Victoria Park, 1984

Burning down the house. It was in 1560 that European chemists managed to make gunpowder as explosive as possible by experimenting with the ratios of the ingredients. The final proportion was set as follows: Salt Peter 75%; Charcoal 15%; Sulphur 10%. The Chinese named this black powder ‘huo yao’ – Fire Chemical. We might blame Marco Polo for exporting it to the West. The philosopher and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was one of the first Europeans to study gunpowder. He wrote “…if you light it you will get thunder and lightening if you know the trick…”  These tricks soon transformed the art of war. In search of better entertainments, in the 1830’s Italian pyrotechnicians added colour to fireworks with chlorinated powder and metallic salts (strontium = red, barium = green, copper = blue, sodium = yellow). They found that by using potassium chlorate as an oxidiser, then hues became so much brighter. So began the development of fireworks as a particular art form.

One of the early community arts groups, Free Form Arts Trust, were founded in 1969 in London by three painters, Martin Goodrich, Barbara Wheeler-Early and Jim Ives. The group was originally called Visual Systems, but as they became noted for their Free Form Fun Events, which included elaborate fireshows with large puppetry style figures, they changed their name. Another influential group, Welfare State International, were founded in 1968 by John Fox, a lecturer at Bradford College of Art, Sue Gill and dozen teachers and students. Their prototypes of fireshows, community lantern parades and site-specific celebratory events were copied globally.

In May 1984, Jubilee Arts worked with Cultural Partnerships from Hackney (a group which had recently split away from Freeform) to create a community fireshow in Victoria Park, Smethwick. It was the first event of its kind in the Midlands. Instead of the traditional Green Man, who often appears ritually at Spring Festivals, Sandwell had the Green Monster of Apathy and Depression to deal with. Constructions were made over the course of six weeks with various groups in the borough, then burnt to the ground in little over 60 minutes. Auto-destructive art.

Note: Community Art: An Anthropological Perspective, by Kate Crehan, published in 2011, looked at the history of Freeform.