Lumiere at Derry/Londonderry 2013

Lumiere light show in Derry/Londonderry

Neon Dogs by NOVAK at the Derry Lumiere light show in November 2013
Neon Dogs by NOVAK at the Derry Lumiere light show in November 2013 | Source

LUMIERE is the name of a public art project that came to Derry in Northern Ireland for four nights in November 2013. Derry/Londonderry is the second city of the six counties in the northern-most province of Ireland and is a lovely place to visit at any time of year. It’s a coastal town of about 100,000 permanent residents, sitting on a river and surrounded by gently rolling hills that are clad with small green fields. The river, inland hills and craggy coastal roads are the first of the city’s charms that a visitor will come across as the nearest big international airport, Belfast, is about an hour’s drive away.

I went to see it for the first time in while LUMIERE was on and was delighted that I had been so lucky. Because normally a city break anywhere in northern europe along our latitudes between November and March will mean cold, wet, short days, my usual preference for two days in a foreign city (anywhere outside of Leinster’s foreign to me) would be somewhere south of the 40th latitude.

In population terms, Derry’s only about twice the size of my hometown, but it’s been steeped in a much more interesting mixture of history and culture than Swords, Co Dublin. (Swords was until recently a one-street town, even if that street was divided into north, main and Dublin streets.) Derry’s a city, not just because it’s got a few cathedrals, theatres, museums, art galleries and what may be the world’s first department store (called Austins), but it has also had a permanent military garrison there for over 300 years, has magnificent buildings both within and outside its 400-year-old walls, and so has a distinctly urban spirit while remaining small enough to still have a welcoming friendliness.

The city is the county capital and has been called Derry and Londonderry since it was besieged in the 1600s by a hostile army. The most recent site of the garrison was in Ebrington, which is on the opposite side of the river Foyle to the original walled city, and a new pedestrian bridge now links both banks. The modern city has enveloped both areas with suburbs that spread east and west of the original town, but the streets within the walls still make up what any visitor will take away with them in their memories.

Firstly, because they’re on the higher bank and a walk around the walls shows off the pretty landscapes beyond the suburbs and leads you into the labyrinth of narrow streets that thread off the four main thoroughfares from the four gates. Secondly, because the layout of the streets, the size and decoration of the grandiose buildings and the use of the more ordinary ones combine to offer residents and visitors alike a mixture of retail and leisurely pursuits that are unique. They’re lovely. Like any city, the streetscapes are constantly changing what they sell or offer, but there’s a mixture of permanent views that are fascinating, entertaining and interesting.

That could be one of the reasons why Derry/Londonderry won the position of UK’s city of culture in 2013, and the LUMIERE art project was one of the most spectacular events staged there during that year. It’s a type of collaborative outdoor art show that literally throws a new light onto the built environment of a city that has something magnificent to say for itself.

The Derry Lumiere

There were 17 sites, five of which were local. The tenders were called for through a commissioning scheme called Brilliant and entrants had to be based in or originally from Northern Ireland. The five winning entries were included in a selection of international projects that were chosen by officials throughout the province and the parent government Great Britain. The layers upon layers of criteria in deciding which projects would progress to being included in the four-night event, involved everyone from the pivotal arthouse Artichoke and spread throughout the art world. The international sponsors coordinated for the show must have been thoroughly delighted with the response from anyone who went there especially to see it.

The five local contributions were:

“The empty plinth” which is a well-known feature of the wall. It originally had a statue on it, which came to a mysterious demise. There was a column in Dublin that had a similar fate in 1966, and the beacon of hope that lit up the night skies during Lumiere attracted many good-natured, smart-mouth comments locally. (Many of them centred on where Batman’s logo was as the beacon transformed Derry to Gotham City for four days.)

The Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall was the stage for “Neon Dogs” by Deepa Mann-Kler, which was sweet and funny, and at a height that families strolling around the exhibition with small kids in buggies could enjoy.

The “Grove of Oaks” by RMS design was inspired by the meaning of ‘Derry’, which was the word for an oak grove in gaeilic. The ghostly trees were set in the Craft Village, a permanent fixture in the city that attracts everyone looking for hand-crafted gifts from textiles to pottery. “Conned Fused” by Harpermagee of Northern Ireland and Australia was another crowd pleaser. Its happy script listing colours (as they’re called here, rather than colors) was a play on lighting up different parts of the brain. Again, like Neon Dogs, this was a small child-friendly installation in that it spelled out words that early readers would recognise.

“Shirts” by Hilary Sleiman and Lesley Bond referred to the region’s history in industrial textiles from producing the linen to making the garments.

The remaining dozen projects ranged in scale and impact. Two of the biggest and most impressive were “Twice Upon a Time” by OCUBO from Portugal, which was a huge commission. It involved local schools, inviting teachers to collaborate with the kids and parents in a game of consequences in which the children’s free association of words on paper prompted the story to be told, then they were filmed as they painted their story and others narrated it. The entire project was then animated and projected onto the clock tower in Ebrington Square. Someone in the audience mentioned Bartok in relation to the acompanying music here.

