Lumiere Roundup

Lindisfarne gospels projected on to Durham Cathedral

So, Lumiere 2013 has drawn to a close. (Yes, I know this is rather late, but since mid-November I’ve been either busy or asleep. Here is my excuse.) And it’s not a theatre event so isn’t really in the scope of this blog, but as it’s Durham’s biggest and most high-profile arts event by far, it’s getting a review anyway.

So, as I’ve already said, I’ve been quite impressed with this year’s Lumiere. The line-up I think has been the best one ever, the crowd control measures broadly went to plan, and the numbers say it’s been more popular than ever. This has also been the reaction of most people I’ve spoken to. However, there were a few things that I and other missed from earlier festivals – possibly a side-effect of the crowd control, but nonetheless something missing. Anyway, I’ll get on to the later. Let’s start with …

Pick of the festival

This is a tough one, because there were so many different installations I liked, so I’m going to have to get picky. But no pick of Lumiere 2013 would be complete without Crown of Light (pictured above). That goes without saying; I hardly need state why. But in case you’re asking, it’s outstanding because it’s an excellent yet very simple idea of projecting images on the Lindisfarne Gospels on the walls of Durham Cathedral. But far from it being an easy thing anyone could have done if they’d thought of it, it took a lot of thought and skill, some very cunning projector arrangement to miss the trees, and some excellent choices of music to create the right atmosphere. And we get something that any artist dreams of, a centrepiece to a festival, hugely popular with the people who come to see it – and, what’s more, it’s something that is clearly associated with Durham that isn’t the usual stereotypes that dominate “local” art and and theatre. Need I go on?

Illuminated fibre-optic dresses (currently red).The whole lot inside the cathedral was good too. The illuminated dresses are deservedly back by popular demand from 2009, and some of the bricks from The Other Side of the Wall (created by 60 offenders – one brick representing the past and one representing the future) were quite quite moving. But the unbeatable installation was [M]ondes, again another very simple idea, this time a simple but cunning way of projecting light over curvy wires to produce this stunning effect looking somewhat like fireflies darting through the air. Tragically, there do not appear to be any photos that properly capture this effect, but this video gives you a good idea. And score bonus points if you’re a science nerd.

Scale model of the sun over the newest Durham University buildingIn fact, quite a lot of the festival had a sciencey theme to it. Last time round I got just a little annoyed by the odd installation that attempted to pass itself off as authoritative and knowledgeable when in fact it was pseudoscientific bollocks. This time round, whether by accident or by design, the installations that looked scientific actuall attempted to have some proper scientific basis to them. And my highlight of of these had to be Solar Equation, a 1/100,000,000 scale model of the sun. As far as I can tell, the surface of this scale model actually is what NASA thinks the sun looks like, and not just copied from a shit Hollywood movie with Bruce Willis or something. Again, the simplest ideas work the best, and don’t you agree that maths and science are beautiful things?

A darkened room lit up by coloured bottles.Not totally departing from the science theme, one other ongoing gripe I’ve had about Lumiere is the number of installations that supposedly aim to raise awareness of some worthy issue, whilst no-one else has a clue what it’s supposed to be about. This time, however, we had Litre of Light, which is about a very simple device that has brought a lot of benefits to some of the poorest homes in the world. The problem is that many hastily build homes have no windows, so the occupants have a choice of either paying money they can’t afford for electricity, living in a dark home for day as well as night, or cutting a large hole in your roof. The litre of light is the nifty idea (and a genuine project and not just some rubbish an artist made up) of cutting a very small hole and sticking in a plastic bottle with water that refracts sunlight all around the side of the home. And this effect is demonstrated inside a darkened room with the only light coming from the floodlights outside through the plastic bottles. This is demonstrated quite succinctly in a darkened room with no light except the bottles in the ceiling something through floodlights.

The Passport Office building transformed into a digital jukeboxNext door to Litre of Light was Volume Unit, which has to get thumbs up for the novelty value if nothing else. This was – yet again – a very simple idea of projecting visualisations on to the wall of a building to music, somewhat in the style of most music playing computer programs. And they building they chose was my dear old workplace, the passport office, which was undeniably a, shall I say, “memorable” experience back in the days it was known as the Identity and Passport Service, or IPS. You could tweet your requests you be played on the building, so it was just a minor disappointment to discover that no-one has yet recorded a song called “IPS are wankers”. Other slight problem is that you might to enjoying the music, but next on is Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. It’s a trap! But all these issues aside, this must have been a very unusual addition to the Saturday night drinking in all the surrounding pubs.

