Lighting Lyon: How Innovative Partnerships are Transforming the City

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This Big City was recently invited to join Philips in Lyon, France, for an exclusive preview of the Festival of Lights (5-8 December 2014). This article shares a few things we learnt during this visit!

Every year, around December 8th, the city of Lyon, France, transforms into a life-size art installation. This is the Festival of Lights, a world famous event showcasing in-situ art installations using light as a material and medium to transform buildings, streets and public spaces all over the city.

From tradition to city (re)branding

The Festival of Lights has its roots in local tradition and history. The city of Lyon, threatened by a plague outbreak in the mid 17th century, is believed to have been saved thanks to Virgin Mary’s protection. Much later on, in order to commemorate Mary’s protection, a sculpture was commissioned to adorn the local basilica of Fourvière. It was made public on December 8th 1852, with local citizens marking their gratitude by placing candles at their windows – a tradition which survived up to this day.

Growing up in a suburb of Lyon, I have fond memories of that time of the year. I remember helping light the candles and place them around our balcony as dusk settled in. I remember looking around to contemplate the estate gradually lighting up as neighbours lit their own candles. Back then, winters were harsher and it was sometimes snowing at that time of the year, which only added to the surrounding magical atmosphere.

Over the past ten years, the Festival of Lights has moved from a local tradition to a major attraction attracting crowds from all over the country and beyond. The City of Lyon worked hard to build on this festival to rebrand the city – previously best known for its gastronomy and cultural heritage – as an innovative and creative hub and an up-and-coming urban destination. And it worked. The Festival of Lights now brings millions of visitors to Lyon and is the sole cause for Air BnB peak season in the city, with locals renting out spare rooms to visitors in need of accommodation. It does so through a blend of creative vision, cutting-edge technology and pop-up urban transformation.

When art meets technology

The Festival of Lights brings together of artists, private sector companies, and city and metropolitan authorities, making for artworks and installations that are both creatively exciting and technologically innovative.

The installation Incandescence is a good example of what happens when you bring together these different actors, with their own ideas, expertise and experience. Emerging artist Séverine Fontaine imagined the initial concept, and worked with her own scenography company (Compagnie IKB) as well as the light company Airstar, to turn it into reality. This was done with additional technical support from technology giant and long-time partner of the Festival Philips, and from Seet Europole, a company with added expertise in lighting technologies.

But the collaboration was about more than just translating an art concept into a connected object. Séverine Fontaine strongly believes that working with private sector companies, and confronting different points of views and ways of working, enriches her creative process. For this piece, her initial ideas evolved as she was working alongside engineers and technicians, making the creative process collaborative.

Pop-up urban transformation

The result? A monumental installation, made up of an 11-metre high incandescent lightbulb surrounded by smaller ones of all shapes and sizes, perched on the Terrasses de la Guillotière – a recently regenerated promenade on the Rhône riverbanks.

Equipped with Philips’ Color Kinetics lighting technology, the sculptures come to life as they light up and pulsate in pace with the accompanying soundtrack – a vibrant sound and light show. By using vibrating lights as well as music, the installation seeks to change viewers’ perceptions of the riverbanks, casting moving shadows on the ground and the river nearby. It contributes towards transforming its surroundings, even temporarily.

In that sense, despite tremendous changes over the past ten years and despite the influx of visitors (which often makes the locals grumble), the Festival of Lights has managed to remain true to my childhood memories. It retained its ability to transform the city, one installation at a time.

Elsa Burzynski is an anthropologist and urban researcher with experience working for NGOs, research institutions and in consultancy. She is currently the editor for This Big City in French, writing from Lyon.

Featured image via Bruno Martinier/Philips