Derry~Londonderry Lights Up for Lumiere

Artichoke founder Nicky Webb prepares for the big switch on come November 28

No other event during the UK City of Culture year in Derry~Londonderry has caught the general public's attention like Lumiere – just ask the city's hoteliers. I make this statement with confidence, knowing that I have aunts and uncles travelling all the way from south Down for the festival who couldn't summon the courage to tackle the Glenshane Pass for my wedding.

These are well-meaning people who wouldn't know the difference between the Turner Prize and Bachman–Turner Overdrive – not philistines, exactly, but not far from it – yet they have had their hotels and dinners booked for months in anticipation of an outdoor art festival. At every opportunity, they pull me aside and ask, 'What's Derry like these days? And this Lumiere festival, tell me more about it. It looks very interesting, now, I must say. I'm looking forward to it.'

Lumiere is special. Unlike Radio One's Big Weekend, it appeals to all the family. Unlike The Return of Colmcille, it doesn't feel Derry-centric, nor threaten religious overtones. Unlike the Turner Prize, you don't need a PhD in art speak to understand it. It promises to turn Derry~Londonderry into a winter wonderland come November 28. Light and darkness, colour and shade – it feels magical.

'I think it's the right project for the right city,' says Nicky Webb, director of Artichoke, the creative company behind Lumiere – also organisers of Peace Camp, which brought thousands of art lovers to the North Coast during the summer of 2012 for an outdoor Cultural Olympiad event involving tents, poetry and – you guessed it – light. 

'We're coming towards the end of the City of Culture year, and yet there's such a tremendously energetic atmosphere in Derry, and that's a really good way to work,' Webb adds. 'I'm excited about turning the city into a gallery. There will be pieces that some people will like and others that they won't, but that's the joy of it, really. We would like to see people from all walks of life come along to see what we're doing.'

Lumiere takes place in Derry~Londonderry over four days, from November 28 to December 1, and features light installations and projections that make use of outdoor spaces, walkways, buildings and landmarks. Webb has worked on Lumiere for several years, and talks to me from Durham, in north east England, which is currently enjoying it's own festival of light.

'We've staged Lumiere in Durham twice before, in 2009 and 2011,' explains Webb. 'It's the same overarching idea as Lumiere Derry. It takes place over four days, and it's all free. But only one of the installations that is on display in Durham will be on display in Derry. The art works are unique for each city. Lumiere Derry was designed specifically for Derry.

'The idea is that you explore the art works at your leisure. So when you arrive, you don't have to follow a particular route. You don't have to run through the numbers one to 17 in that order if you don't want to. You choose where to go, and how long you spend with each piece. On the other hand, you could walk around everything quite quickly. That's the beauty of the festival. We can't wait to see how people approach it.'

The art works on display in Derry~Londonderry have been created by artists from all corners of Europe. My well-travelled aunts and uncles might even recognise the work of Cédric Le Borgne, a French artist who uses wire mesh to create beautiful light sculptures of birds, sea creatures and people, and who has exhibited in capital cities across the continent. His 'The Travellers' will be installed on the Peace Bridge.

Northern Irish artists are also represented, however, following Artichoke's BRILLIANT competition earlier in the year; five pieces were subsequently commissioned. County Down's Deepa Mann-Kler has two works featured, including 'Teenage Kicks' – an installation inspired by Derry punk rockers The Undertones – and 'Neon Dogs', which was designed after balloon animals and will be on display in the Walker Memorial Courtyard for the duration of the festival.

'We're very pleased to have a selection of incredible Northern Irish artists involved,' Webb declares. 'And, aside from that, there will be some artists who we have worked with before. For instance, one of my personal highlights will be the 'Fire Garden' in St Columb's Park, which was created by the French company Compagnie Carabosse.

'We presented that piece in Durham in 2011, and indeed we've seen it in various other places, in Oxford and France. But what we wanted to do was adjust it especially for Derry. So Compagnie Carabosse came over and explored the St Columb's Park site, and will adapt what they normally do.

'In other cases, when we're commissioning a new piece, we'll introduce artists to a building that we think is particularly interesting. So there's a group called Novak who are making a new piece for the Austins Department Store in the centre of town (see image below). We brought them to the city and showed them two or three different buildings, and they chose Austins.



'Over the past few months, they've been making a project that is going to fit perfectly onto the architectural features of that building. It's never been seen anywhere else before, and we won't be able to take it away and show it anywhere else. If you only saw that piece during the festival, I think you would be really delighted. It's awesome.'

Webb and her colleagues at Artichoke have been at pains to spread the Lumiere installations evenly across the city, locating each piece within walking distance of the others for easy access – no need for cars, which will come as a relief to those of us who got caught up in the traffic jams that plagued the city following the recent Halloween celebrations by the Foyle: a wash out to end all wash outs.

Being a relatively small city, however, Derry is the perfect setting for a festival like Lumiere – it is easily navigable on foot, and cut in two by the River Foyle, which will mirror the installations on either bank. A map of all the art works on show is available via the Lumiere Derry website, and Webb hopes that people will make us of it, as well as watch the selection of videos with the BRILLIANT winners for an insight into the thinking behind their pieces.

Webb admits to initially being surprised by Derry, by it's 'beauty, and the warmth and charm of its people', as I hope my adventurous aunts and uncles will be when they finally conquer the Glenshane later this month. From boths sides of the creative curtain, then, Lumiere Derry is proving to be one huge love in. So far, so good. I wonder, however, if Webb has come up against any obstacles?

'Well,' she laughs. 'I guess sometimes artists don't necessarily want to work where you want them to work. They might be inspired by a completely different place. But we've worked with the artists to make things happen right across the city, and in the end there are a good spread of installations. We've made every effort to make sure that we do reach all corners of the city.

'For example, there's a really lovely installation called 'Change Your Stripes' that is happening on the old bingo hall in the Bogside, which you might not think is an especially gorgeous building, but actually it makes a perfect screen for what is an interactive projection. The Bogside isn't full of amazing architectural features like the Diamond, or Austins, but it is a place that we wanted to work in.'

And what of the historic walls? Durham presumably works so well as a setting for Lumiere because it boasts the stunning Norman-built Durham Cathedral and 11th century castle, which make for dramatic canvases for light projections. Are we likely to see the Derry Walls used in a similar fashion?

'We're not installing anything on the walls,' says Webb. 'They're obviously ancient monuments, and very special, so drilling structures into them wouldn't have been a very good idea. But there are several different things taking place within the walls that refer to the walls, and people can certainly walk around the walls to see things from inside. It's a great vantage point.

'There's one project on the walls themselves, on the empty plinth, which is a project that came out of the BRILLIANT competition. It's called 'The Empty Plinth', and it's a very simple projection of a beam of white light rising up into the sky as a symbol of hope and reconciliation involving the two communities in Derry. It's a very simple and beautiful piece, and we're proud to have it.'

Lumiere Derry takes place across Derry~Londonderry from November 28 to December 1. 'Fire Garden' takes places from 6.30pm to 9.30pm for the duration, except for the final day. Visit the Lumiere Derry website for more information.