Lyon Fête des Lumières, France

Evolutions by Yann Nguema and EZ3kiel - Pic: Ville de Lyon - Muriel Chaulet.

Words by Graham Festenstein, Lighting Designer and organiser of LewesLight.

Lyon’s Festival of Light takes place around the 8th December each year and, as the grandmother of all lighting festivals, has been running in its current form for almost twenty years.

As someone who has routinely advocated the benefits of lighting festivals from both a social and economic perspective, and also as I have recently been organising a festival of my own, I took a trip to Lyon to see first hand how an event with such a great pedigree is delivered.

Lyon is not a small city, located at the meeting of two rivers and partially on a hill it has beautiful buildings and an interesting and long history. From a lighting perspective it has an important history as well, as Lyon was the first city to develop an integrated lighting strategy back in the late 1980s.

The festival has now grown to grand proportions, attracting around four million people each year. Following security fears after the events in Nice and Paris, this year’s festival was reduced to only three days and was more contained within the historic city centre than in recent years, however it still took two long nights from 6PM until midnight to experience all that was on offer.

The range of installations was diverse in terms of content, style and concept, there was a high representation of video mapping installations and, not surprisingly for France, many installations were accompanied with a soundtrack Son et Lumiere style. Some installations were clearly intended for families with young children whilst others were more cerebral and demanding. Almost all of the installations were dynamic in some way both in terms of movement and colour. Of the 35 primary installations several stood out for me as being especially successful. Those that know me and my sometimes conservative approach to design might be surprised but my favourite was Benedetto Bufalino and Benoît Deselle’s La Bétonnière Boule à facettes, a cement mixer converted to a giant rotating mirror ball, lighting up the surrounding buildings accompanied by ’90’s disco hits. A close second was Yann Nguema and EZ3kiel’s installation Evolutions on the Saint-Jean Cathedral, possibly the best video mapping I have experienced and even more impressive when you consider that Yann is foremost a musician who apparently has only been working with video for a couple of years. Another great video installation was Voyage by Camille Gross and Leslie Epsztein, projected onto the Gare Saint-Paul it was a temporal journey through the station’s history and into the future.

Not that many of the installations were actually site specific and / or inspired by the context of their location, which I found a little disappointing, although when a festival gets to this size and popularity it is difficult to know if this really matters as the average visitor will be content with the spectacle, drama and scale of the event. It is also worth noting that the city looks to deliver an event for all of its inhabitants and not just those with sometimes pedantic attitudes to art and design. Personally I prefer a more considered approach, providing a more contemplative and interpretive experience that draws reference in some way to the context of the place. Lyon did achieve this with the installation Candles from the Heart in the Théâtre Antiques de Fourvière. Despite the number of people, these amazing spaces lit by approximately 20,000 candles provided a calm and contemplative space and a little respite from the crowds and bright lights further down the hill. The other nice aspect to these pieces was the element of surprise and the unexpected arriving in a calm and relatively quite space, which was welcome and refreshing in many ways, taking the breath away more successfully than the big bright and dynamic pieces elsewhere. In addition, this piece, which is repeated in different ways and locations each year, raises money by donations from visitors for each candle which are distributed by the charity Electriciens Sans Frontières promoting access to electricity to destitute populations.

Other installations I particularly enjoyed were Caprice by Sebastien Lefèvre on the banks of the Rhône, comprising four dynamic towers, swirling vortexes of light driven by the power of the river itself. A small interactive installation popular with families and young children was Step Up! by Nicolas Galland and Julien Lafosse. Platonium by Éric Michel and Akari-Lisa Ishii is a collaboration between artist and scientist using an exciting self illuminated fabric strip and Roboticum by Yves Moreaux, a fun installation using large LED panels articulated by industrial robots – an example of how the festival works with local industry.

I had a good time in Lyon; it is a big, slick and professionally delivered event that caters for many diverse people and does wonders for Lyon’s tourism and reputation. At that it succeeds perfectly and is a great festival.