"You show the lights that stop me turn to stone/You shine them when I’m alone.” - Ellie Goulding, Lights.
It’s dark. There’s a crowd. The air tastes like Heineken.
Suddenly there’s a sound. A sort of ringing, the kind that makes you wonder if you’re imagining things. It grows. Lights race in a curve over the slopes of a small park, charging towards us out of the darkness. More lights. More sound. Vibrations and trills and chimes and rollicking chirps - they sound like all the ringtones in the world playing at once, like the train tracks outside my apartment, like seashells in the surf. Beacons blink and shiver all along raised tracks; I am a five-foot-two Gulliver among Lilliputian rollercoasters. The crowd sways forward, murmuring, mesmerized. It feels we’ve arrived in the future that we imagined in the past.
We’re at the 2019 Eindhoven GLOW festival; the experience above is called PING, an installation by artist Gijs van Bon. We’re here for the semester’s final IES Abroad field trip. I almost opted out: it’s a Thursday night, an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam, at the end of a long week. But since we arrived I haven’t stopped looking up, camera set firmly to manual, eyes wide open. People have already had to stop me from tripping over small children and being hit by bikes. I can’t bring myself to feel guilty. There’s so much to see.
Eindhoven GLOW is a light-art exhibition, held in the city every November. Each exhibition has a theme: this year, it’s Living Colours. “What colours do we see, where do they lead us?” ask the festival’s organizers. Light technology apparently has a long history in Eindhoven, with the match industry and Philips both being based there, and involves international and local “light artists”. This year, there are multiple varieties of exhibits; some are spectacles, some are by young artists, some create social and environmental awareness (Source: GLOW Eindhoven).
From the moment we leave the station, it appears that the festival is a city-wide phenomenon. Every facade is alight. Restaurant awnings cast a red glow, candles flickering on their patio tables; giant lamps roar warmly; multicoloured bulbs tumble from balconies. Exhibits are scattered throughout the city; the first one we stumble on features a clutch of giant aquatic flowers blooming by the Dommel river (Floral Flow, by Fontys University students). People crowd the bridge, watching a brave volunteer pump the water and light which fuels the exhibit. Apart from the occasional infant squeal, it’s quiet as people watch reflections dance on the dark water.
I’ve always possessed a deep love for festivals of light, based on years of personal experience. Every May, Sri Lanka lights up. For two nights, paper lanterns and oil lamps flutter from the eaves line the roads and temples and float on the lakes in celebration of the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha. Every August, my hometown lights up again with huge nightly pageants involving traditional performers, bedecked elephants, and even more lamps. Even three years of missing these celebrations because of college schedules hasn’t dampened the elation I feel when seeing a city light up in unison.
In many ways, Eindhoven GLOW is the polar opposite of the festivals I grew up with. But light and life are becoming art here, and that’s familiar enough for me.
Light is the medium to the canvas of Eindhoven’s architecture. From a street away, we hear music from the Colour Symphony (Fabel, van Poppel and Steijlen). Projected against the facade of a huge building called De Witte Dame (the white lady) is an indescribable blueprint of movement and images. Rubix cubes, mercury marbles, architectural grid patterns - it’s like those old Windows XP screensavers were anthropomorphized on a gigantic scale and set to house music. I wonder what it says about us as a species that we stand for ages watching what are essentially shapes on a screen. But there are also small fluffy dogs dotted through the crowd, also mesmerized, so perhaps it’s not just us.
There is no shortage of reasons to turn our eyes skywards. Sharp, bright shades flare against the Augustijnenkerk's tower, morphing seamlessly 200 feet above us, symbolizing love, sin and desire through the ages (Triptych Metaphor Heart by OCUBO). Bright parakeets fly up the Steentjeskerk; a purple octopus blinks at us before dissolving into virtual ink and brickwork (Elemental Fusion by Meerendonk and Sybinska). The Fatih Mosque is resplendent with colour (Daniel Margraf). I’ve always loved religious sanctuaries for their histories and architecture, but this is seeing them in a new light entirely.
At other times, the festival builds its own attractions. An archway of glowing cubes leads us to the market square, which is dyed in crimson and fuschia and mint (Hypar by TU Eindhoven). The Heuvel mall bursts with attractions - tiny robots, interactive clouds, shadow art. We turn a corner onto the aptly-named Lichtplein and are confronted by sunflowers. The sound of crickets fills the air as we run towards the towering Chinese lanterns, a homage to Van Gogh, an impossible meadow rising towards the skyscrapers (Gu Yeliang and Hugo Vrijdag). People wander through the flowers like bees; their faces are openly and childishly joyous. It’s six Celcius, but here among the sunflowers, we’re warm.
I could go on (and on). But there’s one particular exhibit from which we need to be dragged away: Daniel Margraf’s Diving into the sea of colours. Every inch of the Wilheminaplein has been dipped in rainbow kaleidoscope neon; in an instant, we’re transformed into confectionary-coloured chameleons. Everything becomes art. I trip over my own feet, no longer sure where reality begins.
There is wonder on every face I see. It feels like we’ve stepped into the future, or our most harmless, whimsical, childish dreams of what the future should look like. Whatever the politics and contradictions of that dream, it feels like something we need desperately, halfway through November, on the final stretch of our time here. I watch the colours and the silhouettes and the lights and I do not want to leave.
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<p>My name is Lalini Shanela Ranaraja. I grew up in Sri Lanka, a tropical island-nation blessed with perpetual summer, and yet I ended up going to college nine thousand miles away, in Rock Island, Illinois! I’m studying anthropology, journalism and creative writing because I couldn’t pick just one. In my spare time, I dabble in languages (I speak four), browse art supply stores, and people-watch. I require at least one long, rambling walk a day, even if there’s eight inches of snow on the ground.</p>