If you’re a festival-goer you might have seen some shit. You may even have had cause to disbelieve your eyes. For many the sight of a giant snake weaving among the crowds might be proof that you’re partied out. Or it could simply be Syed, a giant snake puppet operated by 10 people…
This is the creation of Snake Wallahs, aka Liverpool couple Claire Stringer and Julian Taylor. With ten people operating the snake and another to operate a snake charmer puppet they travel the length of breadth of the country to mesmerise crowds of people at festivals and events.
The artists met through Walk The Plank, a group specialising in outdoor theatre, performance and pyrotechnics. But it’s likely you’ve seen Julian’s work around the city in the shape of Liverpool’s own cultural symbol the Superlambanana and Hillsborough Band Of Life, unveiled on the 25th anniversary of the disaster.
Julian is keen to stress how important it is for artists’ work to be seen and recognised.
“It’s a case of people knowing what you can do, so that they ask you in the first place. If people don’t know you’re there they’re not going to talk to you.”
However working as a freelance artist and sculptor means Julian has had to forge his own career path, picking up commissions by working with various materials and in often-difficult conditions.
“It is a slow process doing it that way… one of the most important things you have to do is photograph… gives someone an idea of what you can make.”
“Metal work is aggressive. You spend most of the time protecting yourself from burns, dust, sparks, fumes, volatile chemicals, blindness, sound and weight injury… and put up with repetitive actions in extreme heat, or extreme cold.
“That was one reason to challenge myself on a broader artistic level, to find other media to work with. I still bang out metal now and again, it’s good to keep your hand in.”
Claire has worked in a variety of pubic art installations and events across the north-west, including Go Superlambananas and Go Penguins projects that sprang up around Liverpool in 2008 and 2009 respectively. It seemed destined their paths would cross.
Lo and behold they met while working together on a project to build – what else? – a giant chair for the Preston Guild in 2012 designed for Alice In Wonderland to sit on, with the bottle of potion Alice drinks to shrink herself.
“It only happens every 20 years,” says Claire. “You’re only really likely to experience it three or four times in your lifetime.”
Claire worked on Manchester Day – the city’s celebration of everything uniquely Mancunian – and with the Manchester Indian Association for a number of years, making carnival pieces for them. The Association suggested applying for the annual Mega Mela commission – the largest celebration of South Asian Culture in the North of England.
“Every three years there’s a different thing made for it. We put in a tender together to make the giant snake puppet and the charmer puppet which then went to their event for three years.”
The Snake, named Syed, has since been living in Julian’s workshop, but he is brought out to events throughout the year, especially in the summer. Having ticked off Glastonbury in 2015, this year Snake Wallahs visited the Green Man festival with a new addition – a sophisticated water pump.
“We were in the kid’s field at the Green Man to start with and the kids just loved it,” they recall.
“Crowds of them just wanting to be squirted! So that was more fun and more interactive.”
Whenever the snake and charmer appear at an event they follow the same narrative: To begin the Charmer plays his bede (pipe) to wake up the snake from his basket and make him dance. As the Charmer falls asleep the Snake sneaks off, slithering into the festival for an adventure. When the Charmer wakes up and realises the Snake has gone he plays his bede again, calling back the Snake, who returns to the basket.
The pair say the festival crowd constitutes a perfect habitat for Syed.
“It looks like it’s surfing on top of the crowd when you see it from afar. And it’s huge! It causes quite a stir – this thing coming towards you. ”
The couple are keen to push into new areas (and animals) though and helped with the Olympic homecoming parade in Manchester this October, helping to make a large Lion and some of the costumes.”
“We help out with the sort of modern invention which is the parade, the celebrating and letting people know that it’s good to celebrate life.”
“We’re looking for new commissions, new ideas, new places. Every time you do a job you learn something and you should be learning something, learning from your failures or flaws is the best way to learn.”
So if you’re attending any festivals in 2017 and you think you see a snake approaching, don’t freak out. Chances are it’s just Syed slithering over to say hello…