Martin Green CBE, chief creative officer of the Government’s £120m UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK festival tells Access about the plans for the event, the many challenges involved, and how it will continue to have a hugely positive impact on the UK’s live events industry for years to come.

Being both the chief creative officer of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022 and Unboxed, Martin Green is, like many event professionals, a tad busy this year but he is confident both events will have a long-lasting impact on the UK’s events industry.

With a career that has involved heading up numerous landmark events, not least the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics Games, Green is passionate about the UK’s live events industry being world-leading and that events such as Unboxed have a legacy that includes attracting new generations of events professionals to the industry.

The UK Government’s £120m nationwide Unboxed festival commenced on 1 March with a spectacular sound and light show in the grounds of an 850-year-old Scottish abbey. The free open-air event, About Us, was created by 59 Productions, The Poetry Society and Stemettes. It is the first of a series of 10 events to be staged throughout the UK until October.

Unboxed has previously been referred to as the Festival of Brexit, has there been a conscious decision to try and distance the event from Brexit?

We wanted to steer clear of Brexit. The project has got two KPIs; to celebrate creativity and bring people together – so if you start having any sort of conversation about Brexit you have lost half your audience. It never has been a Brexit event. You only have to take one look at the programme to see that it’s absolutely not what many people were saying it was. It is what we said it would be; which is a really innovative UK-wide celebration of creativity across science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. It’s nice now that people can see it in action and make up their own minds.

How does working on Unboxed compare to other events you have worked on such as Olympic ceremonies, and what attracted you to the project?

The attraction was to work with significant resources and opportunities but in a different way – the Olympic ceremonies were in a capital city stadium and the majority of people were seeing it via the TV broadcast. With Unboxed, the endeavour was to get it out of the big cities and get it right across the UK. I really love taking work to where people are. On top of that, it’s 10 years since those ceremonies and we have new technologies at our fingertips and new broadcasting opportunities. Unboxed is something that is happening live, right across the UK, but anyone can engage with it from anywhere in the world.

I presume that’s why it’s called Unboxed, it being an event that is not confined to a single venue?

Absolutely. We didn’t name this project until we knew exactly what the content was. When we fed in the 10 commissions, and the fact they were going to operate across the UK, the name Unboxed worked as it suggests something being unleashed.

Unboxed is a huge undertaking, can you give me an idea of the number of events professionals working on it, and the impact it is having on the industry?

 It is enormous. This is a £120 million investment into the events production and creative industries. We are not doing anything else with our money than funding great works. We will have the final numbers in the end but currently it is a moving feast.

One of the things about this project is we wanted to fund R&D. Too often R&D doesn’t get funded and companies are expected to come up with ideas without being given a cent. In the middle of the pandemic, we had more than 100 freelancers involved in that process.

Currently, we have around 700 creatives working on this project. We totted up that there are 654 separate live event happenings. Of course, all of that needs production and technical support so we’ve got companies all over the UK working on it.

Underneath the 10 commissions sits a learning programme where we want to reach 2.5 million young people. We have also created paid opportunities for first jobbers, or early jobbers, to pivot their work into new technologies or production. For example, StoryTrails has employed 50 people who are using the project to pivot their careers into new technology. There are also hundreds of internships and paid opportunities through the programme, so I’m hoping that we’re nailing it in every aspect.

Probably, there are very few people in the industry now who are not, or don’t know someone who is, working on this project.

Has the impact of the pandemic and Brexit on the supply chain impacted the organisation and operation of Unboxed?

 It’s tough out there to hire. There are three years of events happening in one year this year so it’s an incredibly contested and expensive market. Obviously, we are spending public money so we don’t have the kind of freedoms of the commercial sector. We are experiencing the same supply chain challenges as everyone else, and as soon as everybody realised we had issues, and this goes for the Commonwealth Games too, we pulled everything forward. Among the things this industry is great at is coming up with really creative solutions, so it’s been good to see that kind of problem solving.

Are you engaging with suppliers locally for each event or on a national scale?

