DT: (laughs) So: Illuminated River. How has it been in terms of still maintaining its importance if you like, given a background of the health and COVID crisis etc? Has it been easy maintaining its prominence as an important thing for London?
SG: Well, interestingly enough I think it's become more prominent because sadly so many things have been cancelled, postponed, and so much of our arts have been curtailed. The fact that The Illuminated River is still happening, that we're still on time and particularly for London when we want to be able to say we are due to illuminate in Spring next year. It is the perfect timing, probably, for saying, hang on, London's open for business. You know, we want people back; we want people to be enjoying the city, we're moving forward and it's free and accessible and it's outdoors. All of which again means you can be socially distanced and enjoy Illuminated River. We have certainly found all our partners have been bending over backwards, and that includes people like TfL who have got so much on their plate at the moment. Westminster City Council and City of London Corporation have also been so proactive and helpful because they see that this is more important than ever, really. To be something that is a positive, joyful, free, and accessible, and a marker to say that London is creative and moving.
DT: What is your personal favourite element of the project - either one of the bridges or an aspect of the project?
SG: I think for me it’s about focusing on what the role of the bridges is. They are not just to get you from one side to t’other but they're also a place. I think you forget that they're part street and part architecture instead of just a useful thing to get over the water. And anything that encourages people to stop and linger or when you're allowed to stop and linger…The bridge is in a way the bit that has been forgotten. There have been so many improvements to our public realm but not our bridges. Very few of them have any seating, a lot of them are not particularly pleasant to walk across especially at night, or walk up. If you walk up from the South Bank up to Waterloo bridge it is pretty horrible in terms of how dirty it is and how badly lit and also then you know get this massive bonus which is when you're halfway across and you can stop and admire the Illuminated River or just the bridges anyway you're looking at the biggest public space in London and the one that the fewest number of children have ever been on in the city, which is incredible and that's the Thames. So I think that part of the project, if you’ll pardon the pun, is illuminating our relationship with the river and also the bridges across it, which is why London exists in the first place. And the strangest thing for me when we were doing the project was the lack of data around the prominence of the river, around the ecology, around the role of light in our city. We had to do the first luminance study along each side of the River and had to do the first bat/bird survey along central London in probably the busiest, most high profile part of the river. These things had never been done, and you suddenly realised that it's the back end of each local authority’s borough and the bit that they don't really think much about because they think it's okay and it all works. And when you start looking at it, you realise the public realm is incredibly degraded. It's very different in different areas, it’s not particularly accessible, and there's a whole raft of things that you could do. And in a way Illuminated River has been a focus of bringing, for example, all the bridge owners together for the first conversation that they’ve ever had about their bridges. Even though they own the most important structures and most iconic structures in our capital! So for me it is much more than it being an art project. It is a wonderful art project but it’s also a public realm project, it’s a community project, it's a social justice project. Because we've uncovered all this evidence to show that one in 10 children in central London have never seen the Thames.
DT: Is that right?
SG: You can't go on it for free unless you fall in, you know, so it's not really a public space. Which is why we made our boat tours only 50p more than commuting, to encourage people to be able to experience it. Young families don't go on the Thames. People on low incomes don't go on the Thames. Even children in Westminster, partly because of the way that we have created barriers against the River half of the time on Westminster’s banks you can't even see the Thames. So it's provoked lots of wider conversations about how we engage with our river and our bridges, how we create artwork that's free and accessible and highlights the architecture that's already there and then you know the role of light. People criticise us for putting lights on to the bridges, when in fact ours are 50 to 75% less bright than what's already there and have no spill into the river. We've got the wrong name, really: we should be called Illuminated Bridges not Illuminated River because we are actually taking light off the river. When you do a luminance study you realise it's actually the Walkie Talkie that's one of the most polluting buildings along there, it's not the bridges. And then we are starting to have individual conversations with building owners like Sea Containers House, explaining to them that fish do not like to have sex with the lights on…
Don't throw light into the river. Nobody is a villain in this piece. It just makes me realise that there's a complete lack of education about the role of light and light levels and what is right and what is suitable and what isn't, and everybody over-lights or there may be a competition between the north bank and the south bank. As soon as we said to the Sea Containers house about the fish they were like: ‘right, ooh, we didn't know. We’ll do something about that’.
DT: Well, fish sex is important…