A Festival Project Team Helped Residents and Tourists See Amsterdam in a Different Light
“Two Lamps” by Jeroen Henneman. At right, “Absorbed by Light” by Gali May Lucas
BY JEN THOMAS
Though Paris, France lays claim to the nickname “City of Light,” for 53 days each year, Amsterdam, the Netherlands finishes a close second. Featuring nearly 30 original installations crafted by artisans from around the world, the Amsterdam Light Festival illuminates the waterways and pedestrian pathways of the country's capital during the otherwise cold and gloomy months of November, December and January.
“We wanted to enlighten the canals, to do something for the people of Amsterdam during this dark period,” says Peter Duwel, CEO of festival founding partner Canal Tours Amsterdam, part of tourist company Stromma Netherlands, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Canal Tours Amsterdam is one of several companies that offers boat tours that pass along the artwork during this period each year.
—Peter Duwel, Canal Tours Amsterdam, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
“Desire” by UxU Studio. Below, “Shadow Scapes” by Marcus Neustetter
The annual festival, which debuted in 2012, requires more than a year of project planning. The most recent festival project spanned 15 months to commission, create, install and maintain the massive light displays. Stakeholders include festival organizers, artists, technical producers, canal touring companies and the municipality itself.
Even with six successful projects under its belt, however, the festival team must revisit the risk register anew each year. That's because each of the light installations is a one-of-a-kind commission, installed exclusively at that year's festival. There's also Amsterdam's notoriously fickle weather, which can wreak havoc on the intricately designed, open-air displays.
“Two years ago we had very heavy rainfall and snow, which had a great impact on the condition of the artworks,” says Frédérique ter Brugge-Drielsma, managing director, Amsterdam Light Festival, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “So we continuously keep working on the technical quality of the artworks and keep improving this year after year. From the visitor's side, we received very good references on the artistic quality. We're very happy.”
An ad hoc art installation would almost guarantee failure. Instead, the project team's quality control begins long before plug ever meets socket. After selecting a theme (the most recent was “The Medium Is the Message”), the team creates a 20-page call for submissions, detailing everything from the festival's route and submission selection details to technical lighting specifications and itemized budgets.
Once the 30 concepts by national and international artists are chosen, the project team pairs each with a lighting designer and technical producer. This arrangement ensures that each artist's vision is brought to life in a way that meets the project's technical and safety criteria. “The artist, lighting designer and producer start a co-creation phase, which can last close to eight months,” says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma. “Moving from a concept on paper to an artwork that is ready to be lit is a challenging phase.”
—Frédérique ter Brugge-Drielsma, Amsterdam Light Festival, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Parabolic Lightcloud” by amigo & amigo
PHOTOS BY JANUS VAN DEN EIJNDEN/COURTESY OF AMSTERDAM LIGHT FESTIVAL
To mitigate the risk that its largest and most complicated artworks will go awry during installation, the team uses a rolling schedule. Roughly three weeks before the festival opens, the most complex designs are slated for installation, allowing ample time in the schedule for site testing and tweaking.
It's an approach that proved prudent for the most recent festival. For the piece “Parabolic Lightcloud,” created by the design team amigo & amigo, the bulk of the light display was constructed in Australia. When it was shipped and placed on-site, the team realized that the piece weighed so much it couldn't be tilted at the specified angle without mechanical assistance. In the weeks leading up to the festival, the team was able to draw upon its contingency funds in order to request heavy-duty machinery to support the artwork's weight and achieve the intended angle.
“This is a good example of a detail that few visitors noticed, I'm sure, but for our curatorial team it was really important to realize the original effect of the artwork,” says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma. “It really shows our level of internal quality control.”
Individual artworks aren't the only project elements susceptible to snags during the festival lead-up. Sometimes the entire route needs to be rethought. For example, just three weeks before the most recent festival opened, the municipality notified festival officials that one of their prime placements had to be moved because the bridge supporting it wasn't structurally sound.
