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Light art for light art's sake?

Issue 41 Feb / Mar 2008

Sharon Stammers, PLDA UK co-ordinator, casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Festival of Light.

As the format of the Lighting Festival is becoming more prevalent, it seems apposite to begin a discussion, to open a critical dialogue about their relationship with the Profession of Architectural Lighting Design. A ‘Festival of Light’ undoubtedly celebrates light but does it actively celebrate architecture?

There have been festivals that celebrate light for centuries. The Fete des Lumieres itself dates back to 1852 and when looking at the reasons to celebrate, the examples of St Lucias day, the Chinese Lantern Festival, Candlemass, Divali, Hanukkah, Loi Krathong in Thailand and Seol in Korea remind us of what the terminology ‘Festival of Light’ originally meant. They have nothing to do with architecture and place but are almost universally based in calendar events. This is significant as life and society is no longer dependant on seasonal shifts in natural light and the ‘Festival of Light’ has a new role, attempting to temporarily extend day into night within our urban centres. These days, lighting festivals are not about discovering our inner pagan; they lack any kind of spiritual side and are essentially motivated by economics.

There are many altruistic reasons for creating a Festival of Light. It is an opportunity to highlight architectural gems and reveal historic architecture. It encourages people to view their city at night and experience a different side to it. It creates a family friendly event, provides fun and entertainment and enables community outreach. But essentially, the initiation of an event essentially springs from self-centred needs; the need to boost the nighttime economy, to create a tourist attraction or promote the designers, artists and manufacturers involved.

Are they beneficial to us? Do they create more work for lighting designers? In the UK, Switched On London is unique in its approach to using a partnership of lighting designers and manufacturers on each project but elsewhere in the UK, most festival commissions are to artists, not professional lighting designers. On a positive note, the use of artists fosters innovative work but it also raises concerns over the degree of experience, expertise and knowledge that artists have about equipment choices, IP ratings, glare, legislation and health and safety. (Eg the red hot ‘birdies’ I saw gaffa taped to a handrail in a city that shall remain nameless). Without exception, it imbues the events with a theatrical nature and therefore the installation often disregards the architectural nature of a space. The use of an artist also ensures that projects are about spectacle and show. There is an abundance of coloured light used that we all know is not necessarily the right solution for a space.

Temporary light installations tend to ignore energy considerations and the very nature of a temporary installation confuses and undervalues what an architectural lighting designer does. This makes it hard to justify the fee, time spent and orderly process of design, specification and documentation to clients previously involved with a temporary scheme. There is also an issue of copyright and the ability to protect your design ideas when involved in a Festival.

Do they add to the general public’s understanding of light? A lighting festival has the ability to create an awareness of visual envelope. They allow people to actively engage with environment through interactive work and generate civic pride with people campaigning to permanently install temporary schemes. But overall, they seem to create confusion as to what ‘good lighting’ actually is. There is no clear differentiation between light art, architectural lighting and event lighting. Lighting Festivals have led to some concerns about the wanton use of energy involved and suffer from not attempting to educate visitors to the event.

Most importantly, do they benefit the built environment? They certainly attract attention to the environment and reveal buildings not normally noticed, showing the nocturnal potential of cities to be busy, exciting and safe at night. But Festivals of Light are temporary events and most do not consider the long term improvement of a place. If an authority is able to spend money on a festival, a long term strategy improving the night time environment could be a better investment. Cities involved in LUCI are being encouraged to hold Festivals of Light and therefore adopt the title of ‘City of Light’. What happens the rest of the year when there is not festival – are they still a City of Light?

The city should be thought of as transformable locale not just a temporary stage and lighting festivals should not replace permanent lighting design solutions or well thought out masterplans.


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