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Canary Wharf: How Marcus Lyall is set to illuminate a Wood Wharf tower block for 2024’s Winter Lights festival

Festival is set to return to the estate from January 17-27 with 12 temporary installations for all to see

Marcus Lyall’s Idle Time is set to be shown at Wood Wharf’s Union Square in January 2024

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I first met Marcus Lyall beneath a flyover in Royal Docks.

It was December 2020, the wind was biting and various restrictions were in place thanks to the pandemic’s Christmas-cancelling second wave.

As a result, his epic installation Presence was attracting the attention of only a few, shifty passers-by. 

Nevertheless, the piece remained the most impactful work of that year’s Join The Docks festival – with viewers performing short messages into a microphone then seeing them echo between the concrete pillars of the roadway, with visualisation courtesy of an urgent laser and plenty of smoke machines.

Had the times been normal, it would have been a blockbuster – recalling the success the artist had at Canary Wharf’s Winter Lights festival in 2017.

Then, On Your Wavelength – a series of 32 square LED-lit portals drew visitors in droves to Crossrail Place’s once empty shopping level.  

This year, the Homerton resident is set to return to the estate for Winter Lights 2024 – with something much bigger than either of these creations.

Idle Time will be projected onto a 50sq m canvas formed by white-wrapped scaffolding behind Wood Wharf’s Union Square. 

“The idea for it came from our lives today and how we’re encouraged very much to think about optimisation and efficiency – what we can fit into a day,” said Marcus, who works from studios at Fish Island near Hackney Wick.

“There have been various anthropological studies of pre-industrial societies and one of the things the scientists noticed when they went to hunter-gatherer cultures was the amount of time that people spent not doing anything.

“It feels right now, when everything is being optimised, that there is very little time for not doing anything, despite the fact that everything has apparently been made more efficient so we all have more leisure time.

Marcus Lyall’s On Your Wavelength from Winter Lights 2017

“To me, it doesn’t feel like that.

“The question now is: ‘Are you spending your free time productively?’.

“With Idle Time, there are three elements connected to efficiency and productivity.

“Firstly there’s the backdrop – Canary Wharf – a global centre of hyper-capitalism, where companies dedicate every moment to trying to extract capital from labour. 

“Secondly I’m using lasers, which are a hyper-efficient light source.

“You can use them in lots of ways, but here I’m using them like a big pen to draw and animate an image.

“With lasers you have the beam and a couple of mirrors that move at something like 30,000 times a second.

“Projecting 50 or 60 drawings per second lets the eye perceive the image as though it’s moving. 

Artist Marcus Lyall – image by Matt Grayson

“Thirdly, I’m also working with motion capture technology where we have people act out various movements and use the data captured to drive the image.

“Normally this is done with dancers, acrobats, stunt people or physical theatre performers – subjects that are incredibly good at moving, so the data can be used to create animation sequences.

“It tends to be about capturing stuff that’s exceptional – actors performing the most amazing moves they can.

“What I’m doing with Idle Time is deliberately using people who aren’t terribly good at movement as my subjects – they’re mostly artists from the building I share in east London and they are doing things that are not terribly productive.

“One of the real pleasures of being an artist is that it’s not all about the effort you put in.

“A lot of it is about talking and thinking – stuff that’s difficult to quantify or capture.

“What I’m trying to do is celebrate the more mundane bits of life, the fact that most of our experience comes through incredibly subtle movement.

“Our experience of other people isn’t necessarily about them doing cartwheels.

“What’s interesting is that, when we’ve done tests on this work, people find these characters we’ve captured quite intriguing.

“Viewers immediately try to work out what they’re doing and then project characters onto them. It’s leaving a bit of a gap for the audience.”

Idle Time is one of 12 temporary installations that will pop up across the estate for Winter Lights 2024. The festival is set to run daily from 5pm-10pm and is free to visit.

Having seen around 1million visitors come to the estate for 2023, new one-way systems have been implemented to help manage numbers, with larger, more crowd-friendly pieces commissioned.

Alongside the visiting works, six permanent artworks will be illuminated for the show, including an LED twist on Shine Your Colours at Canary Riverside.

Marcus said: “It’s great that Canary Wharf Group is commissioning work and nice that they’re valuing art – it makes a difference.

Idle Time is a bit more of a slow burn rather than a five-minute spectacular.

“Part of it is getting people to look at how they spend their time, getting people to question whether this constant drive for productivity is the best way to live their lives.

“I’m also hoping they feel some sort of empathy with the people they’re seeing, that there’s a connection with them, that they put themselves in those characters’ places.

“It’s very much about reflection and contemplation.

“There’s something nice about the fact that it’s projected onto a building that’s not in use yet – something that’s still going up.

Marcus Lyall’s Presence in Royal Docks

“It also feels a little bit subversive to be doing a bit of graffiti with lasers in a part of the estate where people actually live.

“Sometimes this kind of work can be more for show, but this has been designed as something people can live with for a while.

“It’s ironic – I’m creating something in a hyper-efficient location with hyper-efficient projection technology and hyper-efficient motion capture, where my subjects are actually doing very little.”

The perfect antidote, perhaps, to the hustle and bustle of the Wharf – especially during the festival.

You can find out more about Winter Lights 2024 here

Read more: How Level39-based WyzePay offers discounts at MMy Wood Wharf

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via
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