301 of them- make
loss visible. The result has surpassed all my expectations."
Professor Henshaw praised the artwork. "It is very hard to
explain to the public what these fields are- that's the beauty
of Richard's work," he said.
" To have an artist make something about quite specific physics in
an artistic way is inspiring to us"
The amount of light emitted by the tubes varies according to
the weather, and the presence of someone walking among them
those tubes near them into temporary darkness.
The Bristol physicists will visit Field for a private view
Physics Department at the University of Bristol has played
host to a number of artist residencies. In 2002 artist, Richard
Box was awarded a Leverhulme Grant to become the department's
third artist in residence. Whilst the starting point for other
artists has varied, Richard's main interest was in the specialist
glass blowing workshop that is integrated alongside the rest
of the physics research activities. His interest in glass has
always required him to have objects made by others, this residency
offered him the chance to begin to learn how to develop his
own glass blowing skills and so have greater authority over
his own work. The highly skilled glass blower based at the
University makes specific glassware for all the science department's
needs. John Rowden was enthusiastic to pass on his knowledge
and to work closely with an artist who was interested not only
in learning these skills, but to re interpret some of the functions
of what are primarily very beautiful looking objects. The influence
of glass on all aspects of scientific discovery should not
be underestimated, from the lens to the test tube, from the
liquid helium dewar to the optical fibre.
represents a considerable development in Richard's work, whilst
previous projects have included ambiguous glass objects much
of the outcome has been photographic. FIELD is a major undertaking
which will include the installation of several thousand ready-
made glass fluorescent tubes. The bulbs will be 'planted' across
the site at the foot of an electricity pylon, and will pick
up the waste emission from the overhead power line. The piece
is simple yet spectacular, making visible what would otherwise
go unnoticed. The FIELD of tubes will flicker into life across
the hillside as the early evening light fades. The performance
each evening is hard to anticipate since it is heavily dependent
on the weather. In all the best traditions of land art it is
conditional on the variations of the great outdoors, and requires
its audience to be patient. Here a parallel can be struck between
FIELD and Walter DeMaria's, Lightning Field sited in the Nevada
Desert - many visitors travel for days to see it, camp beside
it and are lucky if they experience the sort of storm that
will make the lightning dance across the 'field' of conductors.
Box is specific about the best time to visit FIELD, and, as
you leave your car at the car park just off the M4 (see information
on how to locate the piece) you embark upon the 10 minute walk
so starting your experience of the work. There is something
of the demonic 'end of the rainbow'; we see giant rows of pylons
across the countryside but how often do we make the journey
to stand at any proximity to them, pitting our scale against
these great architectural forms and the comparative vastness
of the landscape.
From this site we discover that we have been guided to the top of a hill
from where we can see west out across Bristol and towards Wales across
the Severn Estuary, always reminded that, although we feel as though we
are in the 'country', in the background we can hear the continual murmur
of the traffic on the M4 and the drama of the pylon.
University of Bristol
University News Issue 19 April 2003
light of physics
certain nights in the past couple of years, at the top of
a hill near Skenfrith in Wales, unwary walkers close to the pylons
been confronted with an unsettling sight: a solitary, quiet
glowing brain, complete with spine, suspended just above the
apparition is the work of Richard Box, Artist in Residence in
the Department of Physics, and has its origins in a rumour about
overhead power lines. 'So I jumped into a van with some bulbs,
found some pylons, and tried it. And they lit up.'
Brighton-born artist, who moved to Bristol in 1995 to join Spike
Island Artspace, was intrigued and began experimenting underneath
the power lines. 'I was getting two-millimetre arcs between my
fingers and the tubes,' he says. 'At moments like that, I'd start
thinking, "Okay, I should go home now".'
contacted a fellow artist who specialised in glass-blowing and
outlined a few of his ideas - including one for a long neon tube
bent into the shape of a human brain. He took the result back
to the welsh hillside, placed it under the pylons and made a
series of timed camera exposures.
very impressed', says Professor Henshaw, whose study of the health
effects of close proximity to power lines is internationally
recognised. 'It's very creative and it illustrates graphically
lines do indeed have these electrical fields around them. Even
when the bulbs are on the way out, and start flashing or flickering
in their sockets, they still light up under the power lines.'
Richard became the Department's Artist in Residence and began
learning the techniques of glass-blowing in the Glass Workshop.
'The idea is to leave a permanent commission here,' says Richard,
'but also to enliven discussion and art and science.'
an interactive element to all this, too, if you go to the site
itself. 'You affect the lights by your proximity', says Richard,
'because you're a much better conductor than a glass tube. And
there's sound as well as light - a crackling that corresponds
to the flashing of the lights. There's a certain smell too, and
your hair stands slightly on end.'
him we should have a national event where everybody does this
across the country, like the Jubilee chain of bonfires', says
Professor Henshaw, 'but there is an element of risk to this -
I'm not sure we'd want to encourage children to do it.' Richard
has plans to do an installation in Wales that would be open to
small numbers of people, but the logistics and the legal considerations
have yet to be worked out.
for the post ran out in mid-March, but Richard is still getting
to grips with the craft of glass-blowing. 'This is a labour of
love.' he explains. 'I can see it carrying on for quite a while.'
