Lumiere 2015 roundup

Old Shire Hall illuminated in multicolour as The Red HouseAt last! My reviews backlog is under one month long, and this means I can turn my attention to the one non-theatre event I cover every two years, and that’s the legendary Lumiere. Back for its fourth biannual appearance, it’s once again been every bit the popular event it was expected to be.

This year, I was in the fortunate position of holding a gold card pass with possibly the most piss-poor claim to be “an employee of a city centre business”. So I had a perfect chance to get a good look at most things several times over the four days. It’s now nearly a month later and attention’s turned to that ghastly thing at the end of this month, but let’s have a look back at the festival and give my thoughts on it.

Overall impressions:

If there’s one thing that struck me about this festival, it’s how much it’s changed since it began. In 2009, the festival was very heavily weighted to contemporary arts by Turner Prize winners and other artists that Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst might approve of. I didn’t have a problem with this because there were also plenty of things that, um, ordinary people would enjoy (including, of course, the famous Crown of Light project on the Cathedral). Nothing wrong with having a choice, although it did get a bit repetitive with EVEN MORE NEON LETTERING on the side of buildings.

Durham Cathedral roof illuminated for Complex MeshesThat type of art has now virtually disappeared. What used to be a homage to the sort of artists that the Baltic/Mima approve of has been replaced with something very different: a homage to science. It started to feature in 2013 with a heavily science-themed quarter in the Unviersity’s science site, and this year, it’s gone mainstream and dominates the festival. It’s a direction I’d have never guessed the festival would go in six years ago –  and I think it’s great that it has.

The other change is the spread of the festival. This has taken quite a bit of experimentation, but it looks like they’ve finally got the balance right. After the big squeeze of 2011 when too much of the festival was squeezed into the city centre, it went to a highly spread-out layout in 2013 that many felt was too sparse to feel like a festival. This time, they struck a happy medium, with about the same number of installations inside the Peninsula, but the other 60% mostly spread over the central areas of Milburngate, Walkergate and Elvet. So once again it felt like a joined-up festival, with crowds still managed to something sensible.

There was another way they kept the festival joined up, but I’ll come to this in …

Festival highlights:

This roundup should be read in conjunction with my  Lumiere Preview, where I listed the installations I’d been looking forward to in advance of the festival. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so I generally won’t repeat what I wrote about in the preview, and installations I wrote about in the preview won’t be repeated here unless I have something extra to add.

It wasn’t easy to come up with a short list, because the standard was excellent this year and I’ve had to pass over a lot of good work. So caveats aside, here is my pick of the pieces that impressed me the most over and above what I wrote in the preview.

Les Luminéoles and Garden of Light

Illuminated plant from Garden of LightI’ve put these two together, because although they were both good pieces in their own right, they shared one thing in common that I thought added an extra touch to the festival. Les Luminéoles was primarily a pair of floating fish, part kite and part helium balloon, that glided over the market place. Garden of Light was a lovely collection of giant illuminated plants that occupied Durham Cathedral’s college gardens. Both of these places are considered prime locations for the best and most popular pieces, and these two were no exception.

However, these two installations both had one touch that I found suited the festival really well. As well, as the main exhibits in the main location, they both had little feature in the surrounding area. Les Luminéoles had mathing lanterns along Silver Street and Saddler Steet, whilst Garden of Light continued the plants along South Bailey and Prebends Bridge. With the last festival having a disjointed feel to it, it’s little touches like this that add to the festival feeling. Good call, Artichoke.

Fool’s Paradise

Projections on Durham Cathedral are as intrinsic to Lumiere as the Olympic Torch is to the Olympics, but so far, no-one has ever done the Castle … until now. Perhaps it’s because of the technical difficulties of the Castle – the only wall that’s really suitable for projection has nowhere a projector can go with a clear line of sight that isn’t hundreds of metres away – so they put it hundreds of metres away. I was amazed to discover the projector was sited over the river near St. Margaret’s Church and still give such a clear and intense image. How fast technology moves on.

Durham Castle illuminated for Fool's ParadiseBut it’s not just a technical accomplishment. Novak did a great job constructing a bespoke projection on the Castle, making use of every wall, every tower, every nook and cranny. One moment it’s a village, the next moment under the sea, then a castle that a giant worm crashes through, then the backdrop to the Pied Piper taking the children away to be drowned in the river and the rats to the magical land (or was it the other way round? – I forget the story).

Now that was know projection on the castle is feasible, and it serves well as the entertainment whilst people queue on Franwellgate Bridge, maybe this will become a permanent fixture.


Wow. Speak to anyone who went to Lumiere, and they’ll tell you the whale was the star attraction. I’m one of these people who rarely shares the overwhelming enthusiasm for the film or play or thing that everyone says you absolutely must see, but on this occasion I fully endorse the people’s choice. Mysticète beats off some very tough competition to be the best of the best.

