Festival of light aiming to become leading Prague arts event, says creator Martin Pošta

Photo: Facebook page of the festival

The centre of Prague will be transformed for several nights this week, when it hosts the first ever Signal Light Festival. From Thursday to Sunday, leading European practitioners of video mapping will be turning some of the city’s buildings into giant screens, while a number of well-known Czech artists have also created special installations. The man behind the whole thing is Martin Pošta, former director of the Fresh Film Fest. When we spoke, I first asked Pošta how he had got into the field of light art.

Martin Pošta | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
“My background is more in film than in light, actually. I’ve gotten here… actually a couple of years ago, in 2009, I met Amar [Mulabegovic] and Dan [Gregor] from [Prague-based] The Macula, with whom we worked on video mappings.

“We just figured out we could work together well. We did the clock tower thing, the mapping of the clock tower [at Prague’s Old Town Hall], which got… I don’t know if I could call it famous, but it got a lot of attention.

“Based on that we got to travel around a lot. We did projections in Liverpool, in Dubai, we did one just recently in Poland. And in the meantime we kept meeting these really interesting artists and we were amazed at what they could do.

“I think I’m answering your next question, but we kind of thought, why not do a festival of light design in Prague? Because there was nothing like that here before.”

Actually my next question is, could you explain what video mapping is, for people who haven’t seen it?

“It’s something amazing. It’s a different aspect of visual art. Basically, it grew out of VJing. In the early days, and still now, VJs worked more or less indoors, in clubs.

“To my knowledge, at a certain point in time, I don’t know if it was in Spain or in France, the VJs just thought, why don’t we go out and try to do some projections not on a screen but on a building?...”

So the building becomes the screen.

Photo: Facebook page of the festival
“Basically, yes. The building becomes a screen. It is, let’s say, a sophisticated way of working with a building as a screen, where you respect the architecture of the building and, based on that architecture, you make a 3D model and you play with it as if it was a big screen, working with optical illusions and regular programmes.

“The most well-known effect used is the collapsing of the building, or fire flying out of the windows, and stuff like that.

“But more and more it’s becoming a profound visual artistic style of expression through video.”

How many video mapping projects will there be in the festival? What else will there be?

“Video mapping is not the only thing. We’re going to have four video mapping installations in the festival and I must say that I’m pleased that we managed to get really big names in terms of video mapping.

“We have Antivj, which is a French-Belgian group [mapping Hybernia Palace, Náměstí Republiky], and we have Telenoika, who are Spanish [Archbishop’s Palace, Hradčanské Náměstí at Prague Castle], Sila Svetla, who are from Russia [Tyršův dům, Ujezd], and of course our Czech The Macula [St. Ludmila’s Church, Náměstí Míru].

“Apart from video mapping, there are another 28 light installations, varying from small, intimate installations, which play with light and atmosphere in the venues, to really big light installations.

“For example, 1024 Architecture, also a really big name in terms of light design, are making a big 10m by 10m by 10m light cube, which is going to be sitting on Old Town Square.

“It’s going to be passed through, blinking, we just heard the music – so there’s going to be modern, experimental music, using intelligent lights, I think they’re called.”

Photo: Facebook page of the festival
I was surprised by a couple of the names of artists taking part, including for example František Skála, who’s not known, as far as I know, for his light work.

“Well, we’re just sitting outside Palace Akropolis [the interior of which Skála co-designed]. He has done some small things and he does work with light.

“We just decided to approach artists for whom, we thought, light wouldn’t be their primary area of work, or of art, but who could still get a certain… grip on light design which would make it interesting, playful, and still really, really good in terms of public acceptance, let’s say.”

I see Krištof Kintera is doing something with the Petřín tower. Can you tell us in advance what he’s doing?

“It’s not a secret any more – we’ve just tested it. He’s going to turn Petřínská rozhledna into a big lighthouse. There’s going to be a huge light kind of symbolising the fact that the Signal festival is taking place in Prague – and lighting up the city itself.”

I also see that there’s some kind of boat trip involved in the festival.

“Yes. I think it’s a really interesting project that we’ve kind of stumbled upon throughout our process of preparation of the festival. We're working with Eltodo, which is the company that controls light in the city for the City of Prague, and Philips, which lit up the Vyšehrad [steam] boat that has just been pronounced a cultural monument – it celebrated 75 years just recently.

“These boat trips we’ve called Boat Trips After Light. We can, or people from Eltodo can, switch on and switch off various buildings remotely.

“Basically as you’re passing on the boat, along the Vltava river, you’ll have [popular MC] Marek Eben explaining what you’re passing, including festival installations.

“You’re going to be able to see, for example, the whole of Vyšehrad disappear in darkness and reappear in light.

Photo: archive of the festival
“I think it’s going to be a very, very special event. And I’m really actually quite proud that we managed – well, hopefully we’re going to manage [laughs] – to get it there.”

When I first met you two years ago, you were talking about doing something like this. How much work has it been? How has it been logistically getting to this point?

“To be really honest, I actually quit all the other work that I did. I did the Fresh Film Festival and I also used to do Design Supermarket, which is a smaller design event.

“I devoted myself, and not just myself but the whole team, to preparing this audio-visual event, which I think, if we do it properly, could aspire to being one of the more interesting – or most interesting, I can’t tell – cultural events in the public space in Prague. We’ve worked on it… I think it’s over three and a half years.”

Was it hard to get the city authorities on board?

“I think we were lucky. It wasn’t easy to persuade them and we had a long process and we stumbled a couple of times during that process. But in the end, knock on wood, we’ve managed.

“We have the really full support of the City of Prague and Prague 1 and Prague 2, and we have the support of CzechTourism, the state agency for incoming tourism.

“It took a lot of work to get there, but we’re there, which I’m happy about.”

What was the single most difficult thing about organising the festival?

“Well, there were several obstacles to overcome. Surprising enough, it was cooperation with state cultural institutions that in the end turned out to be the most difficult.

“Getting the money was obviously quite difficult, but not as difficult as I expected. But the thing that I thought was going to be really easy was just to persuade some institutions to be able to project on their building.

“Really, you don’t interfere with anyone, and I was really, really amazed how painful it was and how unforthcoming the people from state institutions were.”

Photo: archive of the festival
It’s also interesting in terms of ownership: Can I stop you in some way from screening something on the facade of my building?

“You cannot really stop me. But we’re trying to do it professionally, and we wouldn’t want the potential partners, or the potential institutions that we could cooperate with… we don’t want to insult them by any means. So we just didn’t work with them.”

You won’t tell me which ones?

“I’m sorry, I won’t tell you which ones.”

I imagine that after all this work you won’t be doing the festival this once?

“Hopefully, if it works out well and if the response from the audience, from the people in the streets and from the state and city authorities is positive, I think it would be a shame to do it just once.

“Getting here took us a really long time and we can utilise what we know already in preparing the next edition, possibly next year.”