Newcastle might still be dominating the north-east’s cultural scene, but the prize for the biggest single cultural export surely belongs to Durham. Originally intended as a one-off in 2009, threatened by funding cuts in 2015, the Lumiere Festival is now not only a cultural institution in the north-east but has also been taken successfully to other cities, most notably London, who are bringing it back for the second time later this month. I’ll be giving my recommendations for London shortly – before that, however, let’s take a look at what Durham had to offer.
As usual, I’m not doing to do a comprehensive roundup of everything, simply pick out some highlights of what I think we should do more of in the future, and also some suggestions of what I’d like done better.
One interesting thing I did was compare what happened this year to what I wrote about in 2015. This year, there was one big change imposed on the festival which is that a lot of Durham is a building site at the moment. Two major sites north and south of the Milburngate Bridge were (and still are) in various states of demolition and rebuilding, and most notably, the Cathedral itself, normally the centrepiece of the festival, has its own building work going on that made the normal installation impossible (more on this is a moment). There was, therefore, a few reasons to believe this would be a different Lumiere to previous festivals.
Well, in fact, it’s been the opposite. This festival has been the most same as the one before, and this I think may be down to a lot to the experimenting with different formats finally settling on something that works the best. 2011, of course, was notorious for concentrating everything in the Penninsula and crowds getting out of control. 2013 went from one extreme to the other, with the installations spread out over the whole city. 2015 then went for a compromise, with the installations spread over a central area, including the Millennium Place, North Road and Elvet, but with only a third or so of the installations in the Penninsula itself. That, it seems, has been settled on as the right balance, with installations close enough together to give a festival feel, but still spread out enough to keep the crowds to something manageable. That format has been stuck with in 2017, and in my view, this is about right, and they were correct to do this.
The other thing that has stuck – again, I believe they were right to do this – is the heavy presnce of science in the festival. This is perhaps the most notable divergence between Lumiere Durham and Lumiere London, the latter of which features a lot more prominence of PRESTIGIOUS TURNER PRIZE WINNNERS saying PROFOUND WORDS usually in CAPITAL NEON LETTERS, like Durham used to in the early days. This, I believe, fits Durham well, because of the heavy university presence in the city, but it is worth remembering that a lot of work has been done over the years asking people which installations they do and don’t like. So far, I’ve not seen this happen in London. If Londoner like their neon letters, fair enough – but I’ll believe that after they’re asked.
There is change I must mention from 2015 though. Two years ago, there was an annoyingly high number of technical glitches. Technical problems are, to be fair, the bane of any arts event, but after three festivals to practice, one would have though Artichoke should have got the hang of it by now. However, this time, everything I saw worked flawlessly.* This is something that most few people will have noticed and most people will have forgotten about, but a good arts event is just as much about things working smoothly behind the scene as thing that grab our attention. Well done sorting this out, now don’t slip up again.
*: Actually, there was an unexplained issue over the light benches being switched off for a day and a bit, but I’m guessing that was more a decision to do with crowd control than any technical fault, seeing as they’ve been switched on for most of the last year.
As always, I’m not going to be a comprehensive roundup of every single installation. In a festival of this caliber, there’s always some installations that underwhelm compared to the others, but that’s okay because there’s usually something for everyone. Out of the 29 attractions overall, this year there were seven obvious ones that stood out for me.
There’s one thing at the festival that stuck with me above everything else – and it’s the last one I expected. With Durham Cathedral’s central tower covered in scaffolding and the usual spectacle a projection of the walls therefore out of the question, I’d downplayed expectations for the Cathedral, expecting something prominent, but not the absolute centrepiece of the festival. Out went intricate projections, in went plain floodlights light over eight sections of the outside walls. Surely Methods could not compete with its predecessors? Well, it’s defied all expectations, and it has.
It’s the story of many of the greatest works seen at Lumiere. Sometimes the most spectacular ideas are the simplest ones. Eight lights on the outside of the cathedral, each switching on when one of the eight bells of the Cathedral rings, with all the bells played live. When the underside of each bell strikes, a window lights on from a corresponding light on the inside. But the view on the outside is just the warm-up. It’s only when you get inside the Cathedral that it’s truly breathtaking. Ordinary objects inside the Cathedral, normally part of the furniture, suddenly become striking, one second a silhouette as the lights come on behind, and another second lit up itself. One snag with its popularity, of course, were the queue to get inside – not too bad, in the end, but a huge testament to its popularity. Great though Crown of Light and The World Machine were, one trap of a hugely popular format is feeling obliged to do more of the same every time. It’s not clear whether Artichoke were looking for an opportunity to try something different, or whether the building works forced this choice on them, but either way, Methods was inspired, and one of the best choices Artichoke have made.
