First published on 3 May 2012. Updated on 26 May 2013.
Matt, can you give us a brief introduction to the Light in Winter programme?
In one word, it’s all about reading. Which is to say that Artistic Director Robyn Archer tends to work in the way of having a common theme that runs through the festivals that she directs. The Light in Winter in the past couple of years has had a variety of themes, most recently last year the theme was ‘Fire’. This year is ‘Reading’. Typically the reason for that is that The Light in Winter, as it is designed and intended, is much more than simply a display of light-based artworks. It is that, but it’s very much an exercise in community, connection, sharing stories, and enlightenment, which is our starting line, and has been in years gone by. With that in mind, and it also being the National Year of Reading, Robyn wanted to play around with the concept of sharing stories and sharing different kinds of stories through the idea of text and reading. That has been a bit of a conceptual starting point for this year. In terms of how that actually translates into what the programme is, there are both explicit and implicit ways that it has manifested itself. Some of our artist commissions are very much taking the idea of reading very literally. We’re working with quite a renowned Spanish anonymous arts collective by the name of Luzinterruptus – which is Latin for ‘interrupted light’ – who are going to create a growing cumulative light-based installation which is all about books. There will be thousands of books which gradually grow in various locations around Fed Square, each one of which will be illuminated throughout the month in various ways. The public will be invited to participate in that.
You also have the read-in. What’s that all about?
It’s called ‘Reading in Bed’, and it’s happening the evening of Friday 26 June. The idea with that is quite novel, really – it’s a bit of a grand experiment. Due to the nature of Fed Square and the nature of how Robyn likes to program festivals, we try to have a number of different experiences where people can come into Fed Square during the festival season and do something quite different and distinctive. The idea of the ‘Reading in Bed’ concept is to turn a very typically private or domestic experience, that is, literally, reading in bed on one’s own, into something inherently public in quite an idiosyncratic manner. We invite as many people who want to join us into the middle of Fed Square to do something quite different, quite crazy: to come along, bring some blankets, bring a light, bring a book, and have a effectively a mass reading. We’re also going to weave in a worthwhile social purpose to that as well, where we’re going to ask that people who come and participate donate the blankets they use to keep themselves warm to the Salvation Army, who are one of our partners this year. On one hand, it will be a very novel experience – we’ll have a few novelties and things to keep people warm along the way – and it will be quite a fun and different kind of evening. And then at the end of it, we’ll try to do something to give back. That sort of approach is emblematic to The Light in Winter as a whole, really. It’s about different kinds of unique experiences that bring people together in different kinds of ways. ‘Reading in Bed’ is one of the more far-out ways that we’re going to try to do that this year.
Which events, because there are so many, would you say are your highlights? What should people come to?
I do think that Luzinterruptus, the Spanish guys who are going to be coming over, and different members of their collective who will be here throughout the month, coming to Fed Square at any time during the month to experience that and participate that will be really, really cool. What is probably our most significant event, and now an annual tradition in the 5-6 years that The Light in Winter has been around, is our Solstice Celebration. I think this year it’s happening on the 23 of June, and will be quite a different night as well. We’ll have different types of participation from about 20 community groups throughout Melbourne. Each of them will be coming to Fed Square on the afternoon and early evening of the 23 to present various kinds of cultural offers. There will be music, there will be a bit of food and drink given away for free, there will be workshops, various reading-based initiatives, like calligraphy workshops, that kind of thing. It’s evolved into the centrepiece of our festival and very much has community spirit. There is a lot of energy put into that, and a lot of take-up on that, which is really exciting.
Elsewhere in the program, there are a couple of other really cool installations. We’re working with the renowned Melbourne-based company Electrolight who have, amongst other things, done the lighting on the new soccer and rugby stadium and the Recital Centre. They’re partnering with us to present seven different works with seven different renowned Melbourne-based designers and architects under the title ‘Shed Light’. We’re actually going to build seven really different really disparate light-based shelters throughout the plaza. Each of them is going to take a different slant on the idea of shelter. I believe they’ll be up from the 6 or 7 or June.
The other highlight that I’ll mention is a light see-saw, ‘A Tilt of Light’, done by ENESS, a local digital arts/media outlet. There’s a bit of play amongst it all.
We’ve heard that you might get someone to have a live tattoo done during ‘Reading the Body’. Can you tell us more about that?
Second to the Solstice Celebration, that will probably be our most significant event in the program. [The woman getting tattooed is] Emeretta Cross, who has really been involved with Light of Winter from the very start. She’s been a key representative of the Kiribati and Tuvalu Pacific Island communities, and she is a community leader who has undertaken many projects with The Light in Winter. She has a particular focus on the body-based tattooing traditions of islander communities and the cultural significance of those forms of expression. Considering the event is ‘Reading the Body’, she, in quite a serious way rather than a novel way, has undertaken to get a traditional tattoo put on herself in the middle of the square as a form of solidarity with traditional people. It’s meaningful as well. It certainly wouldn’t be every day that you would see someone get quite an elaborate tattoo done in the middle of Fed Square.
Have you got all the permits sorted out?
Oh, um. [Laughs] I have the best people working on it at the moment.
Looking forward to seeing that. Can you expand upon how you’re getting the blind community involved? It sounds almost counter-intuitive to have a light festival that involves blind people, but you are making it work.
Yeah, look, you’re right – it does seem curious to get all these people involved that on the face of it have such a tangential connection. But it’s exactly what The Light in Winter is all about: it’s an extremely broad church of representing a bunch of different people’s interests and concerns, under this common denominator of light. This project, cBraille, is very much drawing attention that people with visual impairment or blindness have some degree of perception [of light]. What we’re doing with this installation is challenging common and simple notions of what it is to be blind, what it is to see light, what it is to communicate. Having an installation made up of Braille characters that are actually illuminated in some way. Actually, that project came to me fairly late, but it was such a intriguing proposition. The act of being able to see light is so fundamental to the majority to people, even those with total degrees of impairment. The idea of playing around with physicalised forms of Braille and presenting that to people to feel and touch and think and experience was a very interesting proposition. It will be a very intriguing part of the exhibition. I really do hope that it challenges people’s perceptions on what they would expect to experience within the context of a light festival.
Sounds really cool. There are many other places around the world that have similar festivals, such as Sydney’s Vivid Festival. What do you think makes The Light in Winter so unique?
Fundamentally, with equal parts accident and design over the years, what’s really happening with the evolution of [The Light in Winter] over the last half decade is that there’s an incredible sense of shared ownership of who’s in it. The various community groups who have participated in this, various media partners, various professional artists who have had their works commissioned over time – all of them have come together in a really unique mix, and there is a palpable sense of community around the festival at the moment.
I think there are many examples of light-based festivals, both in Australia and overseas, and not to denigrate them – because many of them are beautiful – but I guess my perception of many of them is that the primary focus is putting on a sexy light show. And that’s not really our primary focus. Our primary focus is sharing lots of different aspects of community, and community light, to the people of Melbourne and Australia over a month, using light as a vehicle.
And that’s why, to sum up the program: we do have fantastic light-based installations, [but] there’s another part of the program where we take a radically different approach. We have events which are about live tattooing; we have installations which are about being blind; we have installations which are about playing on them. We can accommodate a theme as broad as ‘reading’ precisely because what we are trying to do with The Light in Winter isn’t just to have a sexy light show, it’s to engage people and give people a set of really, really unique and unforgettable experiences throughout a month at Fed Square. I’m not aware of any other light festival out there that really has the same cocktail of light artwork and strong community agency that we do, which as I was saying, might be part accident, might be part design, but certainly is unique.