Lumiere: Diary of a volunteer

by Madeleine Donaldson

A huge equestrian snowdome in the Market Place, a waterfall cascading from the Kingsgate footbridge, and a fire garden in and around the Cathedral were just a few of the spectacular offerings of this year’s Lumiere light festival. From the 17 – 20 November, Durham was transformed into a city of light with 35 installations illuminating its bridges, streets, landmarks and river.

Following the success of the festival in 2009, Artichoke, one of Britain’s leading creative companies and a registered charity was invited back by the Durham County Council to organise it once again. The large-scale outdoor arts event had a whole network of people working behind it to ensure its smooth running, from technicians, to safety people, to stewards, to volunteers.

The volunteer street team made up of local residents and students acted as the ‘friendly face’ of Lumiere, and were positioned all over Durham, with some being posted at County Hall, or in the Lumiere Hub in Millennium Place. As a volunteer, as well as offering amusing puns on the back of my bright blue vest (Can I Enlighten You?), I handed out festival guides, gave directions to installations, introduced visitors to Lumiere’s smart phone app, and chatted to people about the artworks.

One such artwork which sparked a lot of curiosity was Peter Lewis’ mesmerising work titled ‘Splash’. The giant waterfall falling from the Kingsgate footbridge, best viewed from Elvet Bridge, was believed by many to be a projection but I ensured onlookers that it used real water pumped from the River Wear. It was understandable to believe that something so magical, viewed at quite a distance, and illuminated with coloured LEDs, would be an illusion, but its tangibility was a clear indication of the uncompromising vision of the artists and organisers of Lumiere.

While it was rewarding to enrich people’s experience of the works by providing them with information, at other times it was better to let people discover things for themselves.  Daan Roosegaarde’s ‘Liquid Space’, an interactive artwork standing on three legs with in-built motion and sound sensors, followed those who moved underneath its colourful flashing eye. Described by spectators as a ‘cute’ version of the tripod aliens from ‘War of the Worlds’, it gave unsuspecting passers-by quite a shock and was a real hit with children who vied for its attention.

It was heart-warming to see whole families huddled together under the creature’s blinking gaze, as after all, Lumiere was very much a family festival. The atmosphere was one of busy excitement as bobble-hatted children shuffled along with their parents waving around toy lightsabers and wearing flashing hair ornaments.

Though the most popular artwork was certainly ‘Crown of Light’ which projected coloured images of the Lindisfarne Gospels onto the Cathedral in a breath-taking display, as a volunteer who moved around the festival I was able to appreciate that each work was enjoyed by visitors despite their smaller spectacle.

The Artichoke team valued the experiences of everyone at the Lumiere festival, from visitors to volunteers. Their enthusiasm for the artworks got us excited about them too, and as well as being keen to hear any feedback we received, they were always on hand at the volunteer base at Town Hall to sort out any problems or give us a warming cup of tea. As magnificent as the light installations were, it was just as delightful to see the bright faces lit up by them, and to feel part of a team who helped ensure those reactions.

2 Responses

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  1. Emily
    Nov 23, 2011 - 09:11 PM

    Thanks for volunteering at the festival! You guys and the CSOs helped keep it all running smoothly.

  2. Anne Fielding
    Nov 24, 2011 - 10:24 AM

    Brilliant Durham! Gret to return to the city where my husband and I met40 odd years ago.
    My abiding memory of Lumiere will be walking across the rainbow bridge and hearing a little girl ask her mother:
    ‘Mam, am I really walking through a rainbow???!!’ Priceless!

    Wish there had been more souvenirs though – I’d have paid £10 for a book with info about the installations and artists.
    I could only find out more on the net – would love to have something to show my friends here in Macclesfield how good it was.


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