Son et lumiere: a truly democratic & economically viable form of public art?

Matt Bain

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It was dusk, and large crowds gathered ominously around the ancient cathedral of Rouen, capital of Normandy. As darkness fell I stood aghast as a ghostly blue light illuminated the building of fabulously intricate stone towers, turrets and bishops. Then the very fabric of the building’s left tower fissured, and from this wibbly-wobbly warp in the space-time continuum emerged a psychedelic green snake. With a vile hiss he darted and slithered across the rich façade. Suddenly the cathedral was lit up like Dracula’s lair in a terrifying flash of lightning as a boom of thunder so deep I felt it in the pit of my stomach. All went black. Slowly from the gloom a tree emerged, bathed in richly warm brown, red and gold colours as a rich waterfall trickled down through the top branches as though from the heavens. Ethereal flutes and whistles merged into a deep symphonic swelling as the full majesty of the tree unfolded. The cathedral had transformed it’s backdrop into the Viking Tree of Life. This heavenly apparition, almost like something from the Book of Revelations’ prophecy of the end of the world, was overwhelming.

This was not an LSD trip but in fact the new son et lumiere (sound and light) show, Vikings, created by the agency Cosmos AV that specialises in these monumental projections. It loosely depicts the story of the Scandinavian invasion of Normandy in the 11th century. The official video on YouTube does not even come close to doing the justice (how could it?). The images were perfectly synchronised with an original score, which managed to evoke the bells, viols and voices of medieval France with more conventional film music tropes; grand sweeping strings and heroic brass musically convey the strength and brutality of the warrior Vikings. I was awestruck by the scale of it, the depth of the colours, how utterly immersive the experience was; a feast for the eyes and the ears.

Although son et lumiere has been around since the 1950s, it was clear that only recent technological innovations have allowed a show of such awesome visual and aural impact. The French are leaders in this new art form, with 50 performances across the nation last year. I cannot think of another form of public entertainment that democratises audio-visual art on any similar scale. Over 322,000 people are expected to have enjoyed the show this summer, which ran every night until September 27th. First up, it’s free. With purse-strings inevitably tightening in the current economic climate, this means that the very poorest people are able to experience art and culture. They just have to turn up. The vastness of the cathedral vista means that everybody enjoys the same view (unlike ballet and opera, where you can fork out £20 and still risk ending up behind a pillar). As a result, there is a genuine buzz and camaraderie among the spectators that you wouldn’t get in a concert hall or opera house, where the etiquette is so strict. This more relaxed atmosphere didn’t spoil the show anyway- most people were awestruck into quietness and the collective sighs and gasps added to the experience.

Unlike every other form of outdoor entertainment, this show is weatherproof. I recall having to leave an outdoor performance of a Midsummer Night’s Dream in Glastonbury halfway through because every square inch of our clothes and belongings were sodden. A gala concert I performed in a few years ago in an Oxford quad a few years ago was similarly ruined by appalling rain following months of planning. If one performance of this show is a washout, not to worry, because it will be on again tomorrow evening.

There was a massive educational and cultural value to the performance. It criss-crossed artistic genres – one moment evoking Monet’s glorious impressionistic paintings of the cathedral, the next portraying historical battle scenes with realistic characters and the beating heart of Joan of Arc. It followed a loose historical narrative but each scene was a tableau in which the artist played around with textures, visual and artistic effects; stained glass window images were sepia, then literally flooded with an ink pot of glorious technicolours. Like all great art, it evaded easy classification, description or interpretation – but it was affecting and truly memorable – the sort of experience to haunt one in a dream.

The only annual form of public entertainment on this scale I could think of was each year’s predictable annual firework displays in Edinburgh and London at New Year, which is hardly culture. Son et lumiere struck me as a more affordable economic model for cities to run than other forms of art that require money to pour in and then run along commercial lines. The added advantage of this genre is that it produces truly engaging, artistic experiences for maximum public enjoyment. It was about as anti-elitist a form of art as possible without compromising integrity. In this way it struck me that the future may lie in models like this.

It reminded me of Banksy’s Dismaland, at £3 entry another attempt to democratise public art along the broadest possible lines by siting it in down-at-heel Weston-super-Mare. Traders there have now said the event added £20m to the local economy. In Prague next month, what’s billed as the biggest light-art event in the Czech Republic will see parts of the city lit up with projections in a huge free show.

All of this is art for the people. Its democratic nature is a refreshing change from private, closed-off elitism. With reports that many museums and galleries will have to start charging across the country due to public sector cuts, will Son et Lumiere be one of the only ways to keep art accessible in these hard times?

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