What to expect at Lumiere

Crown of Light projected on to Durham Cathedral

Now that I’ve finished my backlog of reviews, I can turn my attention to the big upcoming arts event in Durham: Lumiere. Coming up next week on the 14th-17th November, it’s a biennial event that has grown from an interesting newcomer four years ago to the dominant event of the whole year. Who would have thought this back in 2008?

You’ll have to wait another week and a bit before you get to see any of these installations in action, but the programme is already out. There’s no need to read it in advance to plan your visit – you can just turn up and enjoy it. But I have taken a look and what’s coming, and I have three observations.

1: It’s more of the same …

… and that’s the way it should be. When you have a successful event that is hugely popular with the people who come to see it, it would have been wrong to suddenly impose something completely different on a captive audience. So the events remains as various arty light installations dotted around the middle of Durham, with a mixture of styles from conventional to experimental. Palace Green and the Cathedral remain the focal point of the festival, and the iconic Crown of Light is going to be projected to the walls of the Cathedral for the third festival running.

It has been suggested that Crown of Light has been overdone and it’s time for something new. I don’t agree with that myself, because Lumiere without Crown of Light would be like Last Night of the Proms without Land of Hope and Glory. However, I can see the point of falling into over-dependence of the same centrepiece again and again. I wonder if in future festivals we could have Crown of Light in rotation on the Cathedral walls with other projections. But then, could anything else compete? Anyway, that’s something to consider for a future Lumiere. This year, Crown of Light it is.

But if the programme might be very similar, one thing has changed a lot.

2: They have pulled all the stops over crowding

Crowds at LumiereAs nearly everyone knows, on otherwise successful festival last year was marred by crowd management. In a way, Lumiere became a victim of its own success; so many people wanted to see the festival – especially the Cathedral bit, crowd marshals had to be hastily arranged. As a result, it could take up to an hour to get from the market place to the Cathedral – a journey that would normally take minutes on foot. Some people described it like Hillsbrough, which I personally think is an insult to everyone affected by the Hillsbrough disaster, but this is what they had to put up with in the aftermath. There was even talk of not coming back.

But they are back, and this time, they have taken a lot of measures to stop this happening again. They have quite sensibly opted to bring the start of the festival forward from 6.00 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., because a big problem was that everybody with children came between 6 and 8 last time. Slightly more controversial is the ticketing system. This time, in order to get into the city centre before 7.30, you need a free ticket, which – it is hoped – will spread the crowds over a long period. (Employees of city centre businesses, of course, are entitled to passes.) There are a lot of installations outside of the ticketed area, and they are making an effort to remind people of this.

The bug question: is it enough? The tickets all went very quickly. This could mean one of two things. Either the popularity of Lumiere has grown since 2011, or large numbers of people booked tickets they weren’t intending to use on the off-chance they fancied using them on the night. Either scenario could mean trouble. One scenario could mean that crowds on these scale will overwhelm all these plans. The other scenario is that the city centre ends up half-empty until 7.30, then a crush for everyone without a ticket getting in. Expect a lot of nervous faces on Thursday night as the plans are put to the test.

3: The scope of Lumiere is growing

In 2011, Lumiere was a series of artistic light installations in Durham. Now it is more than that. For a start there are now two festivals: the original one in Durham, and a second one in Derry/Londonderry (a perk of getting UK capital of culture). But even in Durham, Lumiere does more than it did last time.

Firstly, they are branching out into community participation. One exhibit called “Comsumerist Christmas Tree” is going to be assembled in a series of workshops this week (Prince Bishops, 10-8 until Saturday). And on Saturday Afternoon, there is an event called The Eye and Lumiere where you can add your eye scans to a piece. (This is an event supported by the Wellcome Trust, and the things they support tend to be interesting.) I do have a few reservations about community participation with big arts organisations, but I’ll save that for another day.

The other thing of interest is a conference on Friday, Art Means Business. This is aimed at arts professionals and local authority / arts council types and prices between £30 and £285, so won’t be of much interest to the general public, but this is a huge statement of intent. There are a lot of high-profile speakers, so clearly someone in the north east is setting their sights high.

Last year there were question marks over whether Lumiere would return. Now, we could be talking about Lumiere’s influence stretching out far beyond four days in November.

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