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Interview with Manuel Garcia-Ruiz

Who are you?

I am a researcher in Sociology at ISCTE-IUL, Portugal, where I pursuit my research on Festivals of Light as instruments for the territorial development for secondary cities (medium and small) through the creation of a highly competitive and specialized creative tourism. I am an international festival advisor, and I collaborate with many festivals of light (among others) at their different stages.

Something more personal?

I’m Spanish, but I grew up all around the world. I’ve spent my childhood in Nairobi (Kenya), but my family and I moved quite a lot. I used to live in Paris, where I made a part of my studies, and where my heart belongs. Also, I used to live in Brazil for a very long time, in New York and other many big cities. Let’s say that my interest in Urban Sociology began at the same time that I started walking on the sideroad of any of these cities, not sure which one.

A researcheris something more than a social scientist! Many people get surprised when they found out that I used to be a rugby player…

What is your background?

I am not a pure-bloodsociologist, I come from the Communication Sciences. This is important as my approach is very interdisciplinary. I am very happy to use different methods, approaches and tools in order to conduct my research. I believe that you can only win, nothing to lose, if you cross some focus and points of views. Social sciences today are discussing about the purity of their works, but it seems we all agree that the future is on working all together or getting out the traditional academic closet.

Do you relate to any kind of artyourself?

I may say that I’ve been also related to the arts, even that not a big artist. I guess that’s why I am studying this from the other side…

Before my career in festivals of light I used to do street art, to be honest I was a graffiti writer. This was never an option for living, but I realized that I could come to it. I study what I loved, and I am proud to say that I have some good papers on these lines; but… it was not enough. After some unsuccessful situations on street art, I learnt about the existence of these Festivals of Light, so I stopped writing the city, to write about urban arts.

Right now, 6 years later, I can proudly say that I am one of the very few studying on this field, and the one with a larger scope, as well as the one with a wilder view on them. In total, I have 135 festivals of light under my microscope; but to be honest, I should say that I have 135 homes.

In other set of things, I have always been doing short movies and documentaries… so I can relate to the filmic arts. In fact, I am the Director of the Urban Audiovisual Festival in Lisbon. It is a small festival, running its second edition this year. We are happy to be an international event with a big participation and a motivated public. I guess that in this festival I mix my interest of research, my passion for cinema and my wish to bring something to people and make them think. Isn’t that the purpose of art?


What were the good things and the bad things you saw happening at a festival of light?


I witnessed so many situations that makes difficult to answer to this question. I believe that one thing that moves me is the fact that Festivals of Light invite many people to own their own city. They invite to the elder to walk on their streets, alone or in company, and (re)look at their city with different eyes. I think that the power of these festivals to gather people, to get them together, to build a belonging and enjoy is something beautiful. Arts on the streets are something that we all should claim to have. They make our cities more human, less cold or industrials, it’s like giving a soul to the place we live, but a soul we can see, interact and play with. In other hand, the ephemeral transformation creates alterity on the streets, what makes people remember, imagine, feel and get excited about their hometowns. Isn’t that wonderful?

I remember a time that I had the chance to witness a confession during a festival of light. A lady was visiting the event with her granddaughter. The young woman was on her 20s, and obviously they had a great relation. They were walking together, taking pictures together in a particular sigh-seeing visit: the grandmother was explaining the city that once she knew. I was looking from a distance, but they were getting close enough to letting me listen what they were saying. They stopped where I was, not very far to an installation. Grandmother started crying. They were tears of pure nostalgia and love. A great combo that had a happiness effecton her. The young woman asked to her what was going on with here, to what she pronounced a men’s name. She continued, and she explained that that was the spot where she first kissed someone. That spot, before the intervention, was terribly neglected. A place where you wouldn’t like to walk at any time, but now it was possible. She explained that that kiss was with her first love, who was not her husband. She explained the whole story to her granddaughter, while she was completely surprised as -obviously- never thought that she could had ever had another man rather than the grandfather. The lady was completely radiant, I could see on her eyes how this little event, made her heart beat again as she was young. I could see on the young lady the proudness we feel for someone who is in love. While they were walking away from me, I could see they were very connected, even more now after this revelation. They were closer now, they knew better each other now.