“Waiting” by Frank Foole. At right, “ARCHEStextures PORTAM CIVITATIS” by Peter Snijder
“SPIDER on the Bridge” designed by Groupe LAPS. Below, “Mr. J.J. van der Veldebrug” by Peter Vink
“The whole dynamic of the exhibition would change if we moved that large artwork,” says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma. “But we had to do it.”
Rather than scrap the piece, titled “SPIDER on the Bridge” and designed by Groupe LAPS, the team quickly convened to reconsider all of its placements. By swapping some installation sites, they realized, the festival could still include the original piece and safely skirt the failing bridge, which had to undergo immediate repairs. “That meant two weeks before the festival was slated to open, we had to call those artists and tell them about relocating their artwork,” she says. “Our whole technical team started running then and had to make drawings again and reshuffle the exhibition. It was quite intense.”
Canal Tours Amsterdam ran into a similar site problem when its main departure location for canal cruises had to be relocated because of construction in front of Amsterdam's Central Station, a major international railway hub. The logistics of choosing a new departure location were pretty straightforward, says Mr. Duwel, but communicating that change to local residents and tourists was a more complicated endeavor. “It's kind of a mess in front of Central Station during this period of building construction,” he says. “Knowing how people will walk through the city and through Central Station is a complicated matter.”
The festival organization initially planned to rely on signage to guide visitors toward the festival route. But almost immediately, it became clear that signage alone wouldn't cut it. So the team used contingency funds to hire stewards who would stand on the street and direct pedestrians. Although the new line item bumped the project budget slightly, it proved crucial to ensuring the festival actually achieved its goal, says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma: to be seen and enjoyed by Amsterdam's pedestrians.
UP AND RUNNING
While preparation for the festival consumes the majority of the project's timeline, the final phase of maintenance is just as important to the overall success, says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma.
The elaborate and expensive artworks can fall prey to a number of risks, including inclement weather and human intervention. (No amount of signage is enough to deter all visitors from trying to climb on the installations, she says.) The festival has two teams in place to troubleshoot: a daytime team that makes larger repairs and a nighttime emergency team that makes smaller, more urgent fixes.
To track and prioritize pressing technical problems, the team uses a custom-designed project dashboard that allows for remote monitoring of the installations. “We can also look into how many boats are passing the exhibition at the same time, see how busy it is, and turn on signal lights to manage speed and ensure a smooth passage,” says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma. The two troubleshooting teams also use the dashboard to talk to each other about specific repairs or project updates.
During the festival, the teams keep detailed logs and notes for each installation. The notes are documented in a digitized system, which festival organizers review after the project's close to glean lessons learned for future projects.
As part of the project's retrospective, “we evaluate and discuss every artwork with all the technical people,” says Ms. ter Brugge-Drielsma. Many of those lessons learned are geared toward future incarnations of the festival. Yet the talks have an ancillary benefit for individual pieces as well: Many of the Amsterdam Light Festival artworks enjoy a second life as touring pieces, displayed everywhere from Baltimore, Maryland, USA to London, England. PM
August 2017: Project team holds kickoff meeting for the seventh annual Amsterdam Light Festival. The meeting is three months before the sixth edition of the festival begins.
October 2017: Project team settles on a theme and begins to solicit global submissions.
April 2018: Co-creation phase begins, with 30 international artists each paired with a lighting designer and technical producer.
November 2018: Project team begins on-site installation. Festival begins 29 November.
January 2019: Festival ends on 20 January. Installations are removed, and project team gathers retrospectives to inform the next festival project.
Frédérique ter Brugge-Drielsma, managing director, Amsterdam Light Festival
Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Experience: 27 years
Main motivation: My passion for art and artworks
Career lesson learned: Involve the people you manage in your vision. If they understand the bigger picture—and how their tasks or responsibilities connect to that—the project goes more smoothly.
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