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Ghost project turns the Tour de France into a work of art

THERE are few sights more mesmerising than a panning aerial shot of the Tour de France in full flight through the countryside:

BRIGHT LIGHTS: The project using cyclists builds on the successful Speed Of Light work and will be shown on the opening day of the Tour de France.
BRIGHT LIGHTS: The project using cyclists builds on the successful Speed Of Light work and will be shown on the opening day of the Tour de France.

a kaleidoscopic entity of tightly packed rainbow jerseys bobbing together like salmon valiantly fighting their way upstream. Attempting to capture the magic of that scene is the latest project by Scottish arts charity NVA, Ghost Peloton, which will be staged to mark the grand depart of the world's most famous cycling race in Yorkshire next month.

NVA creative director Angus Farquhar came up with the idea and the piece builds on the success of Speed Of Light, an ambitious choreographed night-time work staged on Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh in 2012. That saw thousands of runners wearing specially designed light suits running around the capital's famous peak. This time around, however, the emphasis will switch to cycling with a 40-strong "peloton" - the French term used to describe the main body of riders in a bicycle race - forming the focal point.

The project marks a collaboration between NVA and Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre in partnership with the national cycling advocacy charity, Sustrans.

Each rider, bike and performer is cleverly illuminated using a bespoke LED light suit that can instantaneously change colour, flash-rate and luminosity. "It basically delineates the joints of the human body and there is a separate control system on each of the bikes so the wheels are animated as well," says Farquhar.

"We can switch colours on the wheels separately to the bodies so you make it look as though people are cycling about on nothing - or that the bikes are moving without riders. You can create illusions between the forms."

Two nights of live performance, which took place at Waides Yard, Leeds, last month as part of the Yorkshire Festival, will be incorporated into a final film to be shown on the opening day of the Tour de France next month.

"We have been filming Ghost Peloton out on the race route as well," says Farquhar. "I did a helicopter shoot on the biggest descent, Buttertubs, with filmmaker Mark Huskisson, who has previously done a lot of work in mountain biking. The idea is to then embed short sequences of that film into the opening day broadcast of the official Tour de France. They will cut between the real peloton on Buttertubs with our helicopter shots of the Ghost Peloton."

According to Farquhar, that in turn will be beamed into homes in 171 countries. "As a piece of public art it could potentially could reach an audience of 180 million," he says. "That is mind-blowing."

Collaborators include Bristol-based flatland BMX rider Josh Briars, who worked alongside choreographer Sharon Watson to help the dancers hone some of the breathtaking moves that "fuses performance cycling with athletic choreography".

Adding his hand to the magic is lighting designer Phil Supple, whose past work includes Electric Glen in East Renfrewshire and transforming the wetlands on the Forth and Clyde Canal at The Helix, which houses sculptor Andy Scott's The Kelpies.

Isle of Bute-based designer James Johnson, meanwhile, has dedicated two years to the challenge of adapting the technology of light suits originally designed for human bodies in Speed Of Light on to road bikes for Ghost Peloton.

While Farquhar stresses there is "no work without the volunteers", not just any old cyclist could rock up on his or her bike and take part.

"We required people who could ride up to the level required of a peloton and it is a very specific set of skills to be able to operate safely at speed," he says. "We have had them coming down Buttertubs at almost 40mph. You hold your breath because it feels so dangerous. It's amazing. It was the same with the running (in Speed Of Light): if people fake it and say they are really good, they endanger others around them."

Speed Of Light continues to receives global acclaim, with performances as far afield as Yokohama docks, Japan, and the Ruhr Valley, Germany. The production has secured bookings up until 2019. "We did it as an ultramarathon in the Ruhr last autumn and that was a fantastically challenging, with seven cities in three nights and running between them," says Farquhar. "It was a remarkable exercise because we drew runners from all over the region - one that has the same population as Scotland."

As a touring concept he believes Speed Of Light and Ghost Peloton could work well in conjunction with one another. "And other sports as well," he says. "It is important it keeps evolving. I can see it, for example, on the half pipe at the Winter Olympics. I think it will work amazingly well on snow because you will get the light reflecting."

Other projects in the pipeline include Island Drift, a fine art photographic work set against the backdrop of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, which is due to debut next year. "That has gone really well," says Farquhar. "We were out there for nine months with the Glasgow-based photographer Alan McAteer. We are hoping to bring that into a gallery context next year."

Close to Farquhar's heart is the restoration of St Peter's Seminary near Cardross, Dunbartonshire, a public scheme that he describes as a culmination of "all the ideas we have developed over the past 21 years with NVA".

The site had been abandoned since the late 1980s, but NVA is six years into its long-term plans to "resuscitate" St Peter's and surrounding Kilmahew Woodlands. Some £5million of funding has been raised, with a further £2m required for completion of the project.

"This year we are in the process of helping to take the asbestos out so it can be made safe, and working on designs with the hope to take those to construction within the next 18 months," he says.

Operating as "the Invisible College", NVA has joined ranks with Glasgow and Edinburgh universities to run public and community events on the site. The ethos is to create a research network linking local people with world-class academics, artists, activists and writers.

"One of the drivers there is to share high quality education with people who could no longer afford to go to university," says Farquhar. "I felt it was one of the real disgraces of modern life that you can be £30,000-£40,000 in debt to study, which turns you into a wage slave really early in life. All of us from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s came through with fully paid-up university education and I like that idea of knowledge being free and something that can be shared in an inspirational setting."

But between now and July 5 - when the Tour de France first stage takes place in Leeds, heading for Harrogate - all thoughts remain consumed by two wheels.

"I think what I like about it most on bikes is that it makes the movement of light itself very poetic," says Farquhar. "It's the beauty of watching light and colour move in space, the abstract quality of the work is really strong."

For more information, see: nva.org.uk

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