Again, I’m a sociologist, I’m interested in people and stories.

Bad things… well, it is a relatively young cultural product, and they bring many people, so crew management problems are the first thing that pop up in my mind.  Other, don’t have sufficient involvement with their city halls, as they are not taking enough seriously. This is a sad situation, municipalities that are blind and can’t recognize the great impact and value of this events.

Is it art or is it entertainment? I found it difficult to explain.

Not every festival of light is art based. I would say that festivals of light in the last ten years (or so) have evolved. In the beginning, these festivals were very artsy, I mean very artistic curated. They tried to promote art and they tried to make it known by the public, like Lights On Romania. Today, this situation… is -somehow- questionable.

There are many situations that influenced on this. Miscommunication, divergency of interest between production directors and art directors; financial and resources available… there is a long list we could do, as there is not a perfect formula, there is not a single model for building a festival. And, the reasons to build a festival, are also, not the same. Now, festivals must be profitable, they must bring masses, they have to educate, entertain and cause the wow effect. It is not easy to do all of that. So, the organizers must take important decisions on what do they exhibit on the streets. Sometimes they offer more entertainment, other more art. What something can be art to others can be entertainment, or it could even be perceived as both. We should not think here in binary terms, we should embrace a contextual perspective (and planning).

Festivals of light are free normally, what is very appealing for visitors, but… artists, organizers and all the people who work very hard to make this event possible have bills that need to pay. This means that they have to face difficult decisions and look for sponsorships that help on compensate cost, or even make possible the event to exist. There is a logic here: at that moment a festival brings more people, they bring more sponsors, who bring more money what guarantees a bigger and better service for the spectator. which is not a spectator, for me is a visitant.

The city becomes an exhibition but somehow the city becomes a Disneyland. You offer art on the street, but as it is not in the traditional institutional places (museums, galleries) it is sometimes perceived as entertainment; also, as you play with the physical city (buildings, parks…) it is understood as decoration. Nothing as far as that, it depends on the way we see.

I would be unfair to say that every festival of light in the world is a money machine, they are definitely not. There are festivals that are considerably more artsy, other that are more entertainment.  They all need that kind of pieces, they need injections of sponsors as the public institutions do not understand that arts belong to the streets too. Light Art belongs to the street.

We have to keep in mind, that these kinds of cultural products are terribly expensive. Materials are expensive, transportation, they require specialized hands, etc. They are not cheap! What worries me too is that for many artmeans no work. Artist expend a lot of time in their creations, they make tests, they learn, they look for making us feel something, and that is not a spontaneous glow. Light artists, as many others, have to face difficulties, and they have bills to pay too! It worries me that we still think on the artist as a bohemian, whose work is not important until they die, and then we give value to their creations.

Art or entertainment? That question is an ever-lasting question. As I said before it depends on our way of seeing. Publics at these events are very heterogenous, very different one to each other. We find people with no education in arts, other who could be called “erudite”. Visitors of festivals of light, are not necessarily trained in arts, they might not visit museums, but they are motivated to learn, to feel, to get surprised, to recognize and play with their cities and the installations. This is highly important. We are helping to think, to feel, to question the meaning of things. We are a good first step to bring people to contemporary museums, to reactivate the (lost) interest in the arts.

It is also a good economic strategy. People get to the street, they flanne, they socialize, they spend money during their visit. They are Win-Win events, and I am happy to see that some places have understood their important role or their capabilities to hosting towns.


How long you think that Festivals of Lights are going to last?

There is a decline in art in the festivals of light. I cannot tell you how long they will last as they are. They might become something different, or they might disappear. This is related to taste, socio-economic relations, interest, collaboration etc.

I may say that they change during these last years, indeed, they are not exactly the same format, nor their size, reasons to be etc. But, I can say that there would be a few that will stay untouched, as they have already reached the excellence, and public has already confirmed their validity as art-shows, art exhibitions, or simply: art in public space.

Do you think that Mi-e Dor de Tinehas an artistic value?

What is art and what is not art? That’s the question…

I would say that since the Dadaism (even before), we can very much question what artis and what is not art. After Pop-Art, we can again question what a mass production productis and what is a reproductible piece of art… History of art will tell us what in a certain moment, a certain group of people, who shared a certain trait considered art, but it is not easy.

