Lumiere: Behind the Scenes

By Nadin Hassan

This past November, the streets of Durham were filled with energy as the city hosted the biennial Lumiere Festival, with dozens of installations scattered around the river, churches, court house, cathedral, and other heritage sites and landmarks. Organized by the arts charity Artichoke and commissioned by Durham County Council, it is the UK’s largest light festival and is a significant draw for tourism in the area. With such a culturally significant event occurring, the Cafe des Arts team found the opportunity to arrange a seminar on the Lumiere Festival led by Kate Harvey, Senior Producer of Artichoke, as well as Finola Finn, a Durham PhD History student and artist of one of this year’s installations.

Harvey revealed her own personal career development from the world of theatre to performative art and public art works, and discussed her personal ambition to produce works that could be enjoyed by the segments of the population often overlooked in typically elite centres. She discussed the opportunities and challenges of working in the same location every two years, and wanting to retain repeat visitors while introducing new ideas and artistic interpretations. Of particular interest was the choice of locations: though one would anticipate certain iconic landmarks, such as the Durham Cathedral, to have the most eye-catching displays, Harvey explained that it was rather the more overlooked parts, such as the construction site by Framwellgate Riverside or the Botanic Garden, that had some of the most impressive displays (visitors may recall the stunning “Fire Tornado” and “For the Birds” displays). She stressed the balancing act between organizing installations for outsiders to become acquainted with the city’s sites and also encouraging locals to re-explore their city in unexpected ways, particularly highlighting the historic Miner’s Hall and its installation about the contributions of firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other public sector workers.

Finola Finn was the artist behind the installation “Know Thyself”, displayed at the Count’s House. She was selected as part of the BRILLIANT commissioning strand to show her artwork at Lumiere this year, and walked attendees through the academic basis behind her piece. Finn had researched the changing historical notion of the heart, from its initial significance as the centre of the self, thought, and reason, to its seventeenth century mechanized definition in the language of physics and engineering, and the subsequent separation of reason and emotions. Finn sought to produce this work in order to return attention to the metaphysical interpretation, with the sound of heartbeats and flickers of lights evoking the primacy of emotions and inviting visitors to a state of meditation on the self. She also discussed the complex process of physical production of the work (literally recording her friends’ heartbeats herself, playing them in numerous variations and combinations, and trying out endless copies of the text font), to highlight the great deal of considerations that go into the production of the installations.

It was a fascinating discussion ranging in topics from issues of cultural heritage management to choices of interpretation, and Finola Finn’s contributions were inspiring. One question that remains, however, is to what extent Finn’s complex message was conveyed in the installation. At first glance, it is unclear how to interpret the piece as the festival booklet does not come with background information. In the seminar, Harvey explained the importance of stripping away unnecessary text and interpretation during the festival and letting visitors develop an immediate emotional connection to the artworks, mentioning that Artichoke provides some basic background information on their online archive for people to consult afterwards, and yet it is highly unlikely that most visitors are aware of this or that they would take away from this experience the complex historical discussion that Finn discussed in her seminar. Finn commented the popular coverage of this piece in selfies in social media, along with the coined hashtag “#knowyourselfie” that visitors have posted — though she was seemingly pleased with this response, it begs the question of the depth of visitors’ interpretations and indicates the difficult balance that one must maintain in this type of experience between providing an experience for the public and voicing the artist’s intent.

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