Back to Totality

March 20th offered us a rare chance to experience a partial solar eclipse – did you see it? Only 95% of Totality this time so no dip to darkness, nothing to scare the birds into silence, none of the corona or Baily’s Beads to see but still an experience powerful enough to stir the emotions. And its effect is all down to the simple random accident that the sun is 400 times the size of the moon and happens to be 400 times further away, so they look the same size in the sky.

Back in 1999, the last time the UK experienced a total solar eclipse, I and a team of around ten friends; filmmakers and artists, descended on Dave Haslam’s studio in Newlyn, Cornwall to set up the punk rock no-budget independent alternative centre for web-streaming the event, in direct competition with the BBC and… well… no-one else really!

We had four camera teams stationed around St Michael’s Mount, from the causeway in Penzance to Newlyn Harbour. We had the two Daves as our Web Masters; the maverick media master Dave Haslam, upstreaming content to the net on line one, and our resident academic and back-end online engineer Dr. Dave Lawrence on a second internet line, sorting out the server access and responding to email enquiries. Artist Andy Gracie had The Probe set up on Dave’s balcony overlooking Newlyn Harbour, converting light, heat, VLF radio emissions and electromagnetic variance data from the sun into Midi data which was then streamed live to composers across the world for them to work with at their leisure. All of this was done on a shoestring budget using dial-up 56k modems in a pre-broadband age! Yes, 56k Dial-Up!

We knocked out two servers – receiving over a quarter of a million hits in less than two hours. Adam Sykes at Iris Light was bold enough to sign us and release a multimedia CD-ROM on his label of our collective efforts – remember CD-ROMs? This was our second venture into CD-ROM publication following on from the 0Hz journal of advanced audio arts that Dave Haslam and I were involved in, released the previous year. I’m wondering now whether the Iris Light release made us the first people in the UK to have a record contract as purely visual artists.

I cannot stress strongly enough how basic our equipment was, how miniscule our budget, how challenging the concept, how many hours and weeks of prep and how much learning we all did on the job. But we did it! And the Iris Light release, plus exhibitions at Manchester’s Digital Summer and Futuresonic Festivals made the project complete.

Groundbreaking? Probably. A Digital UK First? Definitely. And I guess that makes us digital pioneers of a sort. It was certainly an adventure for us – and something of a Don Quixote quest. Why? Because, sometimes, only the impossible is worth achieving.

Barry Hale – In Umbra – March 2015