If you ask me ifMi-e Dor de Tineis a piece of art I would ask you back, do you think that Barbie is a piece of art? For me an installation can be understood at different levels. I’m not going to be very academic on this thing, I don’t see why I should especially after defending that everything depends on the way we see things (or almost).

If you ask me again, I would probably argue using the level of meaning of Erwin Panofsky. This author set the basis for an artistic reading, there are many other, as many authors working in iconography, semiotics etc. have already versed on this discussion.

Personally, I think is it art as long as people who look at that consider it as being art. It corresponds to a certain aesthetic, it is framed in context of art, it was made with the purpose of being artistic, there is an idea behind, there is a project behind as well. It has everything it needs to be called art. If you ask me if it’s a big or small art, that is another question.

Do you think that placing so called works of art on public space is just a miss use of public space?

Let me answer in another way. I think that public space is too empty of art. Public Art is not well understood by policy-makers, probably because it is associated with (just) monuments. Opening the definition of public art is something quite recent, and even today there is not consensus on what should be present in the street. This Public Art is contested, what has been located on the street at a certain point, it is removed at another. I’m thinking on the statues dedicated to dictators, or leaders, that after are removed for example.

Public art is not just putting memo-iconsin the street. Public art means using the public space to shorter the distance between art to the people. It is a way of democratizing art. I am very scared to walk in streets where there is not “contemporary” public art, or even worst, where the only public art is a (constant) reproduction of the icons of already present. In other words, the art we find in the streets can tell us a lot about the people who lives in. We can see if they are in more or less totalitarian regimes, if they are cultural cities, if they embrace new technologies, if they are more or less tolerant, if they have matured democratic values, etc. In Cluj, I missed this part. I have seen a lot of Public Art, but only monuments from old-glory times.

Art’s purpose is to make people think, question about the space, about the time they live in, making them dream or wake them up. The streets here are aseptic, people need something else!

They need advertising on the street, to know what to eat, but they also need other forms of food as well, and that kind of food is art.

Art doesn’t onlybelong to the museums, it belongs wherever people are and people are on the streets.

How many categories of light festivals are?

There are festivals of light that are artistic, like EVI LICHTUNGEN in Germany, and there are festival fightingand strugglingto stay artistic. Festivals of light are the reflection of the execution of different professionals (curators, directors, etc.), so… the best they are, the incredible can be the results. This festival I mentioned before is curated by Bettina Peltz, probably one of the best in the field. She was, in fact, one of the precursors of these events. I admire her as she resisted and keeps her curated events artsy.

You have festivals that have translated old traditions to new times, evolving, exploring new aesthetics, new works etc., the ones like Fête de Lumiere in Lyon. This one is probably one of the biggest and a reference internationally. I must say that they know how to bring people, offer good artworks and celebrate that momentum of people art-watching.

We can find, as well, some festivals that are fabricated to make money. Those exist, and we can easily identify them, as the curating is quite often forgotten.

It called my attention that many times, especially in the last five years, that many collaboratives or association-based festivals are flourishing. There are many different scales, many magnitudes etc. It is true that their success, as to the other, is based on the relation they achieve with municipalities and other stakeholders.

Something must be clear, light festival and festival of light, is not the same.

Suggestions to organizers?

There are many things we could talk about. It is impossible to make a clear point on these events as they are very big. But, as per my experience, the most difficult part is the financial planning. Keep realistic what you can do with your budget is the most important thing, and sometimes you can by making strong ties with artist, with the municipalities, and the stakeholders.

Relations with the different actors implicated, will drive your event to the success. But, how do you do when your actors are hostile to your event? What if they don’t recognize the value of your project? Education and sharing the experience of other festivals normally works. I have seen in the past situations where a festival moved from a town to another, due to the lack of interest of the municipality, and then they become a massive success in the “transplanted” city. This success is reflected on different aspects such as internationalization, city branding, local economy impulse, etc. Unfortunately, many policy makers are too scared to embrace new projects, or they still don’t understand the benefits of this kind of cultural projects.