The light fantastic – e-Luminate 2018

Ruthie Collins discovers what's in store at Cambridge's festival of light installations

"February is the worst month of the year in Cambridge,” James Fox, this year’s celebrated guest curator of e-Luminate, the region’s most popular light festival, tells me. Familiar from his appearances as an art historian on CNN, Sky Arts and the BBC, BAFTA nominated Fox is also a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College here in Cambridge. An expert on colour, which is this year’s theme for the festival, he’s a perfect fit. “It feels like the end of a long winter, when spring hasn’t yet arrived – it’s exactly the time we need something like e-Luminate.”

Taking place on 9-14 February, the festival will once again deliver a series of large-scale light projections; extraordinary displays of colour which draw thousands to the city’s hotspots every year. Fox snapped up the invitation to work with e-Luminate from artistic director of the festival, Alessandra Caggiano, who was inspired by his knowledge and interest in the theme  of colour. “I’m a willing accomplice,” Fox says. “It’s an absolutely fantastic programme and appeals to so many generations, and Cambridge has played a very important role in the development of theory related to light, so is a fantastic setting for a festival exploring colour.” 

Indeed, our modern day understanding of colour and light starts with Isaac Newton, who was the first scientist to understand the rainbow prism and its composite colours, while at Cambridge. In the 19th century, James Maxwell Clerk demonstrated the theory of the electromagnetic field, connecting light, electricity and magnetism.

“It’s a good place to be working on colour today,” Fox enthuses, “with several colour specialists working here, including neuroscientist John Mollen. Or Simon Baron-Cohen [Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin], who’s an expert on autism, touching on how the brain understands colour. Plus, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, there’s Spike Bucklow, a leader in pigments.” You can see several prominent scientists and innovators at the festival, as part of the programme.

“Working with James for the next edition of e-Luminate Cambridge is an immense pleasure and privilege. I am truly excited at how the artistic programme has taken shape,” commented Alessandra Caggiano. “James is also a much-loved public figure thanks to his work as a TV presenter; I believe this will help our mission to get more people involved in the festival to discover the best of Cambridge’s artistic talents, technological innovations, and heritage in a new light.”

Fox’s book, The Meaning of Colour will be released in early 2018. “I’ve been working on it for about three or four years, looking at the meaning of colours throughout history, starting with black, ending with green and the environment. The exhibition programme is the result of a lot of thinking about colour which is in the book,” says Fox.

“Who would want to live a life without colour? It would be a monochrome world”

See projection artist Ross Ashton’s optical illusions on the Senate House, an LGBT themed design created by Lumineer Studio on Cambridge Guildhall, and the Fitzwilliam museum illuminated by a series of stunning images of colourful artefacts taken from museums across the city.

Highlights of this year’s festival include British conceptual artist Robert Montgomery, whose influences include East London graffiti artists and the poetry of Phillip Larkin. He’s creating a large scale illuminated ‘light poem’ installation, on King’s College Chapel. Montgomery’s poems are bold, human and visceral – this will be a treat, indeed.

Also included in this year’s festival is a fabulous programme of projections inspired by the community, Bright Lights – The Colours of the Brain, from Cambridge-based art organisation, Oblique Arts. “We have been working on Bright Lights since July 2017, hosting several workshops with community groups such as Cambridge Manor Care Home, Rowan, Art Works and Thrifts Walk Studios, to create imagery for the projections. It’s been a lot of fun, with people dancing, singing and exploring their own creativity,” says lead artist and project co-ordinator, Sarah Steenhorst.

“We are excited to be part of the e-Luminate Festival again this year. It’s important to us that artists collaborate with non-artists in the community to explore their creative potential. Coming together in this way, we have achieved an engaging and thought-provoking outcome of high quality. During the project we’ve looked at the ‘creative brain’ in all its colourful glory,” adds Bev Carpenter, also lead artist and project co-ordinator, as well as a driving force behind Oblique Arts. The project, which includes the work of over 150 people in the drawings and moving image elements, has already appeared as part of Bright Lights CB4 throughout North Cambridge. Watch out for their stunning projections, as part of the programme. 

e-Luminate regulars can also expect a Trail of Light again, through the college chapels, listening to choirs, at each stop. There’s a chance to try your hand at a light painting workshop with photographer Lucinda Price at the Guildhall, too. Fitness fans will love Glow Games: sports – including badminton, table tennis, netball and basketball – played in the dark with UV lighting at the Guildhall. Plus, there's a wine tasting event at Hotel du Vin at which you can taste and learn about different wines and the fascinating effect different light has on the palate.

“Colour is life and colour is the product of life. The most abundant pigment in the world is chlorophyll, green, without which, there wouldn’t be any life. Red is the colour of haemoglobin, the colour is produced by life and the production of life, makes colour,” says Fox.

“You can’t have colour without life – e-Luminate is a celebration of those things. Who would want to live a life without colour? It would be a monochrome world.”

For full details of all e-Luminate Festival event dates and tickets go to