The last few years have seen an increase in the number of light festivals. By illuminating cities with colourful, dynamic light effects for limited periods of time, these events attract many visitors, facilitating social encounters in public spaces and revitalising local businesses. Light is probably the most pervasive medium that continuously affects our perception of the world. It can completely transform urban settings, making them safer, more appealing, welcoming and surprising. In societies where most individuals own a smart phone or a computer and shopping malls are sadly the most frequented spaces for leisure, city centres have progressively lost their role as catalyst for social interactions. Lighting up cities helps reviving them, providing a great incentive for tourism.
Light festivals usually include a mix of light sculptures, architectural lighting and dynamic projections on building facades, offering free entertainment in the streets and thus tearing down the social and economic barriers characterising those forms of art that have been traditionally relegated to museums, art galleries and theatres. Having choreographed and performed in theatres myself, I find the possibility of reaching broader audiences by communicating through public spaces particularly exciting. Besides emphasising the beauty of the existing architectural heritage, lighting up cities is a way to “democratise” art, making it accessible to anyone.
LED lighting technology has certainly contributed to the diffusion of light festivals. LEDs are not only energy efficient, but they are also individually addressable, which allows great choreographic freedom in the creation of colourful light performances. LED lighting can convert unnoticeable, conventional building facades into visually captivating pieces of art.
By spreading so quickly, light festivals may be incurring a lack of originality, as similar light installations tend to recur in consecutive editions of the same festival and in different festivals. Despite all the talks about climate change and the necessity to reduce carbon emissions, light festivals usually do not use electric power from renewable sources. LEDs may be energy efficient, but they are not zero-energy. They do require power to operate. Using direct current, they can be easily associated with off-grid, portable solar panel systems. Additionally, light festivals have mostly focused on night lighting so far, overlooking the beauty of sunlight. My article on Peter Erskine’s art provided an example of how sunlight can be exploited to cast rainbow colours on urban surfaces. Due to the provisional nature of the art installations exhibited at light festivals, it would also seem clever to encourage material upcycling in order to reduce the production of waste. Following this principle, my recent kinetic installation Twinkling at e-Luminate Cambridge festival was made from old CDs.
Given the benefits of light performances in urban spaces and their impact on city branding, one might think it would make sense to host light installations permanently rather than for a limited period of time every year. When integrated in a facade, colour changing LED lighting can completely transform the architectural image of a building, making it much more engaging. Successful examples of luminous skins that have become symbols of their host cities are the animated façade in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square and the performative envelope of the Ars Electronica Center in Linz. As for temporary installations, these luminous skins can be powered by Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPVs), of which the GreenPix media wall in Beijing provides a famous example. Although it requires a skilful design by a solar expert, using solar panel systems to power luminous facades and light installations in general currently seems an acceptable compromise to introduce some performative elements in public spaces with a relatively low environmental impact.
Therefore, both light festivals and permanent luminous installations in cities should involve the use of renewable energy technologies and particularly solar panel systems, besides engaging people in the daytime as well as at night.