The light has come close to flickering out completely for Public Dreams’ Illuminares Lantern Festival many times over the last four years, but finally the beloved event returns to its home at Trout Lake in East Van this Saturday (July 21)—with a few new artistic surprises.
The Public Dreams directors the Straight spoke with between 2008 and 2012 indicated that the reasons for Illuminares’ cancellation and resurrection, departure from and subsequent return to Trout Lake are myriad and complex. Soaring policing, security, and infrastructure costs forced the group to cancel its 20th-anniversary event in 2008. Illuminares returned to Trout Lake in 2009, but relocated the following year to Gastown’s former Storyeum complex, organizers telling the Straight that the move was due to the B.C. Liberals’ cuts to gaming grants and also part of a strategy to develop the Downtown Eastside community. The subsequent move in 2011 to Canada Place was part of a 25-year plan to take the festival “out and across the city”, organizers said.
Obviously, that plan has been scrapped.
Public Dreams’ mono-monikered creative director Azfir and Illuminares’ artistic producer Ari Lazer exchange a knowing glance at the Public Dreams office while describing the challenges the festival and the nonprofit have faced. The group’s hugely popular Parade of Lost Souls was once a massive costumed parade and Halloween tradition on the Drive, but like Illuminares in 2008, it was cancelled in 2009 due to budgetary concerns over policing, security, and infrastructure costs. It returned the following year, but underwent an overhaul and downsizing.
“From necessity comes creativity,” Lazer says with a smile. “The big formatting change out of not having money to do Parade of Lost Souls the way we used to do it meant we really had to look at what makes these events special to the community and how we can re-engage with them. That’s what we started to do, and we really had some great success.”
Both men say the community has welcomed Illuminares back with open arms: volunteers have been signing up for months, and, equally important, financial contributions have started coming in. According to Azfir, Illuminares didn’t want to leave Trout Lake in the first place.
“Trout Lake was under construction for a couple of years and we really couldn’t be there,” he says. “I think there’s a little bit of a misconception that we wanted to move away from Trout Lake, but we were actually kind of forced out. But at the same time, that gave us an opportunity to try something new.”
The festival’s two years away highlighted the importance of community involvement (which organizers told the Straight last year had decreased significantly at Canada Place, with few people bringing their own lanterns) and deepening the sense of ownership and pride for both attendees and artists. To that end, for the first time in the festival’s 24-year history, Public Dreams put out a call for artists to propose art installations for the night of the event.
Among the standouts: a piece that invites the public to move light around and create living, breathing shadow play; a choir crafting live soundscapes; a 12-panel medicine wheel; a giant, illuminated pyramid-shaped cloth fort that’s partly for exploring and partly for meditating; and live sculptures involving bicycles hooked up to instruments that the public can pedal to make music.
“In the past, Public Dreams has just hired artists accordingly,” Azfir says. “This year I really wanted to see what was out there and what their ideas were and how could we support them in the creation process. This is a community event and it’s also a platform for artists to showcase their professional talents.”
Lazer says the interactive element is critical to blurring the line between audience and performer. Accordingly, Illuminares will have a less regimented, more laissez-faire approach.
“We’re creating a novel way to move through the event,” he says. “It’s not going to be driven by a procession where people get pulled into this big flow. In past years, everything was timed down to the minute. There will still be a procession to close off the night, because it’s tradition and we care about that, but we’re much more excited about creating a world for people to explore where they get to find little treasures and pieces throughout the park.”
In settling back into nature, Azfir says, it was important to allow people to discover the festival’s myriad wonders the same way you would going for a walk in the park.
“It’s more rewarding to stumble upon something that’s really exciting,” he says. “In that way, everybody’s experience will be unique. Everyone will have a different route.”
Community, art, and interaction have been key components of the festival since its inception, so emphasizing these aspects on its return to Trout Lake is a safe bet for Public Dreams. Less safe? Ditching the traditional paper-lantern installations.
“What we’re really focusing on is innovation,” Azfir says. “Public Dreams itself will not be making any paper-lantern installations this year. Everything will be a variation on that innovation theme in the use of nontraditional materials such as glass, plastic, metal, and all manner of recycled and reclaimed items.”
The organization will still, of course, host a series of paper-lantern-making workshops leading up to the festival, and sell its usual paper lanterns at the festival’s marketplace. The workshops and the marketplace, in addition to donations, are key to the group’s financial viability and future events. But safely ensconced back at Trout Lake, and having survived another year fiscally, Azfir and Lazer want to continue to challenge Public Dreams’ role in the community as facilitators rather than tastemakers.
“In the past, when we’ve put together the event, we’ve hired our stilters and performers and artists,” Lazer says. “It has been more strongly curated. What really excites me is giving our artists and community an opportunity to let their bright light shine....It’s an open template for people to express themselves and witness that sense of play and that sense of wonder that we don’t usually get to see.”
Public Dreams' Illuminares Lantern Festival is at Trout Lake on Saturday (July 21) starting at 6 p.m.