VAN May/June 2015: ‘Capturing Passing Moments’ by Kevin Killen

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Kevin Killen ‘Certain Moments’ installation view, University Of Ulster Gallery Belfast (5 March – 2 April 2015)


My interest in working with neon started during my time at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, University College (1996 –1999). I’d moved to a busy college town from the countryside, so I really noticed the continuous flow of traffic and especially the noise and lights that came into my student house at night. I experimented with ways to capture passing moments, by visualising the nocturnal sounds and lights that invaded my space. Neon seemed an ideal medium to do so. It processes an ability to encompass both speed and stillness. Likewise neon light can be either quietly seductive or loud and overwhelming – and it has strong links with pop culture, glamour and advertising.

During and after my studies I was reliant on getting neon pieces fabricated by industrial makers. As a consequence, I did feel I was missing out on a proper understanding of the full scope of the medium in both practical and theoretical terms. I’d found that when dealing with neon workshops, the available options were often both expensive and restricted. The commercial makers always came up with barriers to making the pieces I really wanted to make.

In 2009, after saving up for a few years, I finally had enough money to afford the necessary tools and to undertake specialised training: a five-week course at the Ed Waldrum School of Neon in Dallas, Texas. The course cost $4500 and I was fortunate enough to receive a £500 travel award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to attend.

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Kevin Killen ‘Certain Moments’ installation view, University Of Ulster Gallery Belfast (5 March – 2 April 2015)

The course not only gave me a full understanding of how to design and plan neon works, but it gave me an important sense of control and a freedom from the conventions of industrial fabrication. The knowledge I gained enabled me – both in my research and practical work – to tame the medium and to stretch its boundaries. For example, I’ve created freestanding neons, as I’ve been able to explore and experiment with the strength of various calibres of glass tubing. I’ve also worked with the sonic qualities of the medium, creating ‘whispering’ neons that invite the viewer closer to the work.

A lot of practice is required in order to master the various processes and tools involved in making neon works. It can be quite overwhelming at first, but there are two basic aspects to making neons. Firstly, there is the fabrication of the tubing. This is a process that involves filing, bending and welding. The subsequent process involves gas torches / heat sources – respectively ribbon and ‘cannon fire’ burners.

Bending is a key skill. Firstly you’ve got to mark the correct area to heat and then judge the correct temperature to bend the tube, whilst gently blowing air into the tube to force out the bends or glass tube walls, as tube walls kink in when you bend them.

Electrodes are attached to the tubes using a cannon burner or hand-held torch. The technique for doing so involves heating ends of the tube and then pressing them together at the right temperature, while quickly stretching and blowing the glass walls out in order to ease the stress in the weld point.

At this point you hope that all the welds are tight and will not let in atmosphere. The next stage is to attach the neon units to the manifold that controls the flow of gas and to a bombardier, which is used to heat the neon tubes up to 300 degrees centigrade. I also do a range of vacuum tests using a torr gauge and preheat to see if everything is working fine.

Neon gets its colour in two main ways. Firstly, the gas that’s inside the tube: neon or argon. Secondly, colour of the glass tubes itself. There are 30 or so colours to chose from. Small transformers power neon lights; these range from 1000 – 8000 volts. They’re high voltage but low current devices. Running costs to range from approximately 2 – 20 pence a day for each piece.

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Kevin Killen ‘Certain Moments’ installation view, University Of Ulster Gallery Belfast (5 March – 2 April 2015)

After a number of heating and pumping stages, to ensure that the neons are clear of impurities, I fill the tube with argon gas, adding a small amount or mercury, around a 1mm ball. This helps the brightness of the tube, as the mercury vaporises and mixes with the gas. The last part of the process is to ‘burn in’ the neon tube so it can reach its full colour and brightness. This can take anything from four hours to three days in some cases.

My recent exhibition ‘Certain Moments’ (University Of Ulster Gallery, Belfast, 5 March – 2 April, shown as part of the Ulster University Festival Of Art and Design) came about from participating in the Speed Curating event at the 2014 VAI Get Together. I met with Feargal O’Malley, curator of the University Of Ulster Gallery (UU) – and actually my first ‘date’ of the session – who had already seen some of my neon work.

We talked mainly about my current work and the history behind it, and arranged to meet later in the Summer. Prior to our next meeting, I’d done some further research into the idea of working with a dancer. When we met again and O’Malley told me he’d been thinking about the possibility of my neon work somehow tracing the movements of a dancer, I was thrilled – it was as if my stars had lined up, it was perfect timing. I was also very reassured when O’Malley stated that if my idea didn’t work out, it would be fine. This took a lot of pressure of me, as I wasn’t entirely sure whether what I had mind would be possible to achieve in practice.

The project actually progressed really well from this point onwards. During my first meeting with the choreographer / dancer David Ogle I was impressed by his professionalism and understanding of what I was trying to do. I invited Ogle to respond and react intuitively to the UU Gallery’s dimensions. In response Ogle performed a series of spontaneous and elegant gestural movements while holding a set of lights. I captured these movements using long-exposure photography. The movement of my camera as I followed Ogle added another playful dimension to the light drawings we created.

Using the playback screen of a digital camera made it simple for me to give him feedback in terms of which movements I found interesting. Working together we quickly built a visual language to express Ogle’s response to the space. The resulting images of distorted beams of light were then translated into a site-specific installation of neon works, each based on various traces of the dancer’s movements. The resulting exhibition was described by Feargal O’Malley as “a minimal, luminous installation of the fleeting moments,” that attempted to “instigate a shared experience” while blurring “conventional modes of interaction” (1).

When I’m working with neon I try to clear my head of and concentrate on the tasks at hand. Keeping this clarity of thought for a prolonged time is taxing but strangely calming. It’s difficult and demanding work – from using the canon and ribbon fires to bending the glass without stressing or stretching the glass tubes, or the care needed when welding tubes together and attaching electrodes. Everything has to be done perfectly. If not, the units will either not light at all, or not last very long. A week’s work can be lost by a split second lapse in concentration. Unlike other materials, neon does not take well to tantrums – it doesn’t bounce back of the wall very well!

I’ve grown to really like the unforgiving nature of neon. More or less, you’ve just one chance to get it right, so it demands your attention and respect. I’ve had to learn to master physical techniques, practice muscle memory routines, control my emotions and be calm in the face of cuts, burns or band bends or welds.

Kevin Killen

1. Feargal O’Malley, PR notes for Kevin Killen’s exhibition ‘Certain Moments’, University Of Ulster Gallery (5 March – 2 April), shown as part of the Ulster University Festival Of Art and Design.

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