How to make next year’s Lumière even better

You might have caught the exciting news this week that Lumière is returning to Durham. This news does sound suspiciously like the news from two months ago that Lumière is returning to Durham. In fact, the only new bit of news is that they’ve chosen the actual dates: it’s the 14th-17th November 2013. But, non-news aside, eyes now turn to what we can expect from the festival next year.

At present, nothing has been announced, but the one thing we can be sure of is that is won’t be the same as last year. Last year, the popular Crown of Light installation on Durham Cathedral was too good: so popular, in fact, that Saddler Street couldn’t cope with the number of pedestrians. Even the last-moment crowd control could only do so much. Everybody who’s anybody in Durham has an opinion on this, so expect blogs and forum to shortly be jam-packed with everyone’s back-seat driving suggestions. But, what the hell, let’s join in. On the aspects of crowds and other things, here are my suggestions:

1: Less self-promotion of the intellectual/meaningful/artistic kind

There are all real phrases used in last year’s publicity: “… artworks that highlight the inequalities and injustices of modern life …”, “… breathing new life into material leftovers”, “… provokes moment of curious private enquiry …”, and my favourite: “… is it a subverted cliché or a message of hope”? I suggest we have less of this and more unashamed descriptions along the lines of “… bright coloured lights that look pretty”. Because that’s what people are coming to see.

2: Encore! Encore! We demand the Crown of Light

Yes, even though it’ll be three festivals in a row. Even though this was the attraction that caused all the crowd problems. The projection on the walls of Durham Cathedral, together with the music written for it, was by far the most outstanding part of the whole festival. Lumière without Crown of Light would be like the Olympics without sport. This will mean a lot of planning to avoid a repeat of last year’s crush, but it will be worth it.

3: Start an hour earlier

The worst of the crowding occurred between 6 and 8 every evening, presumably due to parents with young children wanting to get back before it got too late. If we can spread out the visit over three hours each evening instead of two, that should significantly relieve the overcrowding. If it’s not practical to close roads at 5 when people are still driving home from work, you can still start at 5 on Saturday and Sunday. The increased costs of an extra hour of marshalling will be more than recouped by accommodating more visitors who spend more in the city.

4: Make more use of Wharton Park

The other thing worth considering is to spread the festival over a wider area. Last time, although there were installations dotted all over the place, there was only really one focal point, and that was the marketplace-cum-moshpit leading into the Cathedral. Although there were a couple of good installations in Wharton Park, it never really was a focal point. Put a few more things there and you should be able to share the crowds between there and the Penninsula. Speaking of which …

5: Bring back Power Plant

The only thing that felt missing from Lumière 2011 was the excellent Power Plant that was in the University Botanical Gardens in 2009. This was a collection of light installation pieces that had toured round the country, including the Edinburgh Fringe, and it was excellent. Although you had to pay to get in, which is slightly at odds with a festival that was otherwise free, this is another way you can spread out the crowds. Might be a good thing to put in Wharton Park.

6: Go easy on EVEN MORE NEON LETTERING

Lumière does include a fair number of artistic installations that ordinary people wouldn’t consider art. I don’t have a problem that as such. I do have a problem with places like the Baltic and Mima almost exclusively displaying “art” that doesn’t look like anything at all – I don’t like prestigious venues imposing their ideas of art on everyone else and deeming so-called “populist” works only worthy of galleries deemed inferior to them. But that doesn’t mean I should impose my tastes on modern art fans. Lumière quite rightly gives people a choice – people who don’t like the abstract stuff don’t have to look at it; people who dismiss poplar art as not proper art can look at something acceptably contemporary instead. So far, so good.