The Common Good
I had high hopes for Shared Space and Light after their unexpected gem Home Sweet Home last time, and their follow-up The Common Good did not disappoint. It’s fair to say that they didn’t do much different from the last festival, but with Home Sweet Home only being an obscure outlying installation that few people saw, they deserved a bigger audience this time round, and that’s what they got at the Miners’ Hall. Stories of public sector workers were told in their own words. There was no agenda, no attempt to shape it to someone’s chosen message (other than public sector workers doing important jobs), just a platform for these people to say things as they are. Some things are what you’d expect, such as the pressure on ambulance crews; other things are counter-intuitive, such as good relations between the miners and local police at the Miners’ Gala, something that would have seemed impossible 30 years ago.
One notable inclusion were the refuse workers. One ongoing gripe I have about the support given to public sector workers is that it focuses a lot of “worthy” jobs such as teachers and the emergency services. We a hear a lot less about menial low-visibility people working for the public sector such as cleaners and caterers, and with it, I suspect, comes fewer people will to fight their corner on pay and job security. I would have preferred it if they’d gone further and included people from more low-visibility public sector professions, but they did a good job with the refuse workers showing there’s a lot to it than what most people imagine, and that was a welcome change from the traditional face of the public sector. The highlights were, once again, the effects on the building, including very convincing fire that erupts, spreads, and gets brought under control by a fire crew. And it’s good to bring the Miners’ Hall back into the cultural scene in Durham. It’s daft that such a prominent landmark of the city gets so little use, but there’s now a push to restore it to its former glory. If The Common Good helps it on its way, that will be a good thing.
Domes and Arches
This was a no-brainer, but the installations picked for the Market Place have never disappointed and this was no exception. Methods and The Common Good were both great things to watch, but for a single striking sight, this marquee of lights has to be the winner. Every instillation has been different, but all have been memorable, and this could well go down as the iconic image of the whole festival.
This, however, was the unexpected gem of the festival. Durham Cathedral is the building most strongly associated with Lumiere, both inside and outside, with its iconic arches lending itself so well to different installations. But this is the first time I’ve seen them make use of one of the smaller churches, and what a sight it was. Like the other installations I’ve listed so far, this worked on a brilliant application of a simple idea: hanging broken spheres of glass from the ceiling and shining light, with both reflections off the glass itself and the shadows of the walls working so well. Should this be promoted to the Cathedral? Probably not – this smaller intimate setting suited this very well, and I doubt you could have had the same effect on the high ceiling of the Cathedral. There are other churches in Durham, but St. Oswald’s is probably the best one for architecture to rival the Catherdral’s an a smaller scale. So, given the success of this, maybe we’ll see more at St. Oswald’s on the future.
The works on the Cathedral was arguably bad news for World Machine fans, who might have hoped for an encore like its predecessor. But fear not; the team behind this piece were back with a new science-themed installation back on home turf of the University Science Site, even re-using the same music from two years ago (quite rightly, I loved the music, it deserved another outing). This time, it was a very particle physics / cosmology-themed display, which is just about the hardest concept in physics to explain to anyone, so consequently it is possible that they could have committed Crimes against Science (which Lumiere is occasionally guilty of) and no-one would would have been any the wiser. However, based on my rudimentary knowledge of this area is at least looked reasonable, and have previously been sticklers for getting this accurate, so I’m taking their word for it.
If you don’t have a background in science, I’ve probably lost you already, but don’t worry – this was a spectacle to watch whether or not you know the science references. Anyone who enjoyed The World Machine will enjoy this too. It doesn’t have the safe effects you can have on the massive wall of the Cathedral, but it does do something new – some very convicing optical illusions making it look like the shape of the walls themselves change. Out of all the things I’ve seen on Durham University’s science site, this has to rate as one of the best, if not the best. Science looks set to remain a big player in Lumiere.
For the Birds
The final item on Lumiere’s list wasn’t a conventional installation, but more of a festival within a festival. This is quite similar to Power Plant at the original Lumiere of 2009, with lots of small things from different artists – this time, it’s a joint effort of a collective. Like Lumiere as a whole, there was a wide variety of ideas, and some were more memorable than others, but the best ones were on par with the best of Lumiere: shadows of bird cages, spinning feathers, a tunnel of light, all very simple ideas executed brilliantly.
For the Birds took a gamble situating itself in the Botanic Garden, away from the rest of the festival, but the gamble paid off, if anything working too well with the Botanic Gardens joining the Cathedral as a place you have to queue to get in. Will the Botanic Gardens become a regular feature of future Lumieres? It’s hard to say, because this will stand or fall on the success of whichever future collectives they host. But having tried this twice now, with success both times, it’s a distinct possibility.
The Umbrella Project
Last on the list is another blast from the past. Lumiere has always been dominated by light installations, but the early festivals had some performing arts too, usually light-themed street performances. That, however, last happened six years ago, with the last two Lumieres being entirely light installations. Well, this year, it came back in the form of a dance of glowing umbrellas. Unlike previous performances, this took place at no fixed time and location – instead wandering around the city in their own time. They weren’t an easy thing to catch – in the four days I explored the festival, I only found them once – but it was worth catching if you could. It was more a quirky attraction than a spectacular one, but it was a delightful addition for those lucky enough to catch it.
