Floating planets to flying orchestras: The artist behind Factory International's public light show

Luke Jerram put the Earth on a Salford canal, flew sound-systems over London, and has now transformed Manchester's skyline with unique public art. Finest takes five to learn more about his work.

By Martin Guttridge Hewitt | Last updated 22 January 2023

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Artist Luke Jerram unveils his new piece ‘First Breath’, a light installation outside Factory International, Manchester’s new cultural space set to open in June 2023. Picture date: Thursday December 29, 2022. PA Photo. The artwork, which will be visible throughout January on the Factory International construction site, consists of vertical beams of light that gently pulse to represent the first breaths of babies born that month in Greater Manchester. Photo credit should read: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

Luke Jerram's 'First Breath' illuminates the city sky (C) Anthony Devlin PA Wire

Across the UK, almost 2,400 new babies will be born today. That’s 2,400 families going through a life changing event, and 2,400 new lives arriving to change those families.

Throughout January, some of those opening their eyes for the first time in Manchester have been offered free lifetime membership at Factory International, the long-awaited arts centre and first permanent home of Manchester International Festival (MIF), which finally opens its £210million doors this year. To celebrate, First Breath, a bold new public art installation, is running until the end of this month from dusk until 10pm each day. The work comprises a powerful LED spotlight array beaming into the sky after dark from the Factory International site on Water Street.

Each evening, this spectacle pulsates a different number of times, depending on the number of births registered in the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, a large screen projects messages sent from the families directly involved in the work, explaining what birth means to them. No booking is required to access the site, and the work is visible across the city.

Luke Jerram’s new work, ‘First Breath’, runs daily at Factory International. (C) Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

Luke Jerram is the creative mind behind the striking piece, and is no stranger to our hometown. His past endeavours include Museum of the Moon, which landed in this city a few years back as part of its ongoing world tour, and Floating Earth, a replica of our planet buoyed in the waterways of Salford Quays and MediaCityUK late-2021. He’s also the guy who came up with the idea of putting pianos in public places for people to play as they please, a concept that exploded globally and can now be found in major metropolitan areas worldwide.

“With the street piano project, the power was bringing people together — people fell in love, people got recording contracts. First Breath is similar. We’ve built a database of around 300 expectant parents across Greater Manchester. When they give birth this month, they send us a message about what birth means to them, receiving family lifetime membership to Factory for free,” Jerram says. “But it’s also about those families connecting with one another. You realise when you live in a city there’s a whole load of people going through the same experience as you at the same time. In Manchester, right now, someone else is pushing, giving birth. There’s this invisible community of people sharing an experience. First Breath connects and reveals that community.” 

Luke Jerram is the artist behind First Breath, the first major presented at MIF’s new home, Factory International (C) Luke Jerram

“I make a lot of art for the public,” he continues, explaining his warehouse studio in Bristol offers an ideal space to experiment. “I’m keen to make art everyone can access. A lot of what I do has different points of entry, so people of various backgrounds and ages can enjoy in different ways. Sometimes, they suit a gallery space, other times they are made for outdoors… With a lot of things I do, I like to leave people with a choice of how to interpret the work…. The moon, for example, means different things to different people, and different cultures — everyone mythologises and has stories relating to the moon.”

Another case in point can be found in Sky Orchestra. Arguably Jerram’s riskiest effort, for this work speakers strapped to hot air balloons were flown over cities including London in the early morning, playing music into people’s homes, influencing dreams and providing a unique wake up call. Logistically challenging, he’s quick to point out unknowns are prerequisites of public art.

Luke Jerram’s previous work includes ‘Museum of the Moon’ (C) Robert Sils

“I mean, the first moon I made was filled with helium, and actually burst,” Jerram recalls. “Then there was Floating Earth. After the moon was successful it led to an opportunity to do something about Earth. With climate change, the environmental crisis, the need for everyone to do their bit, it felt relevant. Whether you’re a journalist, lawyer or artist, we all have skills to bring to the table in this context.”

“There’s something called the Overview Effect. Astronauts experience this when looking back down at Earth from space. They’re overwhelmed by its beauty, so much so many become environmental campaigners after seeing how fragile and precious it is. So this was the idea behind the work, and it was presented at MediaCity. Then Storm Irwin hit and knocked it for six, so we had to take it down and rebuild. Larger and more frequent storms will happen due to climate change, so it was quite apt.”

‘Floating Earth’ was buoyed in Salford Quays during winter 2021 (C) Chris Payne

By comparison, First Breath is a relatively simple undertaking, using proven technology in a comparatively controlled environment. Nevertheless, the art piece has taken no less than 16 years to realise, far longer than MIF has been planning Factory International.

“First Breath was inspired by the birth of my own daughter. I was speaking to Mark Ball, who was the director of London International Festival of Theatre,” says Jerram. “We tried out the idea at that time, with some searchlights, and it just didn’t work. Bringing things up to date, Mark is now director of Factory International, and he thought the idea could work for the launch.”

Luke Jerram’s ‘Sky Orchestra’ involved strapping speakers to hot air balloons to play music over major cities (C) Luke Jerram

“So I’ve been working with MIF on this for around 18 months, maybe two years, and it has been a really nice working relationship,” he continues. “[Factory International is] an amazing building and you guys are really lucky to have it. Here in Bristol we tend to just have crumbling old theatres. We just don’t get that level of investment in the way you do in Manchester.” 

Jerram’s praise for our city doesn’t end there. Just before our conversation comes to an end we ask about Manchester as a place to collaborate with and work in, artistically. He’s quick to make clear that beyond marketing campaigns and Instagram hype, the town is clearly riding high on the crest of a cultural wave created through hard work and a refusal to stand still. Traits that have long since cemented the region’s reputation for constant innovation.

“Manchester is incredibly creative, and going places. I’m full of admiration for the place. Every city has its problems, but so many aren’t really doing much about it. In Manchester there’s a level of ambition that you don’t really get in many other cities,” Jerram says. “Now you’ve got this huge asset for the city in Factory that gives it an international reputation. The benefits will be massive, for decades to come.”

‘First Breath’ runs daily at Factory International, Water Street, Manchester from dusk to 10pm, until 29 January. It’s free to attend and no prior booking is required.

Factory International has launched a ‘First Breath’ Instagram competition. Upload the best photo of the lights from across the city by 11pm on Sunday 22nd January, tagging @factory_internatonal and using the hashtag #firstbreath, for a chance to win one year Factory International membership. Keep up to date with the latest photo submissions here.

Full details of Factory International, including the first events to be announced, can be found here.

Find out more about Luke Jerram’s work here.