More Lights! – Enlightening Conversation with Birgit Zander
Birgit Zander is founder, organizer, producer and artistic director of the FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS. Born in Berlin, she has been lighting up her hometown with artistic light productions since 2005. We talked to her about the power of light, the program of this year’s anniversary festival and how she manages to create one of the most spectacular light art festivals in the world every year.
What fascinates people about light?
Birgit Zander: Light is energy, light connects and light speaks all languages. There would be no life without light. That is one thing. The other is that mankind loves pictures and stories, his brain functions through pictures and stories. So if you use light creatively to conjure up images and tell stories, then you magically attract people. That’s exactly what we do at the Festival of Lights: We combine light with art and tell stories that have a magical effect.
What was the reason for founding the FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS?
Birgit Zander: More than 15 years ago our then mayor Klaus Wowereit coined the sentence “Berlin is poor, but sexy” – and that was exactly my guiding principle. At that time the desire and the mission to support my hometown grew in me. I took over several honorary positions, some in close cooperation with the tourism promotion visitBerlin, with the aim to do something for Berlin and to promote the marketing of the city. In 2005 we started to light up our capital together with the Citystiftung Berlin. There was no big budget, but many sexy ideas and enthusiasm.
In the new project I was able to combine my real profession and passion with entrepreneurial commitment: I began to turn the city into a stage and the famous Berlin squares, buildings and monuments into stars. People were immediately fascinated. Pictures were created that went around the world. Light is simply a magical medium, which I had used in the event sector for many years. Year after year, the Festival of Lights developed more and more into what it is today: a great spectacle of light, art, music and events, which now brings 3 million people onto the streets and inspires them.
What were the stumbling blocks and how did you overcome them?
Birgit Zander: Clearly, financing is the biggest hurdle. Classically, events have a budget and a production is developed from it. With us it was the other way round. And that is still the case today. We arrange the entire financing ourselves.
This means that every year we motivate new companies and institutions to support the festival, make a contribution and look for partners who share our vision. And that is sometimes more and sometimes less strenuous, but it’s always a new challenge. To create a festival of this magnitude and artistic quality every year is an enormous commitment. Meanwhile, we are very happy that we have managed to get many partners and sponsors on board who continuously participate in the festival or address us by themselves and want a part of it.
You have been the driving force and provider of ideas for 15 years. How much work and time do you invest in the festival?
Birgit Zander: An unbelievable amount. The multifunction I have is extremely challenging. I like to compare that with big film projects. There’s a huge team of directors, co-directors, producers, actors, make-up artists, editors and so on. Together with my small team, I do it all on my own. And I’m fully occupied with that all year round. But I don’t see it as work – it’s my passion and mission. My life is light.
As artistic director, I always come up with something new: new ideas to which we have to add a little extra each time. But with combined creative forces we succeed in presenting new highlights, new buildings, new artists every year. Sometimes it’s not that easy, especially after 15 years.
Is there a day of the year when you don’t think about the festival?
Birgit Zander: No (laughs)
How has the festival changed in the last 15 years?
Birgit Zander: It has become more extensive and larger, the quality of the artistic productions has increased continuously – this is confirmed to us again and again.
The technology has developed considerably: We started with very classical, coloured light installations, then came the age of image projection, for example on one of my favourite buildings – the Berlin Cathedral. Later we presented the first moving image projections and finally the so-called 3D projection mappings on the buildings. We also expanded the program to include interactive events, competitions and votings in which the audience is involved and becomes part of the festival itself.
The number of cooperation and project partners has also increased significantly. And I love to involve international artists. That has developed rapidly. Last year there were 66 artists from 25 countries! Not to forget: the locations. Last year there were 60 locations in our programme and I can already tell you now that this year it will be a three-digit figure!
Which production still gives you goose bumps today?
Birgit Zander: I still have every single production of the last 15 years in my head. When I think of the first 3D video mapping on the Brandenburg Gate. It was called “Living in the Brandenburg Gate”, one had the impression that people actually live in the Brandenburg Gate. The most famous monument in the world became a residential building. The projection was created in cooperation with the housing cooperatives in Berlin. A very elaborate project. I was afraid whether it would come across properly to the audience, but the success was overwhelming and that was pure goose bumps for me.
