Product Type
Application Area
Lighting Effect
Product Type
Application Area
Lighting Effect

Tradition and renewal: the Festival of Lights in Lyon

Interview with Jean-François Zurawik, the Fête des Lumières director

Published: 4 Dec 2019
From 5 to 8 December 2019 the Festival of Lights returns to Lyon: “A popular event, but also a quality event,” says Jean-François Zurawik, director of the festival since 2005 and today on the eve of his last year in this role. For Zurawik, organising a “popular” event means being realistic about the quantity and variety of people attending the festival. In 2018, 1.8 million people came from France, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere, and, therefore, it is essential to create installations that have as wide an appeal as possible. Lyon is not a context suited to ‘cerebral’ installations.

A video summary of the 2018 festival

The historical reason for this is that the festival was originally created as a simple and spontaneous act of religious devotion. Having already put off unveiling a statue of the Virgin on account of a flood, on 8 December 1852 the people of Lyon were afraid they would have to put the celebrations off again due to bad weather. But the storm passed and to express their happiness and gratitude, the citizens put lit candles – lumignons – out on their window sills to illuminate the houses and streets. On that day, in addition to unveiling the statue, the city also began a tradition of lighting candles, which continues to this day and has succeeded in creating a strong sense of belonging and pride in the town. For most people in Lyon it is the most important event in the year as it is very common for people to invite their friends and family to the event.

“Our aim is not to experiment,” explains Zurawik, “and we don’t want people to walk past an installation without understanding immediately what it is about.” This idea does not mean that visitors’ tastes and insights are not taken into account, it is simply that the management team takes a pragmatic approach to their actual experience. If the festival is held every year around 8 December, visitors cannot be expected to stand still and watch an installation for more than a few minutes in the evening. And if an installation has more than an interactive component – like, says Zurawik, a pinball game projected on a building – it has to be appreciated by everyone, not only by whoever’s turn it is to control it.
One installation from the festival archive that is particularly exciting and fun is La veilleuse des Jacobins by Christophe Mayer and Digiplay Studios. This work, installed above the fountain in Place des Jacobins for the 2014 festival, consisted of an enormous table lamp with childlike images of stars, comets, hearts, rockets and the moon projected onto its shade. Zurawik cites this example for its immediacy and evocative power.

A video of La veilleuse des Jacobins

The Festival of Lights in Lyon is the oldest light festival in the world and expectations grow higher with each new edition.
Renouncing experimentation does not mean renouncing originality and constant renewal. The Festival of Lights in Lyon is the oldest light festival in the world and - despite the restrictions applied to its perimeter following the terrorist attacks in France in 2015 - expectations grow higher with each new edition. Every year, Zurawik and his team develop a sense of the direction they wish to take and then collect ideas by visiting other festivals around the world and launching an international ideas competition.

In terms of its wonderful urban plan and architecture, Lyon’s historical heritage is clearly a major benefit but, warns Zurawik, it does not guarantee the festival’s success. “Heritage can be a bridge, a park, a river bank,” he adds. “It can also be an opportunity to innovate, especially in the early years of a festival, but in the long-term it risks becoming a limit. You can play with heritage, you can transform well-known sites, too, but you also need to change the projections every year.”
Color or not, M. Chaulet (Ville de Lyon)

Color or not, © M. Chaulet (Ville de Lyon)

To demonstrate this, he cites the example of the Lyon cathedral: “If we had listened to the religious authorities only, every year we would have told the story of the building’s construction.” Having satisfied this request, from 2014 onwards we changed direction with Yves Moreaux and Dar La Luz’s installation Color Or Not. This work is characterised by its distinctive graphics, colour schemes and generative images, which highlight the building’s architecture and make it more beautiful and sublime.
In 2018, the OCUBO team also created a very special video with a  scientific style, entitled Pigments de Lumière, which featured footage of different colours mixed with water and projected onto the cathedral’s façade. With its floral motifs and the use of petals in the films, the installation was also a tribute to the city’s past as the world capital of rose production and marketing, especially between 1850 and 1914.
Pigments de Lumière, Fabrice Dimier

Pigments de Lumière, © Fabrice Dimier

It is not easy to organise an event as big as this. The Fête des Lumières relies on a partnership between public and private bodies in which the former is represented by the city only and the latter is often the largest. Some companies offer service sponsorships rather than financial ones. One example of this is Lenoir, who sponsored the metal structures and Orange, the telecommunications company, whose smartphone data is used to analyse the inflow of tourists to the city during the festival.
In 15 years of directing this festival, Zurawik has created an ecosystem of companies, artists, designers, architects and other professional figures that has given a boost to the local economy and unique opportunities to the artists involved. Today, the festival has become world-famous and, in the last ten years, it has received numerous requests to share in other international projects. At the end of the 2019 edition, Zurawik stepped down from his role as director, but as the idea of retiring does not suit him, he will now spend his time promoting the festival outside France.