Trendswatch | Let there be light - Museums Association

Trendswatch | Let there be light

The ability to attract new audiences has led to a surge in the number of light shows
Tilda Coleman
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An installation by Ava Moradi at the Lightopia festival in Chiswick House and Gardens
An installation by Ava Moradi at the Lightopia festival in Chiswick House and Gardens
Not every designer can boast that numerous people have made marriage proposals surrounded by their work. But Ava Moradi, the artist responsible for the 47 installations that were on show at the Lightopia festival in Chiswick House and Gardens (22 January-1 March), can.
For the most dramatic proposal, the festival helped organise a group of musicians to play in front of a garden of 70,000 light “roses” while the groom to be got down on one knee. “The displays are joyful,” says Moradi, explaining why visitors felt Lightopia was the perfect place for such important moments.
For Moradi, complying with health and safety regulations while maintaining the aesthetic beauty of the pieces was a key challenge. While Lightopia was a large-scale ticketed event, smaller organisations have also tried their hand at working with light, with equally powerful effects.
LeithLate is a grassroots organisation founded in 2011 in response to arts and cultural venues closing in Edinburgh’s Leith neighbourhood. Last November, it held a free event across three evenings that involved six illuminated artworks being placed in the Kirkgate neighbourhood, forming a trail for visitors to follow.
Kirkgate is a deprived area, and producer and curator Martha Burns Findlay says the installations reached beyond regular gallery visitors: “A lot of local kids and young people who were passing by ended up hanging out for ages, dancing in the projection lights and engaging with the artwork in a way that gallery audiences would not.” 
Burning bright
Outdoor light shows reach new people and can also add to people’s day-to-day experiences in ways that are quite difficult to achieve behind closed doors in a formal art gallery environment, says Burns Findlay.
LeithLate’s second outdoor light event took place on a Saturday. For one night, a well-loved but faded local mural on the gable end of an old tenement building was restored by a light show. The original image was projected on to the existing mural, recolouring it, and parts of the piece were also animated by light, so the work appeared to come to life.
LeithLate had the local knowledge, but not the resources and technical expertise necessary to facilitate the project. Collaboration with large-scale outdoor production company Double Take made the ambitious event possible. Aberdeen’s light festival, Spectra, started in 2014 and was initially a small but successful event held at one location. Since then, it has expanded across the city centre. Last year, almost 100,000 people visited over the course of the four-day festival.
Lighting up
Producer Andy Brydon says Spectra is structured to welcome visitors who are not necessarily used to going to art galleries. “We lead with the more spectacular art first, so people are confident that the festival is for them, and willing to follow the journey,” she says. Pieces that take longer to engage with follow.
“Light is a very accessible medium”, says Brydon, adding that the fact that the art is outside “gives people the confidence to engage with the work”. Installation can pose unique challenges. Brydon describes the complexities of setting up a piece in Spectra’s first year, at 3am: “It taught us that working outdoors, you have to know the rhythms of the city. You have to account for simple things, like access to power and changes in the weather.”
Brydon also emphasises the importance of expanding beyond the realm of the cultural sector. To facilitate Spectra, a city-wide event, relationships with local businesses had to be forged, which takes time.
Spectra 2020 is inspired by Scotland’s coasts and waters, and installations include birds of light following migration patterns, and a moving light and sound sculpture of a wave, driven by real-time data. The festival invites audiences to think about issues of sustainability, and Brydon says minimising waste is always a concern. But using a projector produces less waste than a more traditional art exhibition.
Light shows draw crowds, reach new audiences and involve a minimum of waste. It’s easy to see why organisations of all sizes are making increased use of this medium.
Tilda Coleman is a freelance writer

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