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Third Angel presents

The Expected Lifespan Of Dreams

A site specific performance for Site Gallery and Light Night 2006.


Devised and Presented by
Alexander Kelly & Rachael Walton

Chris Thorpe

Research Notes: The Denne Byerrinbilt Effect

The stretch of the Norwegian coast that lies between the towns of Bodo and Narvik straddles the Arctic Circle. It is one of the most strikingly beautiful places in Europe, if not the world. The daylight landscape seems to change its mood by the hour. By the minute. A cloud across the sun can turn the steep, rock-strewn sides of the inlets where the sea snakes its way into the land from softened green to a primeval landscape of ancient, towering shadows and back again in seconds.
It was in this place that the Norwegian Government of the 1960s decided to site a remarkable social experiment. Scandinavia has long been seen, stereotyped even, as a place where a depressive temperament runs deep among the people. There is talk of the long cold darkness of the winters and the sleepless unrelenting summer light, as well as a fondness for excessive alcohol consumption among the general population as causes of a suicidal bent in the Nordic soul. While these views have been proven statistically to be wild exaggerations, and in some cases completely false, in 1960s Norway there was nevertheless acute concern that society was failing those who through depression, some innate vulnerability, or form of what’s these days called learning difficulty, found it difficult to live within its boundaries.
Umuligfjord is one of the longest fjord, or sea inlets, on that stretch of Norwegian coastline. It is high sided and exceptionally steep, running inland for almost two kilometres until it ends in a wide, flat area of land at its head, which is incredibly beautiful, and according to visitors, an exceptionally peaceful place to spend some time. Crucially, in the 1960s, it was also devoid of human habitation. The Norwegian Government built a new, unobtrusive road to connect this area of flat, fertile land to the rest of the country. Then, when it was connected, they built a town, which they called Denne Byerrinbilt.
Denne Byerrinbilt was for those people in Norway who, for whatever reason, felt that they couldn’t cope. It had shops, schools, a hospital, churches for those who found them to be of use, and houses for whoever wanted to live there. All these things designed by the people who wanted to use them. Residents of the town were allowed to run their own affairs, municipal and moral, organise the rhythm of their lives in the way that best suited them, and access the full range of services available to all other members of society if they wished to. They could live alone, or together, they could come and go from the town as they pleased, some living there and never choosing to leave, some coming for only a few weeks a year, when the pressure of their difficulty in society became intolerable. And it worked.

Of absolute importance to the existence of Denne Byerrinbilt is one central principle, which was, and still is, rigorously enforced - nobody is ever sent to the town. You can’t be referred there by a mental health professional, a doctor or a court. It is there for you, if you choose it. You are allowed to come and go, work as you please at your old job or train for one you’ve never done. Your feelings are never questioned, you are just allowed to have them. And as long as no-one and nothing is damaged, you can do what you like.