But what this is obsession with neon letters spelling profound phrases stuck on buildings? I counted 7 of the 35 installations following this formula, including Claire Fontaine’s “CAPTILISM KILLS LOVE”, Turner Prizewinner Martin Creed’s “EVERYTHING GOING TO BE ALRIGHT”, and Turner Prizewinner Tray Emin’s “BE FAITHFUL TO YOUR DREAMS”. And Lumière 2009 was about the same. For pity’s sake, I thought the point of modern art was to push the boundaries, not do exactly the same thing as everyone else supposedly pushing the boundaries (and no, flashing the last word on and off or anything else doesn’t suddenly make it different and ground-breaking). If Artichoke is set on including contemporary works designed to “provoke debate about art” or whatever the hell the reason is, could we at least have a bit of variety?

7: No pseudoscientific quackery

This rather obscure request concerns one very specific gripe I had about one particular installation last year: Leonardo Meigas’s Hartmann Grid. Now, according to the artist, Hatmann grids are lines that criss-cross the Earth horizontally and vertically. According to Earnest Hartmann, people who spend time close to these lines are exposed to some sort of radiation are are more likely to develop diseases, and people who reside close to a “Hartmann point”, where two lines intersect, are at the most risk. However, as someone who has a background in physics and knows all about radiation, I can categorically assure you this is a load of bollocks.

Why am I making an issue of this and not other modern art? It’s because most modern art, no matter how pretentious, is quite harmless. It might be a waste of money, it might rile people, but it doesn’t hurt anyone. Pseudo-science, however, does hurt people. The reverse placebo effect is a well-documented phenomenon where people’s health can be made to deteriorate just because they’ve been made to believe their health is being made worse. You only need to look at the thousands of people whose health suffers from wifi scare stories, and the misinformation put out by some companies to line their pockets with fake cures, to see what effect this has. No piece of art, however pretty, is worth putting real people’s health at risk. Very disappointed that Artichoke was complicit and allowing this rubbish to be peddled as authoritative fact.

8: Light up all the riverside paths

Just a small suggestion here. One of the worst bits of overcrowding was getting off the riverside paths on to Silver Street. As a result, many of us went the other way in the pitch black. Much as I enjoyed the novelty value, it’s an accident waiting to happen. They’ve previously lit up paths with a little bit of fancy lighting before, so now’s the time to think about doing it for all of them. Might even make the festival feel a bit more joined up.

9: Stop more trains as Chester-le-Street

Bit of a practical measure here, but the more people we can get in by rail the better. Parking is nigh-on impossible and the Park and Ride service is swamped. Unfortunately, this is largely restricted to visitors from Darlington and Newcastle because almost all trains whizz through Chester-le-Street station. If we can persuade the Fat Controller to bend the rules for four days, that will make life a lot easier, as it allows us to get another major population centre into Durham easily.

10: Get local artists involved

I’ve saved the most radical for last. I think I can speak for most people when I say that, to be honest, I’m not interested in how prestigious all these international artist are. I don’t care how many Turner Prizes they’ve won or how many arts critics have given them approval. As long as it looks good, I don’t care whether it was done by Damien Hirst, Jack Vettriano, or the bloke who runs the dodgems on Filey beach.

But am I interested in what people from Durham can do. Last time, the Empty Shop ran an unofficial exhibition whilst the festival was going on. They quite rightly made it clear it was unofficial and didn’t attempt to hijack anything – but why keep it separate? If local people can offer something that adds to the festival, I say the more the merrier. I gather they made some attempts to involve local groups last time, but if that’s the case, it’s time to try harder.


Lumière has become one of the greatest assets of the north east arts scene, and it’s great that this has overcome the ridiculous negativity from some people over the festival being too popular. But there’s always room to make a great festival even greater. Artichoke, if you’re reading, you can have all these ideas for free. I wait with interest to see what happens next.

UPDATE 29/10/12: I clean forgot. One final suggestion:

11: Hold off the Christmas lights – please

I’ve never been a fan of sticking Christmas decorations up in mid-October all over our high streets, but it gets quite annoying when Christmas lights get mixed up with the Lumière lights. Strange as it may seem, there is more to October, November and December than Christmas, and I get sick of explaining to people that this festival is not a Christmas lights festival. Is it really too much to ask the Prince Bishops and the Gates to wait until late November, like we used to do?



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