As we navigate the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and face ever more complex challenges to our experience of the public sphere, the phrase ‘safety in numbers’ entails increasingly contradictory connotations. What is the role of large public space gatherings in rebuilding confidence in our use of public space and what creative and logistical strategies may be used to this end? This article represents the first in a series of studies, exploring the work of internationally acclaimed public art production company, Artichoke. A “reverse-engineering” focus is applied here, as we revisit three seminal projects across Artichoke’s fifteen-year body of work: respectively, The Sultan’s Elephant (2006), Lumiere (2009-ongoing) and Processions (2018). While there is no “standard” Artichoke work, these projects share important commonalities in relation to the potential of ephemeral public art events to adapt and disrupt our perception of public spaces. Each project achieved considerable impact, with audience numbers reaching hundreds of thousands and even millions through media dissemination: in doing so, Artichoke’s work has not only pioneered new forms of large-scale spectacular and participatory events, but also played a significant role in shaping policies for public art commissioning and realisation. Drawing on archival data, as much as on a range of anecdotal experiences provided by audience testimonials and interviews with Helen Marriage, Artichoke’s Artistic Director and CEO, the article aims to evaluate learnings and strategies that have allowed this company’s approach to be resilient and innovative in relation to public engagement. The projects explored here were mostly realised long before our cities were shaped by the unprecedented restrictions caused by the pandemic; yet, they nonetheless all had to deal with substantial logistical and creative challenges, deriving from complex safety measures and an ever-changing urban and cultural landscape. Looking back is here intended as a means to think ahead, as we consider key traits in Artichoke’s work: in particular, its continued adaptability, its fluid negotiation between artist-led expertise and participation, and its unique aesthetic in temporarily disrupting our relationship with the ‘soft city’.
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