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Lumiere — A Festival of Light

Last week­end I was lucky enough to get up to Durham, in the NE of Eng­land, to spend a cou­ple of nights expe­ri­enc­ing the lat­est event from Arti­choke, titled Lumiere. And a mag­nif­i­cent event it was too.

Lumiere was in fact how I first heard about Arti­choke, via a TV doc­u­men­tary on Sky Arts (in the old days when I used to sub­scribe to Mur­doch TV — we’re now on Freesat). That first Lumiere hap­pened in 2009, and of course I’d missed it. But they planned to do it again, and when I heard about the 2011 event I was quick to block out the time and book a hotel.

The event, which brought dozens of inter­na­tion­al artists work­ing with light into the heart of the medi­ae­val city, turn­ing it into a vast illu­mi­nat­ed art gallery, last­ed over four nights, nom­i­nal­ly from 6–11pm, and fea­tured around three dozen sep­a­rate exhibits. Some of the high­er pro­file instal­la­tions were in the city cen­tre, but many were rather fur­ther out, and in fact you would have need­ed all four nights to catch every­thing. I only had two nights, and that sim­ply was­n’t enough — I prob­a­bly saw about 2/3 of the instal­la­tions and missed some that I real­ly want­ed to see. Thank­ful­ly the weath­er was kind to us — no rain and in fact quite warm — a good deal warmer, in fact, than the last Arti­choke event I attend­ed, Din­ing with Alice, back in May!

What I had rather under­es­ti­mat­ed was the num­ber of peo­ple who would throng the cen­tre of the ancient city as night fell and we approached 6pm. We gath­ered next to the stat­ue of the Mar­quess of Lon­don­der­ry — not one of the nicest peo­ple in life, alleged­ly — who had been trans­formed, thanks to Jacques Rival, into an immense snow-globe with the words “I Love Durham” on the plinth. Hehe.

The crowd con­trol was excel­lent, despite the enor­mous num­bers of peo­ple, but what the organ­is­ers could have done that would have helped was to have had a fair­ly seri­ous PA set up in the Mar­ket Place so that the crowds could be informed about what was hap­pen­ing. The bull horns in use had an effec­tive range of about 10 feet, so most of the time none of us had any idea what was hap­pen­ing or going to hap­pen. It turned out that we were wait­ing to be allowed up the cob­ble streets to the Cathe­dral, but we did­n’t all know that. How­ev­er, that is the only mild­ly neg­a­tive com­ment I have about the whole fes­ti­val, and hope­ful­ly the planned 2013 event will take this sug­ges­tion into account.

Via Twit­ter, @ArtichokeTrust asked what my favourite exhib­it was, and it’s real­ly dif­fi­cult to say. Of course the amaz­ing son et lumiere at the Cathe­dral, high­light of the orig­i­nal 2009 show, must rate up there, and that’s the first thing we were effec­tive­ly queu­ing to see. Titled Crown of Light, it con­sist­ed of mar­vel­lous images of the Lind­is­farne Gospels and much more, illu­mi­nat­ing the front of the Cathe­dral with mul­ti­ple sec­tions slid­ing up and down inde­pen­dent­ly, accom­pa­nied by a pow­er­ful sur­round audio and music sound­track includ­ing actu­al envi­ron­men­tal record­ings from Lind­is­farne itself (though I think it would have sound­ed bet­ter in Ambison­ics, of course). Crown of Light was cre­at­ed by Ross Ash­ton, Robert Ziegler, and John Del’ Nero.

It’s actu­al­ly quite hard to con­vey much of a sense of Crown of Light as it was so immense. But here’s a taste:

The above video includes two extracts, one from near the begin­ning and the oth­er from the end. It’s a hand-held mini-cam­era run­ning at its high­est sen­si­tiv­i­ty, so it’s not won­der­ful qual­i­ty, but hope­ful­ly you’ll get the idea. The first extract is 16:9 and the sec­ond pil­lar­boxed 4:3, the lat­ter show­ing rather more of the building.

Fol­low­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion (there were three per hour), we could either go off to the left, and down towards the riv­er, or we could file into the Cathe­dral itself, where there were some amaz­ing things going on in the Nave, the clois­ters and the Col­lege gar­dens behind.

Com­pag­nie Cara­bosse had hung the Nave with lamps made of white vests on frames, while at the far end of the Nave, next to the pul­pit, was a gen­tle­man per­form­ing on elec­tric gui­tar, synth and vocals, in a rather cool neo-Steam­punk envi­ron­ment. This pho­to of him is a bit ropey, but hope­ful­ly you get the idea from that and the (even more ropey) raw iPhone video below (the audio improves dra­mat­i­cal­ly at 2:22).

In the clois­ters and gar­dens it was fire — with amaz­ing met­al frame­works and sculp­tures with flames issu­ing from var­i­ous parts — from the enor­mous (a rotat­ing globe cov­ered in fire­pots in the clois­ters) to fiery foun­tains and strange lit­tle figures.

Emerg­ing from the gar­dens through an ancient arch­way, we turned down the hill to be con­front­ed by a sequence of mar­vel­lous illu­mi­nat­ed wire-mesh sculp­tured human fig­ures, some­times fly­ing, some­times sit­ting non­cha­lant­ly on a roof, or reclin­ing in a gar­den. These were Les Voyageurs (The Trav­ellers), by Cedric Le Borgne — a num­ber of French artists were rep­re­sent­ed here.

We pro­ceed­ed down the hill, mar­vel­ling at these over­head, near­by and dis­tant fig­ures, until we came to Prebends Bridge, which gave us a pas­sage through a pro­gres­sive rain­bow of colours.

And then it was back towards the cen­tre of the city along the river­front, with the trees and bridges illu­mi­nat­ed by gen­tly shift­ing coloured lights — and vir­tu­al­ly all the lights in the Fes­ti­val, inci­den­tal­ly, were low-ener­gy vari­eties, with some City light­ing turned off so the over­all ener­gy impact of the event was minimal.

Some of the exhibits were low­er-key, but nonethe­less effec­tive. Real and imag­i­nary sto­ries were told in illu­mi­nat­ed text; a clock on a far build­ing spelled out the time in low­er-case Hel­veti­ca; and a series of illu­mi­nat­ed pan­els hung high above the nar­row streets. Pos­si­bly the best-known artist’s work at Lumiere was Tracey Emin’s: an illu­mi­nat­ed phrase, “Be Faith­ful to your dreams” in blue, hand­writ­ing-style text on the side of the chapel in a dis­used grave­yard, approached along a path lined with trees soft­ly shin­ing with slow­ly shift­ing colours.

Else­where, an enor­mous light bulb made of lights hung over the riv­er Wear:

…while com­mon­ly-thrown-away objects were mon­taged and lit with LEDs:

We had an invi­ta­tion to join friends and spon­sors in the Town Hall on the Sat­ur­day night, which was good fun, and I had some inter­est­ing chats — with Arti­choke co-Direc­tor Nicky Webb and with the peo­ple who organ­ised the food for Din­ing With Alice, who had quite a tale to tell, to name but two.

All in all, Lumiere 2011 was an amaz­ing, mag­i­cal, mar­vel­lous fes­ti­val of lights and art – exact­ly what I have learned to expect from Arti­choke. I do hope they are able to do it again in 2013.

For more videos of Lumiere (includ­ing some from the first event in 2009) on Vimeo, click here.