By Nicole Wu
Lumiere once again has imprinted Durham onto the UK’s cultural map of contemporary art inspiration. It may be entering its 12th year, but somehow every festival has proved more spectacular, innovative, and wide-reaching than the last. Just before this year’s exhibition started, I spoke with Helen Marriage, Director and co-founder of Artichoke, the arts production company behind Lumiere. Together we discussed the festival’s connection to County Durham, why this year’s event strived to be more accessible than ever before and how the pandemic has affected our relationship with art.
Q. What’s your favourite thing about working with light? What prompted you to begin Lumiere?
A. At Artichoke, we produce large events and public displays. In 1999, I did a few light pieces in Salisbury and thought how extraordinary it was. There’s this tradition of big light festivals in Europe but not really here in the UK. I have deep roots back to Durham and when I came up, I thought it would be a perfect place to make it happen. 2009 marked the first Lumiere festival and subsequently the council has commissioned it every two years. It’s become a real tradition in the North East – it’s almost like having invented Christmas.
Q. What’s your favourite part about Lumiere?
A. The place and the people. The challenge for artists is always making work in a town that’s almost too small for the size of the festival, but the architectural and landscape opportunities are so incredible they’re always inspired to do work. The enthusiasm of the city and the people that come is so fantastic. In the streets I’m now hearing people talking to each other and their kids about it. For a contemporary art festival, it’s really unusual, to see it embedding itself into peoples’ consciousness.
Q. What prompted you to introduce the ‘Marks in the Landscape’ project and broaden the festival to outside of the city for the first time?
A. We’ve always wanted to explore outside the main city as the Durham landscape is so varied and amazing, so it’s a brilliant opportunity. Also, it’s slightly in response to Covid-19, to provide things for the people who might not want to come right into the city centre. It’s a way of spreading the benefits of the festival out.
Q. How has it been setting up ‘Marks in the Landscape’?
A. It’s quite complicated, I came up over the summer and drove around a thousand miles looking for sites that were appropriate to make it work. We settled on these 6 locations. It’s a really interesting challenge because in the city centre, in terms of infrastructure, we’re doing thirty things that you can mass power with electricity, heavy plant equipment, so really one production department can serve all thirty things. Whereas when you’re out in the county, each one needs its own centre of production.
Q. How was the process of working through the pandemic, has it changed how you work now?
A. It’s interesting as most art organisations have a transactional relationship with the public, they’ll sell you a ticket, so a lot of the business model is still predicated on a relationship where money changes hands. The essential nature of our business model hasn’t changed and we’re offering this extraordinary format to people for free. We don’t believe in creating economic barriers to enjoyment, so you’ll get a real mixture of people coming and that’s part of the deliberate way in which we work.
Q. Do you have any personal favourites from this year’s programme?
A. There are so many things that are wonderful! There’s a huge emphasis on community participation and what people are capable of if you give them some inspiration, an artist, and an opportunity. Some of the international programmes coming in are incredible. There’s a remarkable piece in St Oswald’s church and a company called Novak which has constructed a big climate change installation running along the river which is really beautiful and incredibly moving. The poetry commissions too, we were testing today, and you could see everyone stopping to have a look.
Q. What advice would you give for budding student artists looking to experiment with abstract mediums like light and sound?
A. There’s so much to learn from people doing work here at the moment. We’ve had many students at Durham subsequently come to work or interview with us and we’ve helped find places for them in the events industry. Lots of visual arts people have created things through our BRILLIANT programme and gone on to do other really exciting things. An artist isn’t just someone who paints and draws, but someone who sees the world differently and tries to make it real!
Image credit: Thomas Tomlinson