Stained glass car showing verious semi-identifiable figuresNow, for a change, an outlying installation. I rather liked the Stained Glass Cars at the three park and ride sites. Okay, the audience for this was limited to anyone coming in by Park and Ride and obsessives like me who went to all three Park and Ride sites to take in everything, but I liked the idea of giving a people coming into a Durham a teaser on their journey in – just a pity they didn’t do anything at the station this year. The ideas for images in the windows of these Robin Reliants were quite good: one showing iconic images from the north-east today (that’s Angel of the North etc.), one showing images from long ago (Lindisfarne Gospels and the like), but the last one was a bit of a mystery. There were faces of various public figures, including our new third in line to the throne, but beyond that I hadn’t a clue what the theme was. On the picture, I can make out the Queen, Amy Winehouse, possibly Johnny Rotten, and someone who various people thought was either Kate Middleton, Kate Winslet or Cheryl Cole. No idea what that theme was supposed to be, unless it was to provoke a discussion amongst the motorist of Howlands Park and Ride on what the theme of this was supposed to be.

Giant elephant over Elvet bridgeAnd finally, returning to the city centre, pretty much everything around the market place was good. The phone box aquarium was very popular, perhaps a bit too popular as it turned into a jostle-jostle-photo-photo session. I liked the decorations in the Prince Bishops that surrounded the consumerist Christmas tree; one of the bugbears from the last two was the innovative installations around the city centre getting comewhat drowned out by the corporate Christmas decorations from the shopping centres, so what better a solution that to incorporate the Prince Bishops into the event with lit up plastic bags making some very effective decorations. (Not so convinced about the actual Christmas tree. Opinions were split on this, some people liked it, but I and a few others thought it still looked like a tip of rubbish bags.) But the absolute gem in the shopping district was Elephantastic, very popular with everyone I’ve spoken to, and deservedly so. Anyone queuing into the city centre along Elvet Bridge was treated to an extremely convincing giant elephant on an overhead archway, trumpeting and crashing away. Not sure whether this was intentional, but in spite of using no special 3D technology, the fact the elephant was projected on to a blank screen the way it was gave a thoroughly convincing illusion of a 3D elephant. 3D cinema? Sky 3D? Pah, who needs them.

And this is just a shortened list with me being picky. Well done. On the whole, I think the correct decision was made to move away from showcases of Turner prizewinners and more to installations that ordinary people connect with. As I’ve previously said, I don’t mind the odd incomprehensible piece at Lumiere – some people like that sort of stuff and there’s plenty off other stuff for the rest of us who don’t – but in 2009 and 2011 the balance was wrong. There were far too many prestigious artists doing the near-identical format of profound phrases in neon lettering, and whilst that may please some art critics from the Tate Modern, that was not what the vast majority of people were coming to see. So in 2013 Lumiere can congratulate themselves on a job well done.

What felt like it was missing

So, having got the good news out of the way, I can now turn my attention towards the bits that didn’t quite work out. Much of the downsides seem to have arisen directly or indirectly from the crowd control measure brought in this year. They were absolutely right to introduce measures – anyone who went in 2011 on Friday or Saturday can tell you why – and, to their credit, the crowd controls broadly worked. But it looks like there were a few unintended consequences from this that could have been done better.

The Lord Londonderry statue made into a snowdomeThe criticism I’ve heard the most about the festival is that it didn’t really feel like a festival. Whilst Lumiere 2011 felt all joined up and there was a festival buzz throughout the city centre, this time it felt a lot more like some disjointed installations at different parts of the city. Now, it’s fair to say one festivalish element missing from 2011 was now being able to move, and that’s one we definitely live without. But there’s other things that were missing. The “I Love Durham” snowdome in the Market Place was very effective as a centrepiece – something that the phone booth fish tank, for all its popularity, couldn’t reproduce. There was also the miners’ banners and wireframe figures joining up Silver Street, Sadler Street and the North and South Baileys. Nothing like that this time, hence the disjointed feeling.

Another thing that felt absent was the lighting of the bridges and riverside paths.Framwellgate Bridge lit in pink This again has been one of the definitive features of past festivals, and makes the most of one of Durham key attractions – that you can walk from city centre to woodland in minutes. In both cases, I suspect the reason against doing these was that the Council was worried this might attract too many crowds and be too difficult to control (in line with the efforts to spread the festival over a wider area). That was understandable, but now that we know we can keep the crowds under control, this is something to consider for next time.