“Voyage” by NOVAK was projected onto Austins Department Store. The building’s already beautiful. It’s got complex facades (pillars, balconies, arches and so on) so animating light to harmonise not just over the discrete sections but also with the original score composed by Ed Carter was a big ask. The whole thing was wonderful. The projected images danced to the music and evoked 90s night clubs, which can be seen here. It gives you a second-hand taste of the lightshow experience (which is better than nothing) and I've some explanatory context from one of the local guides, Garvin Kerr of on in the street theatre drop down. Garvin had to impart his knowledge of Derry/Londonderry knowing we were distracted (it was just before dinner and, call me shallow, but food trumps culture every time).

There was another mobile installation that I found moving (har, har, but it was actually moved around the city during the exhibition, and it was a very touching work). Real people from the city spoke of their experience of living there from former policemen to contemporary teenagers. The philosophies reflected age and experience, character and beliefs and did root me to the spot to listen to the voices and read the texts. Other real people passing by made some instant smart-mouth responses to the work, which is always something the artist must become innured against, but when you’re simply a bystander the wise-cracks added to my understanding of the local people and my pleasure in being there.

Feedback from the organizers

The following is the synopsis provided by the Northern Irish Tourist Board that reflects ARTICHOKE's success in the event management. I've reproduced it practically as written, because its pace and tone gives you an idea of what a huge undertaking it was and their relief and joy that it was so well received. If you're in a position to commission a municipal installation, even in a town that isn't as big, in need of a well-earned breather in which your townspeople can relax, bridge divides and enjoy themselves, the reactions of the people from the state administration agencies to the symbiotic artists and elected officials confirms the depth of participation from its inception to execution. The principal sponsor of LUMIERE was Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE). Aine O'Connor

Conservative estimates suggest 179,000 visitors attended the festival over the four nights. Queues on Saturday night stretched all the way down past Queens Quay and Airvag’s Symphonie Conique as thousands waited to cross the Peace Bridge to Ebrington, where Ocubo’s children’s fantasy tale Twice Upon a Time was projected onto the clock tower.

The biggest draw in the Waterside was Fire Garden by Compagnie Carabosse. Originally planned to run for just three of the four nights, the installation was extended to Sunday night due to popular demand after Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister Caral Ni Chuilin provided the necessary extra funding.

A Stitch in Time, the giant steel and LED light sculpture by Tim Etchells on the roof of the Rosemount Shirt Factory was visible from many points across the cityscape.

Visible from the walls, Cleary-Connolly’s interactive Change Your Stripes in the Bogside took on different shapes and forms as people of all ages ran and danced in front of it.

Further along at the Gasyard, Ron Haseleden’s strings of blinking lights and early fairground music for Fête created a haunting vision of times gone by. In the Fountain, children and young people clambered over Daan Roosegarde’s Marbles, large moulded shapes that changed colour the more people touched and moved around them.

Public Projection for Derry~Londonderry by Polish artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko, provided serious food for thought. The Harvard-based artist recorded the stories of a cross-section of local people whose lives had been affected by the Troubles.

Their voices were broadcast from a converted ambulance, whilst projecting their words onto the walls of the Guildhall, as well as onto the monument at Free Derry Corner and the Verbal Arts Centre.

Quieter moments were to be found contemplating Elaine Buckholtz’s Spinning Night in Living Colour, whilst the giant neon sign celebrating the Undertones’ famous song Teenage Kicks on the roof of the BT Exchange building, was a firm favourite with visitors.

While a full evaluation of the economic impact of the festival remains to be done, hotels were at 100% capacity on Friday and Saturday night, indicating high levels of overnight visitors. Flights to and from the city were at a premium or completely sold out, and bars and restaurants were full of customers. Anecdotal evidence suggested that many shops were also busier than usual.

Artichoke’s co-director Helen Marriage said: “Producing Lumiere Derry~Londonderry has been an extraordinary experience. It has been a joy to see the fruit of all the hard work over the last 18 months. The atmosphere in the city during the festival has been incredible.

“The people of Derry~Londonderry have embraced Lumiere with open arms. Their response has far exceeded our expectations and we’ve loved every minute of it.”

Culture Company Executive Programmer Graeme Farrow said: 
“Lumiere worked on every level - it showed the city in the best possible light, it allowed both locals and visitors to see it afresh, and it invited people to take part. I always believed that it could provide the perfect finale to the year and it was everything we hoped for.

“I stood at the top of St. Columb's Park with my family on Saturday night looking out over all of the fire and that beautiful cityscape and thought 'Wow, what a place this is!' As has been the case throughout the year, the people of the city took Lumiere to their hearts and made it extra special.”

Mayor Cllr Martin Reilly said:
“Lumiere has been a spectacular event, the jewel in the crown in a string of successful events in the City of Culture calendar, and one that we will all remember for a very long time.

“Tens of thousands of people of all ages and across all communities have experienced this free public festival together. They have seen our beautiful city transformed into magical space of art and light, and been transformed by the experience.

“I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to showcase the city in this way. Visitors have had the chance to discover our city and locals have been able to see their city in a new light.”

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