This will mean nothing to everyone who follows this blog outside the north-east, but us Durham folk cannot possibly have missed the fact that the Lumiere festival of light is coming next week from Thursday and Sunday. I very rarely cover arts over than theatre on this blog, but as a Durham local, Lumiere is my one annual exception.
Lumiere is the brain-child of Artichoke, who manage lots of arts festivals including a lot of light-related ones. Prior to the first Lumiere in 2009, they organised a chain of beacons along Hadrian’s Wall, which I missed but heard a lot of good things about; and Viking-themed Odin’s glow in Newton-under-Roseberry and local landmark Roseberry Topping (not far from the Saltburn where I grew up), which I saw and was excellent.
But it’s the festival in Durham that has had the most enduring popularity, now back for its fourth biannual visit. So successful is Lumiere that Artichoke has even exported the format to Derry/Londonderry in 2013 (their capital of culture next year) and London proper in 2016. But, thanks to some very vigorous campaigning to keep arts council funding, Lumiere remains synonymous with Durham.
I’ll be reporting on Lumiere after the festival when I’ve seen things for myself, but here’s a preview of what I recommend we look out for.
What’s changed from 2013
Such is the success of Lumiere that since 2009, there’s not been much cause to tinker with the format, except for one thing: the crowds. In 2011, when the festival became more popular than anyone expected, the crowds in the city centre got insane. So in 2013, lots of measures were introduced, the most obvious one being the ticketing system, but also extending the times the lights are on (quite sensible as before families were effectively swamping the city between 6 and 8), and spreading the installations over a wider area.
In hindsight, it now looks like the final measure went too far. Successful though the effort were to keep crowds under control, the installations were spread out over such a wide area that it began to not feel like a festival any more – rather a set of individual attractions feeling isolated from one another. So this time round they’ve brought the installations closer together again. There’s still two thirds of the installations outside of the city centre (and they keep mentioning this fact in an effort to avoid another city centre crush), but this year they’ll be hoping they’ve got the balance right. Will the balance be right? We’ll see.
Sadly one option that wasn’t open to them was using Wharton Park. I always felt this much under-utilised park would make a great second hub to complement the Penninsula, but we can’t do that because Wharton Park is undergoing major refurbishment and won’t be open until 2016. Shame that. Maybe next time.
It’s difficult to know in advance what’s going to be the best attractions at the festival, simply because you can never tell how something advertised on paper is going to turn out. Some things look beautiful for real, and some turn out to be less remarkable, and there’s always one or two that get a little pretentious (although that’s not as bad as it used to be).
However, based on what I know of some artists’ previous works, and what I’ve found works the best, here’s my pick of installations to watch out for:
Litre of light
For all its merits, my ongoing moan about Durham’s festivals is the over-reliance of imported talent and the lack of interest in home-grown talent. Lumiere has been one of the better ones with its BRILLIANT commissions for local artists, which, whilst only a small step in the right direction, is still a welcome part of the festival.
Anyway, out of all the BRILLIANT alumni, the firm favourite of Durham is surely Mick Stephenson, who has amazed everyone with how much you can do sticking coloured lights into bottles. First it was the effective but surprisingly simple Fusion in 2011, then in 2013 it was the thought-provoking Litre of Light, which showed how useful a bottle of water can be to provide light to homes with no electricity.
This year, Mick Stephenson has been promoted and now gets one of the most coveted spots in Durham Cathedral itself, and he gets to apply his trademark coloured bottles to a replica of the Cathedral’s own rose window. What you see in the picture is the first of the petals – I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like when all put together.
Another artist back surely by popular demand is Top’là Design / Catherine Garret. That name might not sound familiar to you, but what will definitely be familiar to Lumiere fans is the Elephant. This was one of the most popular installations last year, with a 3D elephant towering over Elvet bridge as you queued to get into the city centre. Except … it wasn’t 3D at all. It was just a 2D image cleverly projected in a way that duped you mind into thinking it’s 3D.
So with such a clever grasp of tricks of light, we can look forward to this year’s showing. Staying with the theme of a large mammal viewed from Elvet Bridge, this time it’s a whale projected over the river. The scientist bit of me wonders if they can recreate the effect they achieved last year, but it’ll be fun to find out.
Now, for a change, a recommendation for an artist I’ve never heard of. This is from Miguel Chevalier, and all I really know about this is that it’s going to be coloured beams of light over the ceiling of Durham Cathedral.
But whilst I know little about this article, I do know about the previous main installations done in Durham Cathedral. The first one was good, and the following two were fantastic. There clearly is something about the vertical space inside in cathedral that works so well for these installations, and if this remotely lives up to its predecessors, it’ll be a good.
Please remember, however, that there’s invariably a queue to get into the cathedral, and I expect you to queue politely and wait your turn. The big man upstairs will be watching you this, and if you push in, you’re going to Hell when you die.
This is an installation from Alison Lowry and Richard Hornby, two people with scientific backgrounds from local universities (Durham and Sunderland). In solidarity with other people with academic/physics backgrounds from north-east universities (including the one which is of course the best university in the north-east), I’m always keen on light installations with a science theme to it.
