4 February 2019

Walk the Plank ignites the spark at British Council’s Spark Festival

Creative Producer Liz Pugh reports on how the company explored the art and science of creativity as part of the first Spark Festival in Hong Kong

When I first read about the Spark Festival, it seemed like a bold idea – and one which might suit our desire to use participatory arts practice to make site-responsive beautiful artwork, and develop international connections too.  One of the techniques that we have used to good effect is fire drawing – working with participants from diverse backgrounds to use the science of combustion to design and make images in fire, safely.

British Council HongKong had identified a great local partner in the Warehouse, a small cultural centre and Maker space for young people in Aberdeen, a busy harbour on Hong Kong island. Working outside in the yard of this former police station, we had a great view of the sampans and fishing boats…for a company that began life on a theatre ship, we felt quite at home! Coincidentally, the main venue for the Spark Festival, the impressive Tai Kwun cultural centre, was also a former police station.

Our participants included an assistant to the airport’s architect, a calligrapher, a teacher, a school administrator, an IT expert, and a translator…all had responded to a call out that was designed to draw in people who might be different from the British Council’s usual audience. And in a few hours of intense hands-on activity, they quickly learnt the basic techniques of fire drawing while handling new materials and exploring the science and art of fire drawing.


Responses to one of our early questions about what they loved about Hong Kong were translated into graphic images that were very specific to the local context – Aberdeen fish balls, and bo lo bao, a sweet bun named after a pineapple, alongside a design inspired by the Hong Kong skyline. My favourite was the T’ai Chi Master – a line drawing done in a single unbroken stroke, which the group were determined to recreate with a single unbroken line of paper rope. No mean feat, even for experts! The teamwork required to wrestle several metres of kerosene-soaked rope into its protective cover and onto the gridweld was beautiful to watch…and this group of shy strangers quickly became co-creators in a shared artistic journey.

Later, in darkness, the audience gathered, and DJ Kir’s tunes accompanied the Warehouse Crew breakdancers who span and popped with acrobatic ease. Our nascent pyro-artistes ignited the fire drawings they had designed and made in just two days to the delight of a captive audience. The sense of achievement each felt was clear as their drawings gradually took shape before they stepped up to take a bow and lead the audience away, carrying their wax torches with the confidence of newly trained apprentices…Hong Kong’s only cohort of fire drawing experts.

HK double drawing Feb 5

Tai Chi Master – design into fire drawing

Walk the Plank’s team included Chris Haworth, senior technician, and myself, the company’s co-founder. For Chris, the festival was a first chance to make international cultural connections in Hong Kong, and to see how we can strengthen these further through collaborative projects like Ignite the Spark. For me, the project was an opportunity to return to Hong Kong after living there in 1970. And though my childhood memories are few, they do include the smell of fish balls cooking in Stanley market, and the sight of sampans rafted up in Aberdeen harbour.

We are now working with the Warehouse to arrange a study tour so that 20 young people can visit our own fabrication workshops in Salford, Cobden Works, and understand more about the industrial heritage and technological innovations to be found here in the UK’s North West.

Walk the Plank would like to thank our participants; all at the Warehouse project; Antony Chan, Head of Arts, and the British Council HK team behind the Spark Festival. As we approach the Chinese New Year festivities, may the Year of the Pig bring you all good fortune.

The team take a bow: L-R Man, Kay, Liz, Kathy, Jack, Eric, Chris, Monica