So it’s on. I had some doubts over this one. Lumiere already had the good fortune of being a biannual festival that skipped 2020, but 2021 has been far from a normal year for festivals. Brighton and Buxton Fringes operated on a reduced scale, Edinburgh Fringe limped on at a fraction of its normal size, and in Durham both the Brass Festival and Miners’ Gala were cancelled a second year running owing to continued uncertainty over restrictions. Would Lumiere meet the same fate? The outlook for November wasn’t any better than the outlook for July.
One thing we’ve learnt from experience is that yes or no decision usually gets made when it’s time to commit the money. An event cancelled a four months’ notice is only embarrassing. An event cancelled at two weeks’ notice is embarrassing and a financial disaster too. But the crunch came and went and … Lumiere is go. It is not clear what factors went into the decision, but one thing that must surely have counted in its favour is Durham’s 2025 bid for City of Culture. County Durham’s strongest asset is its festivals, and it would have been been a big setback to axe its flagship festival at this vital moment.
However, things aren’t quite the same this year. As an outdoor festival, it doesn’t have the same risk as big indoor events, but as veterans of the 2011 festival can tell you, it can still get dangerously crowded without plague thrown into the mix. As a result, crowd control measures have been stepped up, and this plus the influence of City of Culture has meant quite a few difference.
What’s different about Lumiere 2021
So the most obvious change is crowd control. Needless to say, we do not want everybody congregating on the Penninsula this time round, and some other bits of the city are also iffy. However, the other factor influencing things is the City of Culture bid. Due to the rule changes of 2025, it is the county, not the city, that is the subject of the bid. Due to the this, the first of the four notable changes gets interesting:
1: It is now a county-wide festival
Since it’s Durham County and not Durham City going for City of Culture, it makes sense to showcase landmarks around the county. This also provides an alternative to the city for those people still uneasy about crowds, and will possibly dilute the numbers away from Durham City a little.
In all, there five-plus-one installations outside of Durham City. They stretch from Seaham sea front to Raby Castle in Barnard Castle, so it will take a really hard-core Lumiere fan with a car to see all of these as well as the 31 in the city, but it should be a highlight for people who live nearby. Inevitably, this includes the Apollo “Pavilion” in Peterlee, in the latest attempt to get the people of County Durham to give a shit about some random blocks of concrete, but I guess that was inevitable.
To summarise, as well as Durham City, there are now six installations across the county lighting up some of County Durham’s most beloved landmarks and the Apollo Pavilion. Enjoy.
2: It is no longer a free-for-all after 7.30 p.m.
Now for the big drawback. Since 2013, Lumiere has run from 4.30 to 11.00, but from 4.30 to 7.30 the Peninsula has been access by ticket only. You had to plan your schedule in advance if you were planning an early visit (particularly if you were bringing children along), but it was quite easy to wing it without: enjoy the two thirds of the festival outside of the central bit to start with, and go to the Market Place and Palace Green later. Not this time round. This year, the Peninsula is ticketed throughout the festival. And judging by how quickly the tickets get snapped up for all time slots before 10 p.m., I suspect the ticket availability before 7.30 p.m. has also been drastically reduced.
If you didn’t get a ticket, all is not lost. Wednesday is test night, and I’ve been before – honestly, it’s almost as good as the real thing, without the problems of crowds or ticket barriers. The only thing you have to worry about it turning up at a time when testing is going on, but around 6 p.m. is generally a safe bet. Alternatively, you can just enjoy the rest of the festival – this year, it’s more like three quarters of the installations outside the ticketed area instead of two third.
I will mark which highlights need a ticket/workaround, but you can still have a good festival without.
3: It is completely outdoors
Crowds outdoors are not risk-free, but crowds indoors is a big no-no. Most of Lumiere’s installations are outdoor anyway, but occasionally there was something inside a building – not a chance this year. Throughout most of the city, you probably won’t notice much difference, but the big omission is the inside of Durham Cathedral. Normally the projection on the front of the Cathedral and the installation inside form the centrepiece, but for the time being, it’s Palace Green only.
That was 100% the right decision, by the way. Even with all the other mitigations in place, the inside of Durham Cathedral was always the worst bottleneck. But if you absolutely can’t manage without your Cathedral Lumiere visit, there is a small consolation …
4: There are now daytime installations
Yes, Durham Cathedral isn’t giving that up easily. They might have taken a leaf out of those American churches who pack everyone into a tight space with no masks or vaccines and let God sort it out, but they didn’t. Instead, they’re running a couple of small installations during the day. You don’t need a ticket if you arrive during the daytime – not sure exactly what time that means, but I’d say before 2.30 p.m. should be safe.
Just be aware that the Cathedral people have lately taken Lumiere as an opportunity to tell you all about God. Which they have a right to do, it’s their building, but please, don’t ask me for my opinions on this God thing. It won’t end well.
My Lumiere 2021 picks
But that’s enough of what’s changed. Let’s take a look at what’s actually in the programme.
To recap my caveats: I am going into major guesswork here. It is very difficult to predict what the highlights will be based on a photo and a blurb – certainly not Lumiere blurbs that over-analyse the meaning of each installation when most of us really want bright lights that look pretty. Where I have made my picks, they are usually installations I remember from earlier Lumieres (including London), or artists whose previous work was good, or similar to things I’ve seen before that I know worked well. Very occasionally, however, I may pick out something that simply grabbed my interest.
