Alex Garrick-Wright reports on Project Octagon. You can read Alex’s personal reflections on the experience in August’s Shetland Life, and see more of Calum Toogood’s stunning photographs too.
In May 2016, myself and dozens of other men were brought into Project Octagon; a dynamic arts/ theatre project that commemorated the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, designed by conceptual artist Jeremy Deller.
1500 men were involved as soldiers across the UK. Each was assigned a soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and given a replica of his uniform that was as historically accurate as possible (the uniforms were specially made in Poland and are to be kept as a set, and rented out for film use).
The vision was for these men to appear in locations around the UK and simply… be there, in that moment. Not to speak or really interact, only to hand out a card with their soldier’s name, details, death and a social media hashtag on it.
Above all was the need for secrecy- the project relied upon people not knowing what was going on, and talking about it on social media using the hashtag #wearehere, which was printed on each of the soldiers’ card. By lunchtime, it had reached the top trending on Twitter and been shared over 100,000 times.
The details of the project- who these men were and what was going on- was only revealed at 7pm, in a BBC interview with Jeremy Deller. By that time, millions of people across the UK had heard of, seen, or had a personal experience of these soldiers.
In addition to involving 1500 uniformed men, a whole network of organisers across the UK would need to be involved.
The Scottish side of Project Octagon was being managed by the National Theatre for Scotland- covering Glasgow and Shetland. The Shetland side was managed by Associate Director Chris Grant, who had the unenviable job of not only finding dozens of able-bodied, military age men willing to take part, but also keeping it secret in Shetland.
Preparation for the 1st July took weeks. Workshop Facilitator Chris Wright trained participants in the formations and movements they would be performing. Costume Supervisor Cara McDiarmid measured and organised the uniforms and props. Stage Manager Lisa Ward liaised and organised with Octagon down south.
Research Facilitator Lauren Doughton looked into our soldiers’ stories, and researched any WWI family connections we may have. In the course of doing so, she discovered two of the Shetland group- myself included- may be related to two of the assigned soldiers.
In addition to this were a whole cast of Costume Assistants, Stage Managers, caterers PR people, and the staff of the National Theatre of Scotland.
The public only saw the soldiers, and that is how it was intended.