Frankie Boyle

12th June 2023

Visual artist Frankie Boyle sits down with arc to discuss her unique approach to light, and opens up on how her neurodiversity has shaped her career.

In the lighting design world, there is a widespread understanding of the impact of lighting on emotions; how an effective lighting design can evoke particular feelings or communicate a certain message to those who experience it.

For British light artist Frankie Boyle though, this understanding came at a much earlier age. Diagnosed with Developmental Learning Disorder (DLD) and dyslexia at the age of seven, Boyle struggled to understand language as a form of communication growing up. However, speaking with arc, she said that she always understood the language of light.

“I’m a big believer that if you take one sense away, your other senses grow stronger,” she said. “I became very heightened to people’s reactions towards me, picking up the finer details of body language, their energy, how they were acting, where we were.

“I became a bit of a science experiment; over a period of two years, I participated in a research project with the medical profession that involved a lot of tests to see what I’d react to and how my brain worked, often in really stark environments. I would often be put into a sensory room, where there were fibre optic lights, and my parents could see that I always wanted to be in the fibre optic room, I always wanted to do things with light.

“I realised that I very much had a heightened sensitivity and receptivity to light and how it was interacting within that space. I subconsciously had this feeling of knowing how lighting could make people feel comforted or seen, or allowed them to move through spaces easier, and I didn’t really know why until I went to university and started to understand more about the psychology and science behind it.”

Boyle studied Three-Dimensional Design at the University of Brighton, and while this was specialising with materials such as wood, metal, plastics, and ceramics, light continued to play a role. “It wasn’t until my art foundation that my tutor turned to me and said, ‘you do realise that in everything that you do, you’re involving light?’ I had even woven fairy lights through my sketchbook, but I was completely oblivious to this,” she said.

“But then in my final year, with him telling me this, I suddenly became very aware of it, and wanted to harness it, so for my final year project, I wanted to help people with dyslexia and memory disorders, like me.”

For this project, Boyle created coding for a light source that would “trigger the nervous system into a memory cortex”. “Hearing sounds or alarms suddenly make us go into fight or flight, whereas seeing a colour variation sticks within our primitive scale of understanding, our biological hardwiring of why we have colour in nature,” she continued. “That’s how I started, and how I started learning about DMX and about how to control lighting through computers; and as soon as I started to understand that whole world, it opened my eyes to a lot of exciting things.”

After leaving university, Boyle knew that she wanted to work in lighting, although she wasn’t sure what type of lighting specifically, until one fortuitous evening. “I was watching Strictly Come Dancing, and I thought the lighting was quite cool,” she recalled. “As the credits rolled, I saw the name Mark Kenyon, Lighting Director; I Googled him, found an email address, told him I thought his work was really cool, and sent him my portfolio, thinking I was never going to hear back from him. Oddly enough, he came back to me half an hour later, asking me to meet him on the set of Strictly…

“I apprenticed him for six months, followed him around, and worked on programmes with Ant and Dec, lots of shows on ITV, and I got a real buzz for live entertainment. But unfortunately at that time, I got told by numerous people within that industry that as a woman coming into it, I wouldn’t get anywhere. Their excuse was that I needed to start from the bottom and be hired as a gaffer, but nobody was going to hire a female gaffer because they need to be strong. This was before the #MeToo movement, so I thought ‘I’m not going to fight this one’, and I slid into the art department. There I could make things, and still enjoy the live entertainment.”

Alongside her work in television, Boyle was looking to develop a portable light tile that she had been working on since before university. “My parents are chefs, and when I was 18, they would ask me to work on events at front of house, serving food to people,” she said. “We were working a garden party, there was no lighting outside, and I was serving canapés to guests, and not only could I not see where I was going, nobody could see what the food was.

“So, I thought that that I would design a tray with some lights in it. I knew nothing about electricity, but I bought some LEDs, looked up how to solder a circuit, and made this light tile. It worked really nicely, and not only did it help people to see the food, but it allowed the servers to walk through the crowd, and the crowd parted around them, so I knew there was something in it. This was before university though, so it was put on the back burner as I went through university, and even when I was working in television, this tile was sitting in my shadow, haunting me.”

After six years of working in television, Boyle decided to try and do something with the tile; while working on ITV game show Tipping Point, she approached the company doing the lighting to see if they would be interested in producing the product on a larger scale.