So here’s what’s on my radar for 2021.
Colour by Light
I saw this in at Lumiere London in 2016 (as “light graffitti”), and this is one of these ones that you really have to see in person – they are yet to find pictures that do this justice. On its own, it’s just a projected mess of colour squiggles on the pavement, but it’s when people step into the light it comes into its own. It’s like the colours settle on people’s faces like some bizarre make-up. This also appeared at Lumiere Durham in 2017. I think I preferred the London version myself – I gather we’re getting a reprise of the Durham version – but this is one of the cleverest visions I’ve seen for Lumiere. Showing at The Riverwalk. (For anyone who boarded themselves in their homes for the last two years, that’s what the Milburngate Centre was redeveloped into.)
North-east based Novak has one of the most impressive records at Lumiere, being responsible for the fantastic Fool’s Paradise in Durham Castle at the last festival. They also did a similar-styled Voyage at Lumiere London (bring that to Durham damnit). For anyone who saw The Savage at Live theatre back in 2018, Novak did the projections for that too. For 2021, they are doing something new, in their words: “Shape-shifting projections highlight the impact of human-led climate change on our planet”. The challenge, of course, will be whether this conveys the message this intends – I’ve seen many well-intentioned installations in the past end up as more bright lights that look pretty. But just occasionally somebody pulls it off, most notable Mick Stephenson’s original “Liter of Light”. Can Novak pull that off here? This is at Freeman’s Reach, near the Millennium bridge on the east side.
Some people might say this is cheating and shouldn’t count as part of the programme, but over the years Durham has accumulated a number of the more durable installations on a permanent basis, and out of all those, the favourite surely has to be the Heron. A nice elegant metallic structure on the banks of the Wear lit up and night, this was a perfect pick for something to keep for good. It’s at its usual spot of Walkergate Riverside – alternatively, if you’re walking on the north side of Milburngate Bridge, you can’t miss it.
This is a new one, but this looks like a a promising concept. The low-tech version of this is a pair of mirrors on opposite walls to give an endless corridor and an infinite number of yourself (like in the funhouse or the Fat Boy Slim video). This version, however, does the same with video cameras, but apparently tweaks with the time and space of the image. This is the sort of image where you have a few rules and you let the maths go ahead and see what it comes out with – and maths can be a beautiful sometimes. See this at Walkergate, outside the Gala Theatre.
This installation is a completely new one to me, as are the artists, but the Ogden Centre is a regular site for Lumiere now – and I am please to say that, as a scientific building of Durham University, they are very particular about getting the science right. (This might not be a big deal to you, but I am the sort of person who will watch a projection of an atom with electrons orbiting around the nucleus who will scream “NO, YOU IDIOTS! ELECTRONS DO NOT ORBIT ROUND ATOMS! THEY EXIST IN WAVEFUNCTIONS! MORONS! IMBECILES!”) The other thing we’ve learnt about the Ogden Centre is that if you get it right, as Cosmic Architecture did, you can do some mind-blowing optical illusions that make the building seem hollow. Ogden Centre, Durham University Science Site.
The Froggs [in ticketed zone]
I was a bit sceptical of these stickmen when I first saw them at Lumiere in 2013 – the novelty of stickmen on a building at first wore off quickly. But I saw them again at London in 2016 and I must say, they’ve been getting more creative, or they’ve grown on me, or both. I think in the 2016 version they became an acrobatics troupe. Anyway, we are promised that this time round they are now in the form of a rock’n’roll band, with brass section and backing vocals, which intrigues me. This is in the Market Place, which is just about the second most prestigious spot after the Cathedral, so someone has faith in them.
In our hearts blind hope [in ticketed zone]
If the Market Place is the second most prestigious spot, the Cathedral is indisputably the first. And whilst inside might be out of bounds this year, it’s the projection on the front from Palace Green that is the most coveted spot. Not everything is a smash hit – I have to say, the mood over last Lumiere’s Cathedral centrepiece was a bit unenthused – but there have been a lot more winners than let-downs. As for what this one is, I’m intrigued. According to the description, it’s inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the migration of butterflies that coincide with the festival. Although I must say, it does rather remind me of The Matrix. But I’ll settle for either.
City of Light, City of Stories [in ticketed zone]
Finally, this one is a blast from the past. Although I think it was a different group who did something like this many years ago, I saw something similar to this at Odin’s Glow. What’s Odin’s Glow, I hear you say? Well, that was a light festival in Newton-under-Roseberry back in 2009 from this unheard of firm called oh, Artichoke, and they had another project coming up in a nearby city which they’d try as a one-off and see how it goes called, oh, what was it? Yes Lumiere. Wonder how that went. Anyway, one of the most delightful installations all those years ago were these little lantern buildings on the water. Even if someone completely different is doing the Lanterns this time, it looks so good when done right. This is at College Green, round the back of the Cathedral.
And that’s it. Lumiere starts on Thursday, or Wednesday if you can’t wait for the official start. Enjoy, it’s good to be back.