Things that could have been better
There was the odd installation or two that I wasn’t convinced by – I won’t highlight them because everyone has different tastes, and if you don’t like one thing you’re welcome to see something else instead. Here, instead, are some suggestions for the festival as a whole, where I think you could improve the feel of it.
A more joined-up festival: One thing that Lumiere has got a lot better at this having more of a festival feel. Some of the earlier festivals felt a bit disjointed, where you went from one installation to another with dark streets in between. There are two things that have worked well this time and last time: firstly, as I said earlier, they’ve got the spread of the installations about right; and secondly, the market place installations have extras spreading into Silver Street and Sadler Street, making every spot in the area feel like part of the festival.
The one thing where I think they could have done more was joining up the areas outside the Penninsula. There were three major clusters of installations outside the ticketed area, on North Road, the Millennium Place and Old Elvet, but the route between these three was just a normal walk in the dark, only with more people, and this felt a little like you were walking in and out of a light festival. Something like what they do on Silver Street and Sadler Street, even something on a cheaper and less spectacular scale, would, I think, have been a small but effective cosmetic improvement to keep the festival atmosphere going.
The entrances to the Peninsula: This is going to be a bit harsh on the installations seen from Elvet Bridge and Framwellgate Bridge, but what we had this time doesn’t compare to the whale or the elephant we’d seen before, nor does it compared to the amazing projection of Fool’s Paradise on the castle. Queuing to get into the Peninsula an inevitable experience for most visitors, but if I must spend my time queuing, let’s spend it seeing some of the most spectacular sights on the festival. I appreciate that funds are limited and one extra spectacular installation in one location means one less spectacular installation somewhere else, but the bridges, along with the edge of Claypath, are great locations that lots of people see. Make the most of them.
Light up the riverside in both directions: This is more of a practical issue than an artistic preference. Lumiere gets busier and busier each year, but on the whole, the crowd management has been quite good. However, the glaring exception is the Prebends Bridge area, for one simple reason: the walk along the river is too good, too popular, and the narrow path simply cannot cope with that many people on it. The simple solution? Do the same thing for the other path, going the other way. Splitting the crowd two ways will do a lot to ease the queues, and the other way you end up at St. Oswald’s church, which is just as good a destination as the foot of Silver Street. I don’t know how expensive this is, but if it means everyone can get to see one of the most popular parts of the festival, it’ll be worth it.
Do we have to have the evangelism? Right, I don’t know if I’m a lone voice here, but I was a bit put out with the excessive evangelism in the Cathedral this time round. Yes, it’s a Cathedral, there’s going to be religious stuff there, but this year it felt really in your face. I don’t have a problem with religious stuff being there for anyone who want to look for it, such as the candle/prayer room, but handing out gospels at a doorway you have to pass through overstepped the line in my books. Sure, it’s their building, they can do whatever they like as hosts, but I can’t think of anyone else who’d get away with this. I’m not convinced Durham Miners’ Association could get away with political leafleting during The Common Good, and I certainly doubt a venue owner with Atheist leanings could get away they displayed a “There is No God” sign for all the new visitors. Not if they want their building to be used again. Now, if you’d be fine with any of these examples, fair enough. But I really don’t see why Durham Cathedral should be the only ones get a free pass to push their own point of view, just because they’ve got the best building.
Embrace the unofficial Lumiere: Finally, one positive thing about the festival that I wished Artichoke would appreciate more. My ongoing bugbear over culture in County Durham is that’s too much about bringing in outside talent and not enough about appreciating the talent the county already has. I don’t particularly put Lumiere in this category as such – this festival is heavily dependent on big names from around the world, and the Brilliant Scheme provides support for four local artists each year. But why stop at four? One of the best things I like about Lumiere is people being inspired to do their own thing. Some of the shops even develop a reputation for this, with one of my favourites being the Barber of Neville’s ultra-low-budget shop window display that is always witty, usually hairdressing-themed. But, so far, all of this gets ignore by organisers and media alike, as not the proper festival. This, I think, is a wasted opportunity.
Lumiere is too big a part of Durham’s cultural scene to have cultural gatekeepers. The people who use their own imaginations to produce their own things of their own backs are not competing with the festival, they are adding to it. They should not be sidelined or ignored – they should be supported and encouraged. And if this means that 28 official contributions at a future Lumiere is flooded with 280 unofficial ones – all the better. So to everyone who did their own thing in 2017, well done, so the same in 2019, get others to join you. Artichoke, get on board now, and you’ll be glad you did later.
Many thanks to dvdbramhall on Flickr who took the first four pictures in this post and made them available under creative commons. If you liked those, check out a whole album of Lumiere pictures.