“They went one better and said ‘why don’t we go into business together and I’ll bring you on board at my company and we can teach you about electronics, put you in the lab for six months, and once you’ve understood the lab, the electronics, the data, etc, we’ll start making these tiles.

“I thought that sounded amazing, and it was almost a dream job for about three years – I did about six months in the lab, and then I became the main creative for the company, and started creating some amazing bespoke items for Ellie Goulding, and the Brit Awards and Glastonbury Festival.”

However, it was during this time that Boyle came to a realisation that, through all the glitz and glamour of working in television, she was missing out on something. “It was amazing, but I realised that it was all done for entertainment purposes through a TV lens, but people couldn’t fully experience it in an immersive space,” she explained.

“I realised that the type of fulfilment I get from life is somebody else looking at something and thinking ‘wow, that’s cool, that’s affected me in a really positive way’. Maybe it comes from both of my parents being chefs: you’re feeding people, you’re wanting them to enjoy the experience, and what the viewer doesn’t get through TV or film is the ability to feel and experience the effect of light.

“I thought that was a bit of a waste, and that there’s this beautiful, amazing lighting that could be harnessed and used in different ways rather  than being on a set that people will never really experience. So, I wanted to be able to show people the middle ground of these two lighting aspects and give people the gift of seeing the light for themselves.”

This, Boyle believes, was the launching point for her move into the light art sphere, and her desire to “create things that allow people to have awareness of themselves, and of the space around them”.

She continued: “My mission in in life is to allow people to connect with themselves. I think we live in a world that is overstimulated, everything is more and more, and what I want to do is just say ‘hey, why don’t we just have these moments of tuning back into what your thought process is, understanding the environment where you are, and being present within that time’. That’s where my work stems from.

“The more that I do my job, the more I’m trying encourage people to just be curious, and present, and aware of their environment, along with their mindset and mental health.”

However, she also feels that while she has an overriding ethos or philosophy of creating these moments of self-reflection, her work is open to interpretation.

“Everything that I do will have a reason behind it. I don’t really like art for art’s sake, or design for design’s sake, because there’s so much stuff in the world already that we’re just adding to,” she said.

“Therefore, if we are creating something, it has to have meaning and a thought process behind it. However, I don’t believe that my meaning is the meaning that everybody should take away from it. I often find it frustrating when you go to an art gallery and read a really long blurb explaining what the artist is trying to do. I don’t want to be told why you’ve done it like this, or what I should be feeling, I just want to have the effect that it releases in me. With my work, I’m trying to allow awareness of yourself. I don’t know where that awareness sits within you, so I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but I’m giving you the tools to connect with yourself in different ways.

“Creativity is evolution. It’s exploring, it’s curiosity, it’s awareness, it’s turning over every leaf to see what entices you.”

Within her body of work, that has seen her create beautiful installations for the likes of Tiffany’s, Samsung and Negroni, as well as stunning independent works of art, Boyle believes that her “USP” comes in the fact that she can “speak art and speak tech”, but within this, she has noticed an increasing demand from clients for interactivity.

“I get slightly frustrated when people always want light work to be interactive,” she said. “It’s a bit like saying to Picasso ‘why don’t your sunflowers move?’ He’s created that because that is his emotion. And that’s what I’m also trying to pull people back into. Yes, we can make things responsive, but at the same time we need to create an emotional connection. Interactivity needs to be taken away from pushing buttons to make things happen. For me, in artwork, and especially light artwork, it needs to be about that emotional connection and drawing a curiosity and an awareness and being pulled into a sort of tranquillity stream.

“A project that we’re currently working on, the client wanted me to make some sort of interactive light experience, and the first question when anyone comes to me with any type of brief or idea is ‘what are you trying to create in that user?’ What do you want the person to feel? What is the main point of this? Is it purely for Instagram? Do you want to excite someone or make someone think? What is the feeling that you’re wanting? So, it’s looking at the journey of each person and giving them a connection to the piece. You can have some interaction with it; however the interaction doesn’t need to be the reflection of you, it can just be a trigger point to start the experience.”

These questions form part of a very active creative process, in which Boyle likes to work in person, alongside the client. “I like to be face to face with the client, because I work on energies and picking up on body language and conversations – people can say whatever they want, but it’s not necessarily how they feel or what they actually want,” she said.

“I had a client once who wanted the ‘ultimate disco ball’, we kept meeting on Zoom, but it wasn’t until I met him and really understood his energy that I realised he didn’t want a disco ball, he wanted a light source. When I’m in front of the client, I can really understand what their needs are, what they’re wanting the viewer to feel.”