 Our role centrally is to curate and promote the whole festival, the 10 commissions then build and run their commissions. So, 59 Productions has brought its team in for the whole run. They will also pick up locally because that is something we have really encouraged. There will obviously be times where it makes sense to have the same supplier running the whole run of shows but there are equally good opportunities to pick up local talent and local companies as we go into each city. We’ve just let them make those choices for themselves as they go through.

What size audience attendance are you expecting across the whole project?

It’s really difficult to tell because it has never been done before; this is new, bold stuff. We set ourselves the target of getting 66 million people to engage in this project in one way or another from viewing online or live to taking part. The Green Space Dark Skies event needs 20,000 volunteers to help deliver that. I’m absolutely convinced that the work is popular enough and broad enough to bring in very large audiences. We want big figures; we want people to engage with it and that’s why the BBC is really involved in it. We will be using all the channels we have to create active engagement.

Do you expect the event to have a considerable economic impact?

 Of course we want to make sure the investment is worthwhile. A lot of the funding is going into the industry and that helps make it more stable. This project will bring some of the team involved to the attention of a wider global industry and they’ll get asked to create new work. I also think some of these projects will continue to tour; I can see the Dreamachine project by Assemble continuing to tour the world for years to come. There are softer economic benefits; it’s about the legacy of inspirational and building careers and skilling up.

We know that we are one of, if not the global centre of event production in the UK but in order to maintain that position you have to constantly refresh things and I think that’s what Unboxed can do. Aside from creating skills and jobs we’re using the project to promote the UK as a creative centre abroad. So there is a hard economic side to this.

Can you give me examples of aspects of the project that have particularly impressed you?

The sheer scale of what we’re doing on See Monster; we are bringing this decommissioned North Sea offshore platform in to Weston-super-Mare. The technical engineering on that is going to be phenomenal. There’s an enormous amount of work behind pulling it out of the sea and taking it up the beach and lifting it in.

We also have a project called Our Place In Space, which is a scale model of the solar system on a 10 kilometre site in Northern Ireland and Cambridge. It’s accompanied by an app.  You can walk along the trail and the app fills in the stars, it’s really family friendly. You can also use the app anywhere in the world while taking a walk of up to 10K, and at certain points it’ll bring the planets up next to wherever you are. I think that’s a really interesting way of demonstrating how we can start to really blend live events and technology with extended experiences.


The Unboxed projects

About Us – Produced by 59 Productions, it explores 13.8 billion years of history using projection mapping technology incorporating poetry and music performed by live choirs.

Dandelion – Produced by Dandelion Collective and commissioned by EventScotland. A Scotland-wide project inspired by the global ‘grow-your-own’ movement. It will feature vertical farms, free music festivals and plant giveaways that reimagines the harvest festival for the 21st century.

Dreamachine – Produced by Collective Act. Presented in the UK’s capital cities, an artwork experienced with your eyes closed that unlocks the power of the human mind.

GALWAD: A Story from our Future – Produced by Collective Cymru. A transmedia experience that sees Wales propelled thirty years into the future, commissioned by CreativeWales.

Green Space Dark Skies – Produced by Walk the Plank. With 20,000 “lumenators” creating outdoor artworks in 20 of the UK’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Our Place in Space – Produced by Nerve Centre. A 10km sculpture trail scale model of the solar system designed by artist Oliver Jeffers including an interactive augmented reality app, commissioned by Belfast City Council.

PoliNations – Produced by Trigger, it will see giant fabricated trees and thousands of plants take over the centre of Birmingham, creating a colourful canopy for a festival of live performance including spoken word, music and drag.

See Monster – Produced by Newsubstance.

A decommissioned North Sea offshore platform in Weston-super-Mare transformed into one of the UK’s largest public artworks.

StoryTrails – Produced by StoryFutures, it uses new developments in 3D internet technology and augmented and virtual reality to reveal the hidden and forgotten histories across 15 UK towns and cities.

Tour de Moon – Produced by Nelly Ben Studios. A festival of nightlife and countercultures travelling in convoy around England.

This article was published in the latest edition of Access All Areas magazine  – subscribe for free here