Every year, surprising installations created by innovative artists transform Eindhoven into a huge light art exhibition. Eindhoven's GLOW festival is a pioneering statement on the borderline of art, design and technology. At the same time, the festival seeks a certain balance: what does the public still find credible?
An inventive world-class event in Eindhoven's public spaces: this is an apt description of GLOW in its current form. Every year in November, artists and designers from the Netherlands and abroad showcase new light art and design applications that thrill the public. Hundreds of thousands of visitors walk past some thirty light art projects, which have been created using cutting-edge technology.
It all started in 2006 on a modest scale. Eindhoven was in the doldrums following Philips' decision to relocate its head office to Amsterdam. “Nobody is quite sure who thought up GLOW: the most likely story is that the idea for the festival originated in the pub”, says Ronald Ramakers, who is the festival’s commercial and artistic director. “Anyway, people were looking for an appropriate event to give the city a positive boost.”
GLOW emphasizes Eindhoven's strong bond with light. Match manufacturing started here in 1870 and in 1891, Philips opened a light bulb factory in the city. Besides being the ‘city of light’, Eindhoven is also the city of design and technology. A light art festival was a logical way of emphasising and presenting all these elements. The early pioneers were inspired by Lyon, where the ‘Fête des Lumières’ attracts millions of visitors every year.
In contrast to the first year when the Stadswandelpark and the banks of the river Dommel were the sites for the light art exhibits, the installations and works of art spread into and across the centre of the city in later years. On festival nights, visitors stroll past around thirty locations where the architecture and public spaces change into emotive fairy tale settings or starkly futuristic scenes.
GLOW Eindhoven has now firmly established itself in the top five of the ‘best-visited light art festivals in the world’. “Constant renewal is the secret of its success”, says Ramakers. “It is a festival for pioneers, where progressive innovators find inspiration. What makes us special compared to other light art festivals is that we build special projects and bring in talented people. Even though light art has been democratized, we want to offer more than just pure entertainment. We prefer to challenge residents, companies and institutions to use light to create new constructs and stories.”
At the same time, the festival appeals to a broad audience from a wide spectrum of social and educational backgrounds. Unlike the Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven’s other calling card, which focuses fully on innovation, GLOW's strategy is one of broad accessibility. “We operate in the middle, where there is room for both innovative art forms and clichés. The traditional Chinese light art display, for example, is still a captivating and dramatic piece. And the same is true of the Sunflowers by Van Gogh, which are reproduced as huge light constructs.”
Ramakers is fond of saying that it is the city itself that creates GLOW each year. His philosophy is that Eindhoven is the canvas, where participants from all walks of life contribute and share their innovative discoveries with the public. Many of the projects originate from Eindhoven and are conceived and built in the city by internationally renowned designers, technicians and artists. High tech companies and educational institutions in the region work together with young up-and-coming talent in the aptly named ‘GLOWlabs’.
The sources of inspiration are as diverse as you could imagine: for example, the light therapy offered by Eindhoven's mental health care service. Another example is photonics - a field in which Eindhoven University of Technology is a world leader - which was used for a work of art. “In photonics, light that you can’t even see is used for ultra-fast computing power. The designers create and shape their own stories using technologies that are available just down the road here.”
Ramakers, who was born in Limburg but now lives in Amsterdam, feels that GLOW typifies Brabant. “This is a tierless society of hard workers, where collaboration drives everything forward. The mentality in Brabant is that you make the best you possibly can, whatever the constraints. Things will work out, don't worry, is something you hear all the time in Eindhoven. And the other popular saying is: We all have our crosses to bear. People here just accept how things are.”
At the same time though, GLOW is becoming increasingly international. GLOW strives to have as many projects as possible produced locally in Eindhoven. To achieve this, the organisers attract new talent to the city, both from the Netherlands and abroad. “Our goal is to bring in refreshing people with refreshing ideas. And then we hope that they will stay here and act as ambassadors for the city. A metropolitan climate has developed in Eindhoven, it’s a great city to live and work. That helps us keep talented people here.”
There are plenty of benefits for the city. GLOW is an open door to Eindhoven, says Ramakers. People are prepared to travel roughly two hours to visit the festival and then get to know the city as they view the exhibits. Furthermore, GLOW is a business card in international commerce. Companies like to highlight their involvement in the event in Eindhoven when promoting their products and services abroad.
In addition to the large companies, local businesses and restaurants also benefit from the event. The retail trade sets a new turnover record each year thanks to the many visitors that GLOW attracts to the city centre of Eindhoven. Educational institutions use GLOW as a work experience opportunity and free up teachers for it.