This approach in part is a way for Boyle to harness the “superpower” of her DLD, and it extends to the way that she will present concepts and ideas to clients. It is something that she has had to work through, particularly with those with less knowledge of DLD, but she believes there is an increasing understanding now.

“People’s understanding of DLD is still limited; dyslexia is almost known worldwide – it’s the jumbling up of letters, trying to read the words on the page and communicating that – whereas DLD is a jumbling up of language. So, the way that I learned is through sounds – I didn’t learn through spelling because in the English language, it has no rules. That’s what I like about electricity, it’s right or it’s wrong.

“I had to really use that to my potential, because let’s be honest, someone with severe dyslexia and DLD like me is not much good to anyone that needs you to read and write, so I had to make my own path.

“When I first started, everything that I wanted to do was through voice notes, and people wouldn’t listen to voice notes to begin with. So, I was trying to write emails that I thought made sense, but I’d get a response saying it doesn’t make any sense. But the more I got recognised, people were more accepting of voice notes, and I could speed up through my career because people understood that this is how I communicate.

“There is still an expectation though, although we are becoming more accepting, we are still just as judgemental and presumptuous as we have always been. People need to be told that this is the situation, because sometimes they can judge quickly, especially if they don’t have anyone dyslexic in their life.

“When I’m pitching for projects, every pitch that you’ll ever have to make has to be this beautiful language poetry, but I used to get myself so tongue tied in this poetry of what I was trying to say, that all I wanted to do was talk to someone about it, so I turned the whole idea on its head and tried to avoid the written word like the plague within my pitches, come up with sketches, have the images but then have a video of myself explaining each image. And I’d open each pitch by saying ‘due to being successfully dyslexic, I will be talking through this pitch’. So, in straight away saying my disability, being up front with it – a lot of people in my world try to hide it, but not only do I not want to hide it, I want people to understand what I’m talking about and raise awareness of these disabilities.”

Raising awareness has in recent years become a big factor in Boyle’s work, particularly during the Covid lockdown in 2020. “Through lockdown, obviously all my work fell away, and I didn’t know if the world was going to come back at all, never mind work for a light artist of all things. So therefore, I needed to problem solve, and I noticed when on my one walk a day that people were working, living, breathing and relaxing all in one room, but that people didn’t understand how to differentiate that space up. We needed to start switching things up and understanding how to feel within our homes to change that energy, so I thought that I would start up a vlog and talk, tell people how to do the lighting in their homes.

“But if you’re anything like me, you need to understand how something works before you get told what to do, so I decided to start from the very beginning and explain how light works, why the sky is blue, why we get connected to things. And then once we have that information, I can go into what we needed to do in the home. So, I did a few videos, but then life started back up again. But I wanted to keep going with the vlogs – I was getting a lot of interest, and Google asked me to do some talks for them, and teach their employees about the science of light, which was a real highlight.”

From here, Boyle is hoping that she can continue to use her platform to raise awareness and understanding about DLD and neurodiversity, as well as the impact of lighting, particularly on neurodiverse people, channelling her “superpower” for the greater good.

“When you’re neurodiverse, you have different sensitivities to different senses,” Boyle continued. “Having an awareness of people having neurodiversity is something that I’m a real advocate for and pushing for. And I do try and allow people to know that about myself quite early on. I use it as a superpower because I know that I think differently in certain situations, and I can see things in a different way.

“When I’m in a space, I have two ways of looking at life: I have a general chit chat, communication, and then I switch to this other form, this other sense that I have of purely looking at the reflections of the lights in people’s faces, how they’re moving, what the light picks up, and I become super heightened to that. I think that’s what allows me to be good at my job, looking at the general details and also the finer details.

“Lighting in general needs to be understood more and respected more though, even by architects. It doesn’t matter what type of room you have; let’s say you had a blank concrete square, you could change that, and the emotion of that space, instantly just through the lighting. There’s a lot of money in furnishing, but it doesn’t matter what you bring in, if the lighting isn’t good, none of those furnishings, none of those elements, will be enhanced. Everything revolves around lighting.

“Without light, we don’t have vision, and vision is our strongest sense. It’s just tapping into the subconscious language that we all speak, across all nationalities.”

Indeed, from speaking with Boyle and seeing her impressive body of work, it is clear that she is fluent in the vibrant, emotive, and beautiful language of light.

Image: Jolly Schwartz Photography