Case Studies

Capturing the Sun

Case Studies Light Up The North

Chronos by Epsztein & Gross at Lumiere Durham 2021. Produced by Artichoke and commissioned by Durham County Council. Chronos was supported by Durham University. Photo by Matthew Andrews.

Capturing the Sun: Shining a light on collaborations between Universities and Light Festivals

By Susan Mulholland

Light art installations do not necessarily set out to educate, yet we, as the audience, do learn something from the experience. We are left with questions, we would like to know more. Scientific researchers are not primarily interested in creating art, yet their work is inspiring and beautiful and again, we are left with questions, we would like to know more. When the artist and the scientist collaborate, something interesting always happens.

In this case study we examine why university and artist partnerships are having such an important impact on audiences and festivals.

As a network of five light festivals across the North of England, Light Up The North is able to share learning and practice, collaborate regionally, nationally and internationally and nurture artistic ambition for both established and emerging artists. Partnership working has always been key to the success of the network and the individual light festivals. Partnerships offer the opportunity to expand audience reach, open up different sources of funding and invite experimentation and inspiration.

Here’s how two of our festivals have worked successfully in different ways with their university partners.

Lumiere with Durham University

Light Up The North

“Lumiere resonates with our dedication to cutting-edge research and teaching across the field of visual arts and culture […] Our continued support for Lumiere is part of our deep-rooted commitment to supporting community, culture, creativity and heritage in our City, County and the North East..”

Professor Janet Stewart, Executive Dean (Arts and Humanities), Durham University

In 2021, Durham University continued their support for Lumiere by funding three art works at that year’s festival, but this is clearly much more than a transactional relationship.

One key to the success of this partnership is its longevity which has allowed relationships to develop over time.

“The long-standing nature of the relationship has been really fruitful, it has allowed a real degree of trust to develop where both parties recognise the value and benefits,” reflects Kate Harvey, Director of Projects at Artichoke.
“This creates equality; the university will approach us with ideas as well as us going to them. You feel like you are knocking on an open door.”

The great advantage for artists working with Artichoke is that they have access to cutting edge data in a range of fields of scientific research. Artists are able to hear about research first hand while it’s still evolving. As well as being incredibly exciting, it’s giving a real sense of contemporary relevance to the artwork. From a project called I, back in 2013, in which artist Gina Czarnecki worked with Professor John Girkin, Director of the Biophysical Sciences Institute to answer the many questions we have about our eyes and vision, to the latest work with Epsztein & Gross and the Institute for Computational Cosmology, artists and scientists alike are excited about the possibilities born out of collaboration.

“The story of time, told through Chronos, resonates with the Ogden Centre site, which is home to Durham University’s world-renowned expertise in fundamental physics where researchers investigate the mysteries of the cosmos.”

Kate and her team saw this as an opportunity to open the door to the new facility, quite literally, by projection mapping onto the outside of this incredible new building. 

Key to all of this is how it translates to audiences, and it’s a real delicate balance between cutting edge research inspiring a satisfying artistic creation which then excites an audience. In some ways, the artists are providing a creative bridge between the research and the public.

It’s because of the strength of the relationship and the fact that Lumiere is embedded in the city of Durham that Kate sees the festival as perfectly positioned to facilitate the introductions between artists who need access to new technology or new ways of working and the academics who are right at the cutting edge of that emerging knowledge.

Lightpool Festival and Light Up Lancaster with University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN)

Light Up The North

SUN is a seven-metre diameter suspended sphere, presenting astrophysical data from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory in stunning 360 degrees. Created by artist Alex Rinsler and Solar Physicist Professor Robert Walsh, this incredible piece displayed several months in the life of our closest star but in minutes of real time and used specialised image enhancement techniques to highlight finer details which would otherwise be lost.  

Alongside the exhibition of SUN in Blackpool was a suite of education and participatory work to enhance the visitor experience. Philip Holmes, Creative Director of LightPool Festival, describes how this education element of the project was always part of the planning process: 

We decided very early on to become involved in the project, as in addition to providing a potentially spectacular artwork, there was a unique opportunity to work with Professor Walsh and UCLAN on student engagement with the work, education for local schools, and speaker events.” 

Each evening an astronomer was present so visitors could ‘Ask an Astronaut’; Key Stage 2 pupils were invited to take part in STEAM activity workshops in which they were asked to create a booklet in the form of an orbiting solar satellite; public talks were held on a variety of subjects by academics from Cambridge University and UCLAN.  

The combination of the artwork itself and these enhancement activities had a noticeable effect on audiences. Visitors to Lightpool in 2019 increased by 50 000 and 10 000 of those attended SUN, the largest admission to any of the artworks featured that year.  

For Lightpool the partnership had even more benefits; it meant wider exposure for the festival as Granada’s news reports covered the installation;  it offered access to additional funding; the opportunity to work with students and staff at UCLAN led to an exciting programme of talks and workshops. It also changed the way they will approach future work, with these additional strands built in from the beginning. 

Let’s not forget that they also created an awe-inspiring piece of art that can now tour nationally and internationally with their names on it. That’s quite a legacy. 

Susan Mulholland is a writer from North East England.