Without Walls TALKS: It’s more than pretty lights…the power of Light Festivals by David Edmunds

14 December 2020

There is something about light that we are drawn to as humans, with roots in holiday celebrations, such as Diwali, Christmas or Viking fire festivals such as Up Helly Aa. We even use lightboxes to ease seasonal depression. I think we sometimes underestimate the power and need for light in our daily lives. Throughout the national lockdowns of 2020 we have seen people turning to creativity for an uplift and right now there is a national light festival taking place as homes around the UK chose to put up their Christmas light displays in November as an antidote to the mad year that we have been through; it’s like a community light project on steroids.

There is an innate need that we have for light and when you add artists into the mix like many light festivals across the world do, that elevates our connection even further.

"Perhaps this is why light festivals in all their forms have proved such a great and popular way to build audiences for outdoor work, particularly with those who may not feel arts and cultural events are for them."

Light festivals can vary according to budget and scale. In Worcester, we have a community-led light festival called “Love the Arbo”, where residents decorate their windows and create a charming, engaging event with limited financial resources.

Festivals like Love the Arbo sit beautifully alongside events like Light Night Worcester that we introduced as a brand-new festival at the beginning of 2020 (doesn’t that now feel a long time ago!). This sort of event is very new for Worcester as a city and whilst we were confident in the work we had programmed and that it would resonate with our local community, we had no idea how many people would turn up on the night. In the end, it brought around 6000 people to the city centre on what would have normally been a very quiet, wet Thursday night in January. It surpassed our initial expectations giving us huge confidence in what we want to do going forward with Light Night Worcester as an annual event.

It is invaluable when introducing a new type of event to make sure the way the work programmed is talked about is accessible. Avoiding academic language, telling audiences what they will see / experience in easy-to-understand terms removes barriers and naturally leads to more engagement. Our audiences for our first light festival didn’t necessarily care for example who the composer was for a soundscape accompanying an installation we programmed called Wave-Field. What they were interested in was knowing they could sit on these see-saws and experience the lights and sounds their movements were creating, with their families and friends. Being clear what the audience’s role is, (particularly when they aren’t a passive bystander), is important alongside explicitly giving them permission to interact. Encouraging this was something our audiences in Worcester really warmed to, that sense of us giving them permission to play not to just watch.

In a world that has quite a large focus on social media having Instagram ready light installations creates another way for audiences to easily understand a way of interacting with the work. We found we had huge engagement on social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook), which was surely helped by that photogenic quality.

Light festivals are not only a new thing for Worcester but a key part of festivals growth in the UK over recent years. We have already seen in Europe and particularly in the North of England through the Light Up The North network how such festivals can engage audiences at a time of year when outdoor arts have traditionally not been as active/visible.

Light festivals have given us a way to put on large-scale outdoor events in the autumn & winter months. They allow us to play with genres as they don’t necessarily focus on just one specific element. The beauty of light festivals is that we can make our own definition and try out different approaches to the work to see what lands and resonates with our audiences. This is certainly something we are exploring as our festivals programme has the scope to be experimental due to being part of a cultural development project. We are testing out what the local community responds to. For 2021 we are looking at large scale projection mapping on buildings and planning to use fire for our third foray in 2022. Compare this with our first year where we programmed interactive work such as Halo and Illumaphonium alongside the Wave Field See-Saws.

As with outdoor arts in general, the light festival sector is incredibly collaborative and eager to share ideas. You can visit more established festivals like GLOW in Eindhoven, Light Night Leeds or Lumiere in Durham or perhaps a slightly smaller festival that is based in a place with a similar demographic to your own area and see what seems to be landing with audiences. This collaboration goes even further and part of what is exciting about light work is how traditionally non-light-based artists are collaborating to make work in this field. Cirque Bijou who we welcomed to the city in January have a circus and community practice background developed their Umbrella Project which uses light-up LED umbrellas that can be used for community participation in light festivals.

We felt it was important, in the current climate we’ve all found ourselves in, to commission artists for our Light Night in 2021. Whilst it can be more expensive than buying in ready-made work, it gives an opportunity to shape the work and directly support artists in making new work which we all know has been so hard in 2020.

"I think it will be interesting to see how the commissioning process shifts and changes - will we see more cross-discipline work bringing in new voices and new approaches? What might light-based projects look like that combine: artists, architects, city planners......"

What if, rather than focusing on just the tourism and obvious economic benefits light festivals and other events can bring, commissioning artists become embedded in civic improvements? Light-based work and the artists that make it could play a huge role in that process. Projects like the solar-powered glowing bike path by Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde and, in the last few weeks, Faroese artist Tróndur Patursson has been finishing setting up his 80m piece featuring a combination of sculptures and light effects for a subsea road tunnel which is simply breathtaking.

I’m excited to think about what the future of light-based work could be: all year round rather than just a few nights a year, providing opportunities for artists to be a key part of how we reimagine city spaces, re-claim and re-engage with them particularly as the world hopefully emerges from the dark shadows of 2020 into a brighter light.

For more about the Arches Worcester Festivals Programme visit thearchesworcesterfestivals.co.uk.

Follow the Arches Worcester Festivals on FacebookInstagram and Twitter

Severn Arts is a principal partner for The Arches Worcester Project and lead organisation for the Festivals strand.

For more information about Severn Arts visit: severnarts.org.uk 

All photos are by Ravi Lakhani Photography.

About the Author:

David Edmunds is the Festivals Director at Severn Arts for the Arches Worcester Festivals programme, producing brand new festivals, showcasing national and international creative talent and supporting local emerging work. Placing culture & creativity at the heart of Worcester. The festivals programme is part of the Arches Worcester project which is supported by the Department of Culture Media and Sports’ Cultural Development Fund, administered by Arts Council England. David has over 20 years of experience working with the cultural sector including working on numerous nationally significant projects including several City/Capital of Culture programmes.

David is a producer & artistic director and led his own production company Dep Arts for over a decade with the company at the heart of the UK touring circuit during this time.