GlasGLOW: Parks, commercial events and the pandemic
For the third year in a row, the Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens was the site for a commercial event, GlasGLOW, organised by the Scottish PR and event management company Itison. GlasGLOW is a sound and light extravaganza which aims, through a walk in a well-known public park in the city’s West End, to immerse attendees in a fantasy universe. While the 2019 edition displayed successively different thematic “worlds” focused on diverse topics such as Halloween, aliens, or a Stanger Things-inspired labyrinth, the 2020 edition was focused on the singular theme of superheroes, illustrated by the event’s motto: “the power within”. However, in common with previous editions, the 2020 GlasGLOW led to this popular public park being partially closed off to regular use for more than two weeks, from the end of October to mid-November. Differentiated from previous editions, the 2020 event took place in context of the coronavirus pandemic. At a time when almost all major festive gatherings have been cancelled or largely reframed, GlasGLOW represented an unusual example of an event organised with relatively minor adaptations. For this reason, it is a particularly interesting example of how events in public space can adapt to the conditions associated with the pandemic, but also the various advantages and drawbacks that these types of manifestations have in the current context.
A “socially distant” light show
The GlasGLOW event was able to take place during restricted lockdown measures because it was considered primarily a light and sound show, meaning that it was unlikely to lead to crowds gathering statically in the same way that they would, for example, at a live music event. However, for the event to take place, several adaptations had to be made to ensure compliance with the current public health measures. Like previous years, the event was organised as a circuit in the park, with attendees moving progressively from one attraction to the next. The various attractions were linked together by a loose plot focused on the journey of a superhero, from the origin story to the fight against a “nemesis”. Compared to previous years, all the attractions were more spaced out in order to avoid gatherings, and most of the time was spent walking from one spot to the other. These moments of walking were staged by the event organisers with light arrows projected on the ground to aid navigation. In addition, several public information messages were displayed around the circuit, adapted to the superhero theme (e.g. “Heroes have clean hands”, next to sanitisation stations). Stewards with torchlights were also found along the paths, reminding attendees to keep moving and not settle for any length of time at a specific attraction.
Although a few elements were added to ensure compliance with “socially distant” requirements, the event also lost several features in the process. While the event still looked similar to the 2019 edition, the constraints associated with the pandemic brought two important changes. First, the amount of space needed for people to spread out meant that the circuit was slightly shorter. While the 2019 edition invited guests to wander between nine different worlds, only five steps were available in the 2020 version. Second, some of the affective, experiential dimensions were unavailable in 2020. For example, in 2019 one attraction invited attendees to walk through a series of Christmas lights hanging from a metal structure. However, this tactile dimension didn’t exist in the 2020 version, with that attraction replaced by a simpler walk through a light spiral. However, the commercial orientation of the event stayed largely the same. In this context, GlasGLOW raises questions regarding the benefits and challenges associated with holding commercial events in urban public space in the context of a global pandemic.
The inclusive and exclusive dimensions of a “commercial event”
Over the past few months, many commentators have highlighted how the COVID-19 lockdown measures in place across much of the world has reinforced the need for urban populations to have access to public parks and other greenspaces, to provide space for recreation, relaxation and relief during a particularly stressful period. However, ironically, one of the features of GlasGLOW is that it restricts access to one of Glasgow’s favourite public parks at a time when the public most needs it. During the two-week duration of the event, the Botanic Gardens were closed every day from 4pm, and the installations linked to the event also remained during park opening times. In this context, it is important to understand the impacts of the event on Glasgow’s public spaces and on the ways they are used.
Like the 2019 version, GlasGLOW aimed to re-enchant life in the city and improve perceptions of its public spaces. While the previous year provided insights into fantasy worlds connected to daily life and the city, this year the focus was on bringing hope during the pandemic. Through its attractions, the event conveyed the idea that anyone could be a superhero, because we all have a “power within”, promoting a narrative with explicit links to the fight against COVID-19. The final attraction was very reminiscent of the messages broadcast during the lockdown period: displaying a series of glowing hearts, it was accompanied by a vocal soundtrack which mentioned that “there is a superhero in each of us” and threatened the “nemesis” that “Glasgow heroes will be here to defeat you next time”.
However, this emphasis on the accessibility of the superhero’s mantel has to be balanced by the fact that, paradoxically, the event is not accessible to everyone. Indeed, GlasGLOW is inherently a ticketed commercial event (£18 for the full fare) with revenue generation techniques build into its mode of operation. In addition to the ticket price GlasGLOW eases the means of consumption throughout the visitor experience. First, one of the main attractions consists of heating (and eating) marshmallows on bonfires in a sweet-themed garden. The attraction is dependent on purchasing marshmallows which are charged in addition to the price of the entry ticket. The gardens cannot be accessed without having bought them beforehand. Second, even though the stewards encouraged attendees to move constantly from one attraction to the other, the event is also monetised through the presence of a large food market where attendees are invited to queue to buy produce from various stalls. Even though the organisers mention that these food trucks are from local producers coming from around Glasgow, this also constrain what is allowed during the event: as stated on the event’s website, the counterpart of this presence of vendors is no food or drink from outside is permitted in the park during the visit.
In addition to the event itself, GlasGLOW and commercial events like it have wider consequences beyond the time it is actually operational in the Botanic Gardens. In addition to the attractions housed within the Gardens, spotlights were placed at the entrance of the park to provide a light projection visible in the sky throughout the neighbourhood, mimicking the ones used in comic book series to call for the heroes in town. Moreover, the significant event installation remains in the park during the day, even though some parts are closed off for public view by the organisers.
We know that some of the major concerns expressed by the public about major events taking place in their parks are related to the impact of the build and de-rig of infrastructures which can extend disruption for days and weeks. In the context of GlasGLOW, the park remains open to users throughout the duration of the event but the presence of promotional signage throughout acts as a marketing tool to encourage purchase of tickets. It was interesting to observe the effect of the infrastructures on the practices and behaviour of park users, who constantly interacted with the installations, even if they were not attending GlasGLOW itself. Whereas some people were trying to use the park despite the presence of the attractions, limiting themselves to the paths which remained open, others made use of the presence of the structures to glimpse the event for free, taking pictures of themselves in front of the various displays.
Between providing a dreamscape to lighten the mood in the grim context of the pandemic, an operation of commercialisation/privatisation of public space, and the multiple appropriation it creates, GlasGLOW represents a multifaceted event which provides insights into how the use of public space for commercial events is reframed in COVID times. As a family event held in the middle of a pandemic, it provides an experience enjoyed by many and its light and sound format, which is also used by many other events across the UK, represents a sustainable model in a context where all major gathering are prevented. In addition, being held at night certainly reduces the extent of its disruption to the park and its regular users. Nevertheless, the case of GlasGLOW raises further questions about the (partial) closure of public parks to make way for commercial events. Light shows can not only work with daily uses of public spaces, but they can provide efficient ways to activate them and reinforce their practice by diverse residents, while maintaining the rules of physical distancing. However, in a context where the finances of local authorities have been impacted, the ticketed model contributes to the revenue generation they desperately require. Already used as testbeds in Glasgow before the pandemic to experiment new uses of iconic outdoor and indoor spaces (see Elfingrove held in and around the Kelvingrove museum, also designed by Itison), this model has become all the more important given the lack of resources that the crisis has generated. It is then likely that will we will see increased pressure to host more events of this type in the future, once the lockdown measures are relaxed.