On the crowd control itself, one oddity was that the queuing time at the three different entrances seemed to be sporadic. I managed to get into the city centre from Elvet Bridge reasonably quickly on Friday at 7.30, and yet the queues for the Framwellgate Bridge entrance stretched back halfway along North Road, with waiting times in excess of 20 minutes commonplace even as late as 9.30. There does seem to be some sort of discrepancy going on here, and it would be a pity if people are needlessly stopped from enjoying the whole festival just because they joined the wrong queue.

Finally, one thing that put a bit of a dampener on the atmosphere was the proliferation of merchandise tat. I know this is inevitable for any kind of festival – and, let’s be fair, the County Council spends a lot of money on Lumiere, so it’s understandable that that’s want to get some money back by selling licenses to street traders. But when every street trader was selling exactly the same tat as all the other traders were selling, I was a bit put out by that. Presumably someone made a deal with Council to have exclusive rights over what the street traders can sell – wouldn’t be surprising, the Olympics did that endlessly. But when you’re doing a festival that specialises in light installations being used in new and innovative ways, it’s depressing to see all these identical corporate stalls selling identical merchandise.

The unofficial Lumiere

This is something I wasn’t planning to report on, but there was one thing that struck me about the festival that I wasn’t expecting, and that is the emergence of an “unofficial” festival. Slowly but surely, we are seeing more to the four days that what’s in the official programme. I’ve already mentioned the identical tat stalls – that’s a downside. But most of what I saw made welcome additions.

Firstly, I was surprised by the number of people who turned up as walking light installations, some of which were quite impressive. This was not part of some curated activity like some of the pre-festival workshops, but merely individuals doing their own thing without any of the organisers prompting them to do so. Some businesses joined in with their own things. One of the shoe shops on Sadler invited the many passers-by to draw on their window in luminous crayons, with a bug take-up. Again, no need to be in an official programme to do this.

The Empty Shop appointed itself as the unofficial after-show hang-out for Lumiere punters and artists. Even though there was an official place for artists to hang out, this unofficial venue was very popular to go to. What I think we are seeing is Lumiere growing beyond its fully curated core to a wider festival where self-appointed venues and participants have their own influence, a bit like what happens at the Edinburgh Fringe.

So far, no word from the powers that be on whether they approve or disapprove of this sort of thing. I would advise them to wholeheartedly support it. I’m not saying that Lumiere should work to an open-access programme like the Edinburgh Fringe does – indeed, I think that format would be unworkable for this kind of festival, but I would recommend considering some of “fringe” programme to compliment the main festival. If venues like the Empty Shop want to do their own thing, this adds to the festival. What if Durham City businesses decide to start hosting unofficial art installations outside of the official programme? I say great, the more the merrier.

Of course, talk of a next time is still a bit premature …

Will Lumiere return to Durham in 2015?

That is the $64,000 question. All we know for certain is that Durham County Council promises “something spectacular” in 2015 – but it won’t necessarily be Lumiere. So, once more, we go into a period of uncertainty.

Last time round, the big debate was over whether crowds could be safely handled. Those who argued the problem could be solved have been vindicated, but at the time there was no telling who was right. In the end, the argument that won over was the massive boost given to businesses, particularly restaurants. Weighed up against the cost to the Council, it was a no-brainer.

But this time it’s a different question. To quote Councilloor Neil Foster, in charge of economic regeneration: “We’d love to do something eye-catching and spectacular. But it really depends on funding.” So there you go. The key question is funding.

Lumiere is part funded through the Arts Council national portfolio grant to the Gala Theatre, and whilst you might wonder what the Gala Theatre has to do with Lumiere, what this grant actually meant was the Gala acting as a “hub” for several festivals, including Lumiere, Brass and The Streets. This grant runs from 2012-2015, but it’s not clear whether a three-year budget covers two biennial festivals. And there’s still no knowing what Arts Council grants will be like in 2015. Funding from Durham County Council is also precarious. I have no reason to believe that Durham Council intends to copy its Tyneside cousin and slash arts support in order to make the Tories look bad, but local government as a whole is under a lot of financial pressure.

Ultimately, I think this is in the hands of the Arts Council. There are many deserving organisations that deserve their support – there’s no denying that. But when you look at the list of national portfolio organisations, over a third of them are in Greater London. Some serious questions need asking about their priorities. I firmly believe that Lumiere could and should return to Durham – but it may take a big push to ensure this happens.

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