Students develop something for GLOW as a minor that contributes to their degree. For example, Fontys ICT students have created a project that uses light and colour to raise awareness about the dangers of public Wi-Fi networks. Ramakers: “GLOW is a gentle but irresistible force that generates a network of connections in the city. The festival is innovative, appealing and something we can all be proud of.”
Some exhibits literally unleash light. In 2018, Finnish light artist Kari Kola's project called Something Blue turned the sky around and above Eindhoven into a maze of deep blue and purple light beams every night. Those bright beams of light could be seen from far and wide and even perceived from aircraft kilometres above.
However, there are no plans to make the festival even more spectacular, says Ramakers. “When you get bigger and even more compelling every year, you risk becoming a parody and losing credibility”, he believes. “So we prefer to keep the festival dynamic by alternating large installations with smaller exhibits that are emotionally appealing."
This policy is designed to prevent GLOW from becoming a victim of its own success. “Things will get really critical if the festival attracts more than a million visitors. The sheer number of visitors on the route would cause bottlenecks, although I suppose we could spread the exhibits more through the region. We want to surprise, intrigue and touch people emotionally with a dynamic presentation that encourages them to walk the entire route.”
GLOW reinforces the city’s purposefully chosen identity as a beacon of innovation and design, just as its founding fathers intended. But how do you successfully walk the tightrope between attracting sponsorship funding and maintaining credibility, between broad appeal and innovation?
That is an ongoing challenge, says Ramakers. He wants to collaborate with companies on innovation and sustainability, but without turning the festival into a sponsor gala. As he points out, the accepted practice is to display brand names everywhere. “But I don’t want that Formula 1 look. At the moment, we have a small sign that lists all the companies who have contributed. Art is quite a sensitive field. People just won’t accept exaggerated sponsor messages.”
He also wants GLOW to maintain its policy of free-of-charge entry because, in his view, everybody appreciates art. To emphasise his point, he quotes Gerard Philips, who said in 1925: “Light is life, light is happiness, light is celebration”. “We want to keep that meaning for GLOW. At the same time, GLOW must continue to add value to ensure that it remains an attractive investment opportunity for the municipality, companies, schools and other participants. We achieve this by collaboratively building a festival where nothing is preordained and there is room for free thought and other ideas.”
Something else Ramakers is fond of saying: don’t grow, find balance. One of the challenges ahead is to focus more on sustainability. GLOW aims to become energy-neutral, but also wants to combat waste in a broader sense and focus on recycling.
“We are investigating how companies in Eindhoven can save up energy for GLOW throughout the year, for example, by switching off the lights a minute earlier. This is primarily a statement that is designed to raise awareness. Fortunately, more and more projects use LED light, which is much more energy-efficient than incandescent light bulbs. We also use recyclable materials to the greatest possible extent in our annual children’s project.”
“So, for example, light beacons from previous years are used in a different way for the next edition. This approach allows us to constantly look for innovation and balance, without getting boring.”
Two elements will continue to form the heart of GLOW: the outdoor spaces as a backdrop and, of course, the light itself. “We will also continue to use a route that takes you past roughly thirty locations. This is a good guideline, which basically determines many of the other choices. It also gives the public sufficient overview and ensures good flow. We want to encourage people to collectively look at the works of art while walking the route at a steady pace.”
Throughout the year, the compact team behind GLOW makes every effort to ensure that the route, safety, planning and all the other issues have been properly considered and are ready in time for the festival. Once the festival starts, a large taskforce of extra people step into the breach to handle all the activities. They are helped by approximately 25 volunteers.
Everybody works enthusiastically to get everything ready for the festival's grand opening in November. Ramakers especially looks forward to the inflow of people to the city. He walks the route in the opposite direction to see how visitors react to the installations. “On the first day, you feel all the energy in the crowd. I note the pace, watch how the crowd splits up and how they look at the exhibits. Every year, we analyse whether our ideas have turned out as expected. That information also acts as inspiration for a new edition. The fact that GLOW is temporary it is also positive. As human beings, we are the sum of our memories. We are all privileged to play our part in ensuring that this type of art finds its way into the hearts and minds of the public.”
GLOW is the largest and longest-running light art festival in the Netherlands. The first edition in 2006 was an immediate success with 45,000 visitors. The event has grown year on year, attracting 750,000 visitors in 2018 - a new record.
Both local and international lighting designers and artists exhibit their work for a week and a half. Visitors walk a signposted route, either on their own or with a guide, that takes them past all the light installations.
The festival is dedicated to a different theme each year. The works of art often have interactive elements, which allow the audience to participate in the light installation.
This article was updated on November 10, 2019.
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