Art at Taurus Crafts. July 2003
possible dangers from overhead power lines are an environmental
issue that has come under the scrutiny of Bristol-based artist
example, whilst Artist in Residence for a year at Bristol University,
he amassed large numbers of fluorescent lighting tubes from hospitals
and institutions around Bristol. The tubes were arranged in a
field and near to overhead power lines. The electromagnetic emissions
caused the tubes to glow in a way that was markedly affected
by the position and proximity of spectators. The work vividly
brought to public attention, in a creative and interactive way,
how the effects of scientific and technological developments
can sometimes remain hidden.
work typically exhibits a fusion of science, art and nature and
during his residency at Taurus in December 2002 he explored ways
of harnessing the wind coming across the flood plain of the River
Severn. In the same way he had used discarded fluorescent tubes
at Bristol, at Taurus he planned to use discarded satellite dishes
to produce outdoor kinetic light sculptures. These would appear
as luminous objects, which by their movement suggests floating
pulsating spheres of light.
article in the New Scientist described a fresh theory for the
phenomenon of ball lightning.The suggestion that ‘fulgurites’ (hollow
glass tubes formed when lightning strikes the ground, melting
the surrounding soil) play a part in the birth of fire balls
was intriguing and gave rise to the name From Fulgurite, for
his installations at Taurus. By fascinating coincidence, at an
illustrated talk Richard gave about his work a member of the
audience recalled how he had indeed been witness to ball lightning
at Ruardean and how it was a relatively common occurrence at
sculptures, by the nature of the effect they wished to explore,
are sited on the roadside field at Taurus. His approach was to
first build several maquettes that acted as working models on
the technical side, whilst also giving a three dimensional indication
of their eventual appearance. Many technical aspects had to be
considered. Could satellite dishes be cut to form revolving vanes
and provide sufficient power to a geared dynamo to produce sufficient
electricity to light fluorescent tubes along their perimeter
and to give the pulsating light effect he sought? This would
require sourcing re-claimed components, and only actual trials
would establish whether the theory would work in practice. In
tests, the bearings reduced the efficiency to an extent that
prohibited the use of this technique. With time slipping by,
Richard decided to investigate an alternative solution.
end he scrapped the use of actual satellite dishes in favour
of the lighter hollow tubular rings which formed the mounts for
the dishes. The resulting structure took on the appearance of
an anemometer. Instead of using fluorescent tubes to provide
the glow-like effect of a fireball, Richard experimented with
different paints - paints that would fluoresce in the ambient
light levels of the roadside site. It is at dusk that the three ‘balls’ that
make up From Fulgurite take on their glowing nature.
Richard has created an artwork called Rods and Cones. Throughout
the car park, and on the entrance road to Taurus, he has mounted
hundreds of pairs of coloured glass marbles on wooden stakes.
Their back hemispheres have all been silvered using an aluminium
coating. At night, when car headlights fall on the marbles, they
reflect back giving the impression of nocturnal animals waiting
in groups to take over the night shift.
in the area of bio-genetics, proposes to allow us to understand
our bodies like never before. And while it is true that we now
have biological encoding and systems in place to better read
the body, the process has been one of de-corporeaisation. The
body is back in bits and pieces, as it was before the illusionary
moment of modern unity. Genetics overturns the concept of any
Ideal-I because it proves beyond doubt that the body is a complex
inner cosmos of endless propositions squeezed inside an opaque
yet fragile vessel.
Box's neon brains emerging from their cabinets and jiving away
in response to sound stimulus seem to
link us back to the
weird science of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and send us ahead to
the "Tomorrow land" of bio-technologies where the body
may become redundant.
Accompanied by a sequence of black and white photographs that
show the artist shaking microchips out of his head, Bow seems to
literally begin to unravel before our eyes. It is as if he wishes
to be rid of the mortal, fleshy body, in favour of a new model,
still in production. An enhanced technology of being that can withstand
the jolts and jumps of life.
same questions the attended Mary Shelly's controversial novella
will continue to be asked. What constitutes the self, the soul,
the mortal body? Is it possible, or even desirable that technology
and genetics can work together to redesign the human body? What
are the consequences of this knowledge and its implementation?
Science has made the body into a territory of ethical inquiry as
it fragments more and more the sense of the completed self. We
have entered the age of the mechanics of being, where new meaning
attends the existential proposition of being and nothingness.