The Helios project

helios pic1 Helios 3A sonification installation of visceral beauty, power and rhythm.

This is an idea I have wanted to do for some time and was realised as an ‘Enchanted Parks’, Gateshead commission at the end of 2014 with great response. 

This monumental piece of laboratory equipment represents a curved slice of the sun animated with flame. Adapted for modern technology,    Helios can be controlled directly by data supplied by NASA or from drum and midi programs to produce constantly evolving beat patterns and loops. Coronal mass ejections thump and screech as filigrees of flame roll and pulse across a twenty metre arc of steel apparatus.

Helios consist of over 50 individual propane gas flame heads of varying sizes and effect, is capable of running constantly for hours and is our imposing and exciting new work for 2015.

Now for a bit of geek stuff:

I have designed a sub program in MAX to run along side Ableton Live to decode data from NASA or any other audio or analogue input to create MIDI notes, which then control the rig. I can now play this flaming monster like a delicate instrument and open up the controls to the audience through Wii, XBOX 360 and iPAD.


Photo: Richard Kenworthy  Enchanted Parks 2014 – co-commissioned by NewcastleGateshead Initiative and Gateshead Council and produced by Pinwheel.

New characters for the Prometheus installation

Following a small hiatus with the tweaking and finessing planned for Prometheus’ Garden, I am now designing new machine follies to add to the installation. Much thought has been devoted to the future manifestation of this project,  how it mutates from the original performance showcase with its traditional narrative line, how the idea of an abstracted and textural approach will work with an audience and where to have the project seen

It is clear to me that, for the performance to work with an abstracted narrative and to avoid esoteric form, the project requires venues that will contextualise and augment the industrial dream garden. Parks and fields will not do, this show will need the factory court yard, industrial museum, derelict factory art gallery makeover, it is designed to be an intimate show on a grand scale, to impose itself on a town or city square and disrupt the normal flow of the space.

I will post another article shortly, with a fresh outline for the project. In the mean time here are a few drawings of the next set of machines.

I need a trusted producer! Anybody out there interested?


Prometheus evaluation

Overall, the projects development and performance execution went very well, raising some important questions and discoveries regarding collaboration and rehearsing schedules.

Several useful discoveries were made as to the blending of traditional theatre practice and the creation of outdoor spectacle and performance, in combination with heavy use of faux industrial machinery inspired by the 19th century, intricate and tentative digital controls and under rehearsed performers and production team.

The main lesson is to work with the correct budget and enable enough time to work the story, devise the sequences and get the cues nailed. Time and money and not work and talent frustrated the final process of realising the show to our most perfect vision. However, this showcase/tryout performance was always to be regarded as an experimental event and great effort by all involved also created a wonderful performance, enjoyed by 500 guests and public.

The support from ACE enabled the show to be manufactured and technically produced in its fullest form; the funding has enabled this project to continue to develop towards a touring production. This first phase of Prometheus’ Garden has pushed the company’s work in new and confident ways with technologies, atmospheres and storytelling.

To conclude; Prometheus’ Garden was a great success, being well attended, attracting interest from several cultural festivals (Halifax, Bestival, Glastonbury). The company introduced 4 individuals into our way of working, providing experience through team inclusion on the site setup and production of the performance. Future development for touring is certain, with more energy concentrated on technical and performance rehearsals.

I would like to thank all who gave their support and worked so hard, put up with me and accepted reduced remuneration for long days and short nights.

They are (in no particular order):

  • Delphine Sayre
  • Louis Nicholson
  • Alan Lane
  • Lucy Hind
  • Rob Hill
  • Luke Burgess
  • Mickey Bimble
  • Brett Ward
  • Andy Smith
  • Dave Mason
  • Brett Womersley
  • Sarah Jane Palmer
  • Al Orange
  • Raise The Roof
  • Elsecar Heritage Railway
  • 52nd Street
  • Barnsley Council
  • Arts Council England

The Prometheus setup and tryout show

Many thanks to all of you who attended the first Prometheus Garden performance. Despite a limited budget and rehearsal time and the help of fantastic weather the show was a great success with many aspects of the production identified for further development and tweaking. We have had enthusiastic expressions of interest for next years festival season and work will start early next year to improve, change and finesse the project.