Projection of whale on River WearThe beauty of this piece is its simplicity. Like the elephant last year, it’s ultimately just a piece of projection, but the clever touch is using wall of water spray as the screen over the wide area of the river, creating the perfect illusion. If I didn’t know better, I would marvel at the amazing 3D effects, but like last time, it’s really only 2D. If you watched very closely, one of two of the higher leaps gave the game away, but apart from that, anyone who doesn’t know how they’ve done it was easily fooled. The only snag with this format is that it was vulnerable to the river rising after heavy rain, and sadly the rainfall cause it to be cancelled on the last night. And that meant the people who’d spent three days hearing how good this was would have missed out. Shame that.

Still, I can’t have myself praising what everyone else is praising without some sort of criticism. Okay, you’ve romanticised a whale swimming in a river. Yeah, that’s responsible, isn’t it? Now people are going to encourage real whales to swim up rivers for their own entertainment. Then they’ll get stuck. Then they’ll die. And it’ll be all your fault Lumiere … No, this isn’t working, is it? Let’s move on.

The World Machine

So now it’s the battle of the giants. Could the new projection on Durham’s Cathedral beat its predecessor? In a way, it’s an impossible task to compare the two. Crown of Light was, in a way, a cut-and-paste job, with images from the Lindisfarne Gospels used as the basis for images projected on the Cathedral, but what a beautiful job it was. The music, likewise, was a compilation of various orchestral, choral and organ music, but it was such a stirring compilation it could have been written for Lumiere itself.

Durham Cathedral in The World MachineThis time round, it started from scratch, with a bigger-budget project to create new astronomical, biological and cosmological images from scratch – but this opened the door to new stunning effects such as a planet surface freezing or burning, and the whole cathedral being sucked into a black hole. The music was this time written specially for the projection, but wow, what a soundtrack that was. So different are the two, and so split is public reaction, I’ll have to call this a dead heat.

I will say, though, I think The World Machine missed one opportunity, and that was to teach people more about science. Even with my PhD in physical chemistry, I frequently struggled to work out what scientific wonder was being depicted at the moment. So abstract are the concepts of this field that I’m not sure it is possible that it would be possible to have an easy-to-understand cosmology for beginners. There’s a website from Durham University explaining what it’s about if you’re interested. But it would have been so good if they’d had a exhibition inside the Cathedral, whilst the project on the outside was still fresh in people’s minds, telling them all about the science and get them to think further. Ah well, maybe next time.

Still, it’s great to see that the Church of England has now decided that it’s okay to celebrate the big bang and evolution AND believe in God. Now can someone please explain this to the Americans?

Litre of Light

Durham Cathedral Rose Window made of of bottlesI know I’m making this a very penninsula-centric roundup, but I cannot bear to leave out the rose window. I covered this in the roundup, and I was already expecting a good job, but it was breathtaking to see a rainbow rose window in the Cloisters, and even more amazing to think it’s just a load of plastic bottles arranged into a rose shape window and a few lights round the back.

One thing that didn’t feature as prominently as last time was the noble cause to use bottles as means of getting into a home in the many places in the world where there’s plenty of daylight but no electricity. But Mick Stephenson did not lose sight of this and this was promoted in information that accompanied the rose window. So as a gesture of support, please take the time to visit the website of the MyShelter foundation. Please read about what they do and consider donating.


There’s been quite a few installations this year with a creepy side to them, but this one surely wins the prize for the creepiest. Returning to the city centre along the river bank, we saw a scene of a very dense fog on the other side of the river. Although this method was presumably the standard dry ice trick, it was a very convincing with some strategically deployed light. Although it must be said the only places I’ve seen that sort of glowing mist is formulaic teen slasher flicks.

Fogscape - mist in woods

As far as I know, Jason Vorhees and friends were not hanging around that area waiting to hack American teenagers to death, but to be on the safe side, I’d advise any hedonistic revellers to avoid having sex in that mist because that sort of thing never seems to end well.

Home Sweet Home Durham

The final one on my list, however, was one of the most low-key installations, and one of the furthest away from the centre of the festival. Home Sweet Home was another simple idea, but it was done so well. Stories were taken from various people in County Durham about their homes, from senior citizens to a capella singers to a very profound story of a young woman who’d spent a long time homeless.

House projected on to a house for Home Sweet HomeJust like the Castle and Cathedral, a real building was used for the projections, but this time, it was an just an ordinary house of an ordinary street, made into all sorts of different homes, from lifelong homes to abandoned properties to bungalows (yes, they even found a way to change a two-story house into a bungalow). Very impressive work from newcomers shared space and light. It may only have been a sideshow this year, but they deserve something bigger and better next time.

The unofficial Lumiere:

Somewhat disappointingly, there didn’t seem to be that much in the way of unofficial participation this time round. After a promising start two years ago with businesses and people doing all sorts of creative things, it was mainly the same businesses doing the same things, and fewer people than last time doing their own thing.

Lightbulb drawn in window with light behindBut all is not lost, and we had this contribution from the Barber of Neville, just off North Road. Again, a simple idea but to brilliant use, but whilst some of these installations must have cost thousands, this must have cost a few quid’s worth of window paint and one light bulb. And I’m pleased to say this was picked up by the Lumiere organisers and endorsed. Looking forward to their contribution in 2017.

