The crowds celebrating the opening of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in early May were treated this year to the spectacle of gigantic marine creatures progressing though the streets under pedal power. The cephalopods were well represented with a squid and an octopus, while a giant crab, its claws engineered to open and close with each turn, held its own for the arthropods. Also prominent were a huge ray and a puffer fish.
Far from being the product of a professional company of street artists, the works on display were Marine Machines - the results of a year-long design and technology project involving hundreds of children across 10 Great Yarmouth middle schools, aided and abetted by professional engineers and artists.
"The Marine Machines scheme has been exceptionally ambitious," says Diane Goldsmith, Great Yarmouth programmer of Norfolk Creative Partnerships (CP), a scheme that sets artists to work in schools in areas of economic and social need. "It's involved some remarkable collaborative work between the schools, Pro-Train - a local organisation responsible for running engineering clubs across the county - the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and a number of dedicated CP practitioners."
The story began in October with a public performance at Wroughton Middle School in Gorleston by Sarruga, a Barcelona-based street theatre group. The show was one of their specialities involving bicycle-driven, aluminium-framed, paper-covered sea creatures - giant jellyfish, an angler fish, a shark and a diver - creating a loose 20-minute narrative of pursuers and pursued making their way through a playground full of parents and children from the 10 participating schools.
The inspiration did not stop there. "We decided to experiment with a 'deconstruct' model, to help explain the brief to the schools," says Jonathan Holloway, chief executive of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
"The next day the children returned to Wroughton, this time to interrogate Sarruga's artists, inspecting and even driving some of their machines and quizzing other members of the venture about what was expected of them.
"It could not have worked better. If we had relied on the performance alone, the children would have gone away awestruck, but this way they could really start to tease out how Sarruga work, what problems they have to solve and how they themselves could create their own Marine Machines."
During the "deconstruct morning", Sarruga's founder manager, Pakito Guiterrez, explained the need to use lightweight metals for the creatures'
frames in order to maximise their manoeuvrability and explained the importance of music as a means of binding the shows together. Pakito also highlighted the need to create the creatures' skin from lightweight, easily replaceable materials, because of the wear and tear they receive. "Sarruga means crumpled paper," he explained.
Rob Stirling, one of Pro-Train's engineers, outlined that all involved would be creating their own "fish-on-stick" devices, based perhaps on umbrellas or litter-pickers. They were needed so that the children could, during later public performances, establish a link between themselves and their machines, which for health and safety reasons would be driven by adults.
By February all the creative energy at Woodlands Middle School, Gorleston, was going into the creation of a six-metre sting ray - its parts a secondhand, delivery bike, an umbrella-action washing line and a large supply of parachute material, soon to be adorned by hundreds of buttons arranged to resemble scales. "We held a vote about which was the best creature to design," says 11-year-old Toby, "and our ray idea was chosen - probably because it fitted the skeleton best and was quite easy to work."
At Woodlands, the Marine Machine was the product of both a Pro-Train engineering club and a creative partnerships group working with textile artist Annabel Barber. "There were a number of problems to solve," she says. "Unlike Sarruga, the children's machines will be performing in the daytime, and so the hope is the buttons will provide a strong impact in any sunlight. Moreover, we will have to work harder to disguise the driver - perhaps camouflaging them with seaweed-like material."
Beyond the excitements of creating something so substantial, and for a real audience, in collaboration with other schools, the opportunity to work with a professional artist has been revelatory. "I used to do loads of art,"
says Leah, also 11. "This has reminded me how much I enjoyed it. I have started drawing again." Woodlands science co-ordinator and head of Year 7, Jeanette Wright, has also been inspired.
"The project has been really well judged, creating a mix of engineering and art that has given it broad appeal." Her view is supported by 11-year-old Emily: "I am so glad to be in the Pro-Train club," she says. "My brother said that because I was a girl I couldn't do engineering, and now I am proving him wrong."
At the same time, further important legacies were being established at Wroughton Middle School with professional choreographer and ex-Stomp member Ad le Thompson. Her task was to work with a Year 7 group, creating a dance with which they would accompany the Marine Machines parade. "I am very eager that the children come to consider their bodies as pieces of engineering - understanding where their balance lies and where the weights are that need supporting."
They have also worked on "body-created'" sounds using various found items such as tin cans and plastic bags. "You are going to have to create something that people are attracted to and want to follow," says Ad le.
"There are many benefits above and beyond the specific excitement of creating something for a public performance," says Pro-Train manager Sharon Davies. "The mix of arts with engineering is important, indicating the way in which the subject can be made attractive. There have been all sorts of soft skills pay-offs too - problem solving, developing respect for others, and the possibilities of recycling where possible when creating their machines."
"Another coup," adds CP programmer, Diane Goldsmith, "has been the chance to put the children's ongoing work on show by making a collage out of their photographs and drawings and exhibiting them on banners in Market Gates shopping centre in Great Yarmouth, and the Forum in Norwich."
"The banners are huge," says Martin Bayliss, technology teacher at Caister Middle School, who was responsible for their production. "We have created two, based on images and artefacts provided by all the other schools involved. The children here helped to arrange the display which also has a suitably fishy look, with individual images being cut to look like scales."
One banner has been exhibited in Great Yarmouth's main shopping centre and the other in the Forum Library in Norwich. Martin Bayliss is seeking a venue where the banners and Marine Machines might be displayed together.
"This project has had a huge impact on the school," adds Martin Bayliss.
"For something that has grown out of an afternoon engineering club, the way it has caught the imagination of the whole community here is remarkable. As our crab evolved, so the number of children on spurious errands visiting the room where it was stored has leapt. I even had to reassure one girl that real crabs don't grow to the size of our one."
The Marine Machines performed in April at Wroughton Middle School as part of the Great Yarmouth Festival and again during the opening ceremony of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in May.
* Creative Partnerships work in schools in Great Yarmouth will be managed by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival from the autumn