As if the GLOW light-up art festival wasn’t electrifying enough, this year one performance group will go high-voltage. By Gillian Drummond.
The idea came to Carl Noggle in high school in Prescott, Arizona back in 1958. He and some science-loving friends had constructed their own Tesla coils based on instructions in an old book. Some “cool” experiments and a few 4-feet-long sparks later, they had another thought: what if they could somehow work a human body into it, and have the high-voltage, low-current electrical circuit make sparks jump off people’s fingertips?
The idea stayed with him for decades as he went on to become an electronic engineer, designing equipment for lightning research, setting up his own consultancy, The Lightning Works, and putting on educational shows at schools and museums.
And then technology finally caught up with Carl’s brilliant notion, and suddenly it seemed possible that he might jump a person with up to half a million volts.
While other performers – including the magician David Blaine – can pass electricity through themselves by wearing a heavy chain mail suit, Carl calls the suits “cumbersome”. The technology Carl’s performers use is proprietary and he believes nobody else in the country is using it for artistic purposes. All he’ll say is that it’s like having a set of electrical conductors under your costume, and it’s hidden enough that his performers can wear whatever outfits they like.
Wendy Craft, one of Carl’s performers, says the experience doesn’t hurt; after all, it’s not like the electricity is passing through her, it’s passing through her conductive ‘suit’. “Sometimes you feel the energy. It’s like an itch or a tickle. And when I get down [from the coil] I’ll be tired.”
Circus Amperean, the group Carl has formed, has been one of the finale acts at the All Souls Procession in Tucson for the last three years, and performs regularly on Friday nights at Sky Bar. This month, for the first time, the group will join almost a hundred other artists at the tenth annual GLOW, a two-day light-up art festival at the Triangle L Ranch in Oracle, an hour north of Tucson.
The festival is always timed to be as close to the September full moon as possible. Artists and performers are asked to come up with something that glows. Visitors, who are encouraged to wear glow-in-the-dark costumes (and sensible footwear), are treated to illuminated art, fire dancers and live music.
Artist Sharon Holnback, the owner of the ranch, got the idea for GLOW while taking a walk one day along one of the desert paths on her expansive property. “I thought, what would be the most unexpected thing you would expect out here? I’ve always liked things with lights. I love luminarias. It kind of combined for me all the things that I loved about the place: the desert at night, the full moon, it was fun, it was artists.”
At the time, Sharon was still missing city life; she had moved to the ranch in 2000, after running two art galleries in midtown Tucson. So she decided to bring the artists, and the art, up to her in Oracle. She asked her artist friends to come up with illuminated art and charged the public $5 at the door. That first year, 500 people showed up, from Tucson and from the town of Oracle itself.
“After that, everywhere I went, [people were talking about] GLOW. It sparked something in people and I think that’s still true because it’s a really out-of-the-ordinary experience,” says Sharon.
Up to 200 artists, musicians and performers have taken part in the past. This year, Sharon is keeping it to under a hundred performers and, for the first time, is supplying shuttle buses from Tucson Mall. Also new this year is free, off-site parking in Oracle and free shuttles to the front gate of the ranch (see link below for details).
The acts perform for free, and proceeds go to the ranch, a 50-acre, six-parcel place consisting of twelve buildings, including vacation rental cottages, a barn that has been converted into an art gallery, and a gift shop. “I’m into sharing this place with people. But between the repairs and maintenance, I’m never making any money here,” says Sharon.
GLOW is a draw not just for Tucsonans, but for the people of the small town of Oracle. As such, it has created a close bond between Sharon and her neighbors. After a raid by Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and subsequent investigation, when GLOW was in its third year, Sharon had her doubts about continuing. Sheriffs questioned her special event permit (Sharon maintains all that was needed was a verbal permit, which she had). Everyone was forced to vacate the premises just an hour into the event.
At a community meeting that took place in Oracle between the Sheriff’s Department and the public, Sharon was bowled over by the public’s support. She tears up now talking about it. “It was packed. They quizzed [the police representative] for over an hour, saying ‘What are we going to tell our grandkids? How are we going to tell them to trust the police?’ I thought, ‘This is my community and they are awesome’,” says Sharon.
The show went on, and today, Sharon promises that GLOW will happen, come rain or shine. Sometimes the rain has been so heavy that people have been wading, Woodstock-like, through mud. There have been instances when musicians couldn’t perform, when outlets were saturated with water. She has even seen her festival through tornado warnings. And she admits that every GLOW she, her ranch staff and the volunteers who help, cut it close. “It’s always down to the wire, and I’m always crazy at the end,” she says.
Sharon’s hope is that she can extend the GLOW idea around the year, to have a sculpture park at the ranch that is open to the public, and to maximize the ranch’s use of solar so that she doesn’t even use much electricity. “It could be GLOW twenty-four hours a day,” she smiles.
Joining Circus Amperean as GLOW first-timers this year will be the The Jonestown Band, and a group of students from the Southwest University of Visual Arts. The latter is planning to construct a lit, swaying, tentacled sea anemone made from water bottles. Metal artist Rand Carlson will be at GLOW for the second time, this year with what you might call a literally bipolar piece of art: two 6-foot rods that take turns lighting up saying ‘Did too’ and ‘Did not’.
Rand says he finds creating something electrical a challenge, but in a good way. “I think GLOW is considered to be an edgy [arts] festival. It’s exciting in terms of its parameters.”
“That’s the part I love, is dealing with the artists. That’s the curator part – the presentation, where is that person going to go?” says Sharon. For her part, she has been producing her own pieces of artwork that will be on display in the barn/gallery. These include black and white photographs mounted on colored glass, then airbrushed, and an installation piece with CCTV footage of desert critters at its nucleus.
“GLOW is a three-ring circus,” says Sharon. “No-one is going to have the same experience.” But she is sure about one thing: “It’s a chance for adults to be kids.”
* The tenth annual GLOW takes place September 20th and 21st, 7pm-11pm, at Triangle L Ranch, 2805 N. Triangle L Ranch Road, Oracle. More information, including shuttle bus details, here.
* Listen to our radio feature on GLOW, in association with NPR 89.1 FM.