It’s fair to say there are light installations that have better claims to be science-related than this one. This one more falls into the category of pretty rainbow lights along the River Wear. But why not? There have been several installations over the years making use of rainbow-themed lights over the river, and they’ve always been very effective. So whether or not you care for physics, I’m sure there’ll be something for everyone here.
The World Machine
Now for the possibly controversial one. For three successive festivals, the centrepiece of the festival, quite rightly, has been the wonderful Crown of Light projected on Durham Cathedral. Whatever else came and went, this stayed to wow thousands on Palace Green. There are two schools of though here. One is that this is as essential to Lumiere as a Christmas tree is to Christmas, but the other is that everything has a sell-by date and it’s time to move on. This time, the latter one has won. There will be no Crown of Light at Durham Cathedral, there will be something new instead.
But here’s the good news for Crown of Light fans: that exhibit may have gone, but staying is the designer, Ross Ashton. In collaboration with four other artists, he will be producing the new exhibit, The World Machine, this time promsing to cover the origins of the Universe. This is going to be a challenge for them, because the Big Bang and cosmology is such an abstract concept to visualise. It’ll be hard to produce something that’s aesthetically without provoking a riot from Durham University’s physics department going “No! It doesn’t work like that you idiots!” However, I’m told they have a world-renowned cosmologist on their team, so that should work in their favour.
One small but important detail: one of the best bits of Crown of Light was the soundtrack. All the sounds used in the show was pre-existing music compiled together, but it was chosen so well you could swear the whole lot had been written specially for the show. Well, I am pleased to say sound designer John del’Nero is back on board. Living up to the expectations set by Ross Ashton and John del’Nero is a hugely daunting task, but if anyone can, it’s Ross Ashton and John del’Nero.
Another installation meant to be on a science theme. This installation from Janet Echelman refers to the 1.26 milliseconds that an earthquake in Chile shortened the day back in 2010. The shape is derived from NASA data, presumably of the shockwaves. I have to say, I’m a little sceptical about the scientific value of this one. From the description on the website, we have, I quote “Audiences will be posed questions whose answers correspond directly to colours that will be projected proportionately onto the sculpture surface floating overhead. The result is a portrait of the collective thoughts of the public beneath, and a rare experience where the physical and virtual become one.” Hmm. That looks like it’s straying out of science and possibly straying into pretentiousness.
But forget about that. Whatever this is trying to achieve. This is going to be a striking image over the river. I saw this being set up from Milburngate Bridge and it’s all looking rather exciting. You might not pick up whatever message this is intended to give, but don’t think you need to – just enjoy what looks set to be one of the iconic sights of the festival.
The Red House
The other heavily-publicised image in the festival is of a building with an uncertain future. Alumni will remember, fondly or otherwise, Old Shire Hall as the administrative headquarters of Durham University. With the University now having relocated its headquarters to its ever-expanding science site, the building is now unused. In theory, there’s a plan to convert it into a hotel, but whether it actually happens is another question. If it does, will the beautiful building keep its soul?
But for four nights only, Old Shire Hall is to get a new life as an art exhibit. Patrice Warrener promise to illuminate the the red bricks with yellow and gold light. If it looks half as good as the picture suggests, it’ll be four nights of glory. And hopefully it will remind enough people what a gem this building is to Durham the whole year round.
I’m going to cheat a little with my final one and pick something where I have a personal interest. Lots of installations in the programme have grabbed my interest, so I’ve had to be choosy and leave a lot out. But I’m going to give a special mention to Wave from Stu Langley. This one promises to be illuminated wave made of glass beads found along the Durham coastline, and it’s yet another one that I think will look good for real.
Reason this one gets a special plug is that it’s in Fowler’s Yard, and it’s about time that Fowler’s Yard was put on the Lumiere map. Those of you who have been will know that Fowler’s Yard is the home to lots of small creative workspaces and a small theatre. If you’ve been, come again and see the wave. If you haven’t been, come now, but come again in the daytime and see what’s on offer the rest of the year. Especially the theatre. Go on, you know you want to.
And finally … the unofficial Lumiere
One final thing to keep your eyes peels for is the rise of what I call “unofficial Lumiere”. Lumiere, like all of Durham’s festivals, is a curated festival where only invited artists are part of the programme. But this hasn’t stopped other people getting involved anyway. Last year, all sorts of things happened on individuals’ own initiatives. The Empty Shop, increasingly working its way into official fixtures of all Durham festivals, ran a very popular unofficial Lumiere hangout that proved very popular with the official artists. I was also impressed with the way that individual shops decorated themselves, and people even found new and creative ways to illuminate themselves.
Will unofficial Lumiere be a bigger thing this time round? Whatever happens, I hope Artichoke supports and encourages it. I do feel that all of Durham’s Festivals can and should be more inclusive than they currently are, but in the meantime if individual people and businesses take it into their own hands, that’s good for everyone.
All in all, the signs are good for next week’s festival, and it might well be the best one ever. I can confidently say that I will be very busy for four evenings next week, and I look forward to writing about what I saw.