Prometheus was an experiment in what could be achieved by combining the many activities of both myself, the company team and collaboration with Slung Low. A very worth while project was realized, with a great opportunity to go further and attract attention from festivals and event. A lot of thanks goes to the Ex Com team, Slung Low, Elsecar Heritage Railway , Barnsley Council, Raise the Roof, 52nd Street and the Arts Council for their dedication, hard work and belief in the original idea.

Attached are some site preparation and show shots. I will be posting further images and video of the show as soon as they are back to us and will produce a touring information package in December.

Prometheus’ Garden final preparation

The show is finally complete. All music, lighting, Midi, pyrotechnic and performer cues are finished and the sculptures and set are painted and tested. We are now looking forward to good weather and a big audience for this unique and exciting premiere performance.

Prometheus’ Garden is an exciting world premiere combining giant mechanical sculptures, fireworks, video and pyrotechnics.

A simple story of one man’s struggle to fill a world of silence and darkness; a story of how far someone will go in order to avoid being alone.
Join us in a world of huge metal beasts, where flames shoot towards the moon and dark, industrial soundscapes echo in your ears.
Prometheus’ Garden is the pinnacle of External Combustion’s decades of experience creating spectacles. It’s years and years of skill concentrated into the singular endeavour of telling you a story about a man who imagined not being alone. And the consequences for all of us in his vision.

Created by Doug Nicholson of External Combustion
with Slung Low, Mickie Bimble and the External Combustion team
Performed by Mickie Bimble
In partnership with Barnsley Live, Arts Council England, 52nd Street and Raise The Roof.

The making of the Tattooed Truck

The Tattooed Truck was such a labour of love and took the best part of two years to complete, in between other projects that I feel it needs a place within this Blog.

Inspired by vintage Showman vehicles and our pyro/video shows, such as Pyromancy, we decided to build a vehicle front of house for festivals and perform “Pyromancy” or the flame machine installations from a psychedelic antique vehicle, within the audience space.

The 61 year old Austin was coach built from the chassis up and had every mechanical part overhauled, plus the fitting of a modern Bio diesel engine. The images take you on a progress from start to finish and end with the wonderful paint work by Sheffield wall artist Phlegm.

Tattooed Truck has gone on to act as FOH for External Combustion projects at Glastonbury festival and numerous celebratory events in the UK.

Arts Council Funding approved

I am very pleased to announce that we were successful in getting support from the Arts Council for the development of Prometheus. The mechanical set builds are well under way and should be completed for the next phase of the projects development in August. Pictures to follow and a bit more detail when I get the chance.

Prometheus’ Garden

Homunculus complete

Prometheus’ Garden is a performance/installation project, which uses as inspiration and metaphor, the myth of Prometheus. In Greek mythology the best understood story is that Zeus punished Prometheus for stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to mankind; for this he was chained to a rock for 1000 years to have his liver pecked out each day by an eagle.

By taking the fire element from the myth as a metaphor for technology and the garden as a symbol of the world and mindset we now inhabit, we intend to produce an installation piece that will operate as a mechanical sculpture garden during daylight and then morph into a full blown, multi media performance after dark.

The show does not aim to retell the Prometheus myth in a modern form, but more importantly provide an allegory for our modern times, offering a mirror to the spectator and articulating ideas of change both social and environmental. We live in a unique period of human history, where mass consumption is both encouraged to maintain economic and social stability and discouraged to protect our habitat. The show will both create wonder and beauty and offer poetic, dark and playful narrative to modern issues of mankind’s relationship to technology and dependency on energy, without inculcation or dogma.

The showcase will be produced on the 13th October 2012 at Elsecar Industrial Heritage Centre, we expect to invest the show with the companies technical resources and generous quantities of pyrotechnic and combustible consumables to create the most fully realised performance possible for our audience.

The Homunculus is finished! This machine is one of two main characters that combine to become the flame and fire section of the performance. Work is now underway on the ‘Chariot’ build, this machine is complex in its movements and houses part of the video projection equipment.

Chariot gear box detail

Design  and maquette making has started on all the other  main elements for the installation and show. We have plans to build a giant Orrery, Flame Engine, Oracle platform for the performer and an hydraulic Telescope, more on these later, along with news on our funding bids for the project.