The one thing the efficient and well-prepared Norwegian Government hadn’t planned for - because they had no idea it was relevant, was the Sub-Arctic vortex.
The Sub-Arctic vortex is a huge mass of air that swirls where cold air from the North crashes gently into the warmer air from the South. The two airstreams form a huge, slow moving loop over North-Western Europe which rotates year round, with the air at the top sinking in a slow and graceful spiral to the surface. As this rotation reaches the ground it moves towards its centre, in a kind of funnel shape, and shrinks to a point which, when it lands on the earth, is only about two and a half miles across. And that point is directly over Denne Byerinnbilt.
This has no noticeable effect on the weather. The vortex moves so slowly that the weather forming within its rotation is undisturbed. The major noticeable effect is this - if a helium balloon is released in Europe, is has a 25% chance of being caught in the rotation of the vortex. And if it gets caught, it lands in Denne Byerinnbilt. The town, from its founding, has existed under a constant, coloured rain of balloons, some unadorned, some carrying messages, addresses, photographs, and it never stops.
Denne Byerinnbilt has a suicide rate less than a fifth of that in the rest of the nation.
Interestingly, it was subsequently found that there are other equivalent balloon ‘hotspots’ around the world where balloons are collected from a wide geographical locality due to idiosyncracies in weather systems. While Denne Byerinnebilt’s unique positioning means it is the final destination for approximately 25% of balloons released in an area of Europe that stretches from Novosibirsk, Russia in the East to Lisbon in the west, and as far South as Palermo, Sicily, there are similar phenomena attached to other land masses. Many South American balloons end up within a three mile radius of a small hill village in Bolivia, and likewise the settlement of Yellowknife in Northern British Columbia receives a disproportionate amount of balloons from Canada and the US. Showing a great enterprise, when Chinese scientists discovered the location of a South Asian hotspot in an uninhabited part of their territory, their Government actually founded a new town, Shengshou, in which the main industry is recycling the plastic and foil from the balloons harvested into consumer goods and toys.
 In 1999, Karl Frinck and Elke Westenfelder, two PhD students in Atmospheric Dynamics at the University of Magdeburg, Germany, undertook a year-long study to determine the lifespan of helium-filled balloons released outdoors. Of course, the Byerinnebilt Effect, as it has been named, was a well known phenomenon, having been discovered in the sixties and closely studied for many years.
What particularly interested Frinck and Westenfelder was the fate of the balloons that were unaccounted for. By collecting data from balloon releases, initially across Europe, they were able to establish that as well as the 25% of balloons accounted for in Denne Byerinnebilt, approximately 15% were found and returned to their place of release by post or other means. They theorised that the 60% of balloons that were therefore unaccounted for, could, if located, give a useful insight into both the wider atmospheric dynamics at play, their changeability, and any areas in which the balloons might be massing, causing a potential and unnoticed future problem.
Accordingly, the two German researchers released one hundred balloons on the Saturday morning of each week from the January to December of 1999. these releases were simultaneous with releases at the universities of St Petersburg and Bristol by fellow researchers who had agreed to participate in the project. The label on each balloon was embedded with a chip, and the individual ‘signature’ of each balloon was tracked by a central processing hub in Magdeburg until it came to rest. Frink and Westenfeld then collated and analysed the mass of data generated, a mammoth task that took them until the October of the next year, when the study was finally published.
Not only did Frinck and Westenfelder discover that Denne Byerinnebilt was the only known balloon ‘hotspot’ in Europe, with distribution of the rest of the balloons being largely uniform and unproblematic, the study also provided some interesting insights into the fate of the individual balloons themselves. Of the 60% of balloons not either returned or landing in Norway over the first year of study, they found that approximately:

  • 0.5% disappeared ‘very suddenly’ without making landfall. It is theorised that these balloons may have been sucked into the jet turbines of airliners - evidently with no ill-effects.
  • 17.5% land on water - usually in the North Sea or in the Atlantic off the West Coast of Ireland.
  • 7% are found and ‘adopted’ by children.
  • 4% are incorporated in nests or other structures by birds.
  • 6.5% are eaten by wild or domestic animals.
  • 2% are found and used in improvised shelter or rainwear by the homeless.
  • 13.5% reach sufficient height for their internal pressure to be sufficiently above atmospheric pressure at altitude, and burst.
  • 5% become fixed to exceptionally tall, frame-like structures such as the Eiffel Tower, and slowly deflate over several weeks.
  • 3% are shot.
  • 1% are still airborne to this day.

Ironically, the city of Magdeburg is also home to the recording studio in which German singer Nina recorded her 1981 single 99 Red Balloons, which reached No1 in several countries including the UK, and painted a bleakly dystopian picture of an imaginary incident in which the release of the eponymous balloons in Central Europe accidentally triggers a nuclear war.

The Magdeburg Project is ongoing, run by a team in the Atmospheric Research Department, which still collates data from European balloon releases to calculate optimum times of day and conditions for events, and to further refine our understanding of interdependent weather systems and their changes. We are very pleased to be a small part of that project.


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