I also had goose bumps during “the cathedral wears new clothes”, when Wolfgang Joop presented his new fashion on the Berlin Cathedral. These were beautiful pictures that went around the world. The cathedral with leopard pattern or covered with flowers. The result was a digital fashion show, which even fascinated the designer Joop and the team of his fashion label “Wunderkind”, which I still think back on with unbelievable pleasure.
But actually, even after so many years, my biggest goose bump moment is still to go through the festival and look into the shining eyes of the people. To see how they are emotionally touched and sometimes stand in front of the buildings with tears in their eyes. These moments are simply incredibly beautiful!
Is there still an unachieved goal?
Birgit Zander: My big dream is to stage many more cities internationally, to carry the light around the world from Berlin, to create positive and emotional moments worldwide that inspire people to dream. The Festival of Lights family can grow even bigger.
What is so special about this year’s motto “Lights of Freedom”?
Birgit Zander: We are celebrating freedom and 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What happened in November 1989 is still one of the most moving moments of my life for me as a true Berliner. To pay tribute to this event, I have chosen the theme of freedom as my leitmotif. For me, freedom is one of the most important values for all of us and I would like to dedicate an entire festival to it.
What can you tell us about the Program 2019?
Birgit Zander: It will be the most elaborate program we have ever presented. We will illuminate over 100 locations. There will be a lot of new ones! In addition, there will be a great supporting and event program: there will be a new and special exhibition, which I strongly recommend to see. And even a Magical Festival of Lights Garden for the first time!
There will also be an even more varied lightseeing program with many old and new partners as well as our new big partner GetYourGuide. Visitors can explore our festival in many ways. We will also extend our Walk of Light with different routes. So it’s worth taking a look at our homepage or Facebook and discover the most beautiful routes through the FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS.
In the anniversary year there will also be a “Best-of”. We have asked our fans in the social media what they want to see again from the productions of recent years. Our team has selected some productions that we will revive.
What tips can you give visitors in advance?
Birgit Zander: It is probably impossible to create the whole festival in one evening with this program. So I recommend coming more often to explore the light productions on foot in one evening and by bus on another day.
Another tip: subscribe to our newsletter and take a look at the beautiful photos under the hashtag #FestivaloflightsBerlin. And please upload your own photos! That’s what I wish for the 15th anniversary!
Who is this year’s presenter?
Birgit Zander: We’re extremely happy and proud to have E.ON on our side again, and we’re already in our fifth year. Without such a great partner it would hardly be possible to realize a festival of this magnitude.
The Berlin FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS demands a lot from you. Nevertheless, you still manage to travel the world with your festival…
Birgit Zander: That happened a few years ago. Then we were asked: “What you do in Berlin is so great, can you do it with us as well? We love challenges. We then started with a few German cities, then went quite quickly to Luxembourg and on to Bucharest, New York, Jerusalem …
My mission to connect Berlin with other metropolises and cities through light is constantly evolving. The FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS family is growing: Plovdiv, Zagreb, Seattle and even Kuwait! Last year there was a very special festival in Zwickau. To the 900th anniversary of the city. Currently we are exploring the African continent for the realization of a Light Festival.
In addition there are many more festivals as “friends & family”, which are organized by other cities, which we advise and with which we are friends. We like to be guests at other festivals. It’s just a lot of fun. I love it the most when we can also help and support with our work.
There are always new requests and you can be really curious where we will be in the next few years.
Mrs. Zander, what are you grateful for?
Birgit Zander: That I, as a Berliner, have been able to organise and realise such an important event in the most beautiful city in the world for 15 years – together with an unbelievable team that is there with so much passion and commitment. I am heartily grateful to everyone who is there!
And of course I am very grateful to all partners, companies, institutions and friends who share our mission to make Berlin shine even more … Many, many have come together over the years, some supporters have been there for 15 years. Thank you very much!
The interview was conducted by Julia Richter
Picture 1: Frank Herrmann | Picture 2: Frank Herrmann | Picture 3: Frank Herrmann | Picture 5: Frank Herrmann | Picture 6: Frank Herrmann | Picture 7: Gregor Anthez | Picture 8: MP-Studios | Picture 9: Daniel Margraf