And now, the niggles:

The standard was exceptional this year, and as a result I’ve not had to to write about all the things I liked. Sadly, there were a few irritating niggles. Nothing that spoilt the festival, but here’s a list of some minor annoyances to consider for next time.

Merchandise, merchandise everywhere: Look, I know Lumiere is an expensive festival to put on, and part of that expense can be recouped by selling licenses for street trading to the highest bidder. But did they really have to be so irritating? For a festival that prides itself on the unexpected and the original, it was so bloody annoying to see exactly the same stalls selling exactly the same merchandise all over the city. And it’s exactly the same tat sold as the last three festivals. And the same tat makes exactly the same noises that really got on my tits over the four days. Isn’t there any way at all that this can be made a little less repetitive? Please.

Compulsory “donations”: The programme was free for the last three festivals. This time, you had to pay for one. To be fair, the programme was more details and you got what you paid for, but I got slightly irked by this “minimum donation £1”. Look, Artichoke, if you have to pay money to get something it’s not a donation. Either make it a recommended donation or just call it a “price”. Calling it a donation doesn’t fool anyone.

One crime against physics: Although there’s no installation I disliked, there was one needless oversight for Rainbow River. This installation was light refracted through a giant triangular prism. At least, it was meant to look like that – refracting light through a real prism on this scale isn’t yet feasible. So instead they cheated a little and simulated refraction of light, with white might shone in one end and and rainbow light shone the other. But I knew something wasn’t right, then I realised: the prism was the wrong way round. Look, I know not all of us remember our physics from school, but the prism is a well-known one (thanks to Pink Floyd’s album). That didn’t make any sense. Why Lumiere, why?

(Although, to be fair, that pales into insignificance when compared to Hartmann grid from 2011. That was complete pseudoscientific bollocks.)

Too many technical glitches: Some things can’t be helped, such as bad weather, but the one thing Lumiere was always good at is reliability of the installations. This time, however, the festival seemed to be plagued by technical problems. Lots of installations were affected at different times, but the worst offender had to be the speakers for the Fool’s Paradise projection on the castle. Frequently the speakers suffered from interference, and one too many occasions they cut out completely. I may be harsh, but I’m a tester by trade and this festival doesn’t seem to have been tested enough. Come on Lumiere, sort it out for next time.

The unexpected event:

Lumiere has had a steep learning curve adjusting to the unexpected. Crowds had proved to be unpredictable for years, and the biggest unknown is of course the weather, which can mess up anyone’s plans at short notice. What surely no-one expected during the festival was the dreadful events unfolding in Paris on the Friday – and I must have been amongst many people who was at the festival with no idea this was going on. It kinds of put things into perspective, with those of us inside the Lumiere bubble pondering over things that don’t matter that much compared to those at the Bataclan.


Red, white and blue bicycles
Photo from Helena Brennan

Artichoke did the only thing they could have done in the situation: keep the festival going over Saturday and Sunday, and join the rest of the world in paring tribute. I don’t think anyone caught up in Paris would have wanted festivals like this to be cancelled, and that would have only have played into the hands of the nutjobs who’d do this sort of thing. So instead, they found dignified opportunities to join the rest of the world in projected the Tricolor on the castle and Cathedral, and find more opportunities to pay tribute elsewhere in the festival.


This is of course a decision that I hope that Artichoke never has to make that decision again, but I’m proud of how it was handled.

Will Lumiere return in 2017?

So now we move on to this question. In spite of the festival getting more popular time after time, there’s always been a question mark over whether each festival will be the last one. This was was especially precarious, are a long time after the 2013 festival Durham County Council said there would be “something spectacular” – be whether it was Lumiere would depend on the funding. It was only in July last year, when Durham County Council kept its Arts Council Funding (but others weren’t so lucky), that they were able to go ahead.

Even after the success of 2015, another one looked iffy. With the Arts Council expected to have another large cut, it was by no means certain that the funding for Durham’s festivals would have survived another round of cuts. But with the last-minute decision to pull back on arts cuts (and a lot of other cuts), the squeeze we all feared isn’t nearly as much as we expected. So here is my firm call: Durham County Council’s festivals will keep their National Portfolio status next time round, and Lumiere will be funded from that. Roll on 2017.

Before then, a couple of suggestions: next time, when Wharton Park’s refurbishment is complete, I highly recommend using that. It would make a great focal point for a festival like this. And whilst we’re waiting, any chance of selling an album with all the music used in the exhibits?

And if you can’t wait for 2017, or you’re one of my London followers where all of my north-east coverage means nothing to you, Lumiere comes to London next January, with many of Durham’s greatest hits on how there. With the Derry/Londonderry festival in their city of culture year, and the capital now, it looks like there’s no end in sight to the Lumiere era, with Durham staying at the helm. Long may it last.

(Many many thanks to John Lord who supplied most of the photos in Flickr that were free to re-use. Check out his album for more great Lumiere photos in high resolution.)

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