Earlier this month we traveled to Signal Festival, the largest cultural event in the Czech Republic, and it’s not just light art enthusiasts that flock to Prague for this once-a-year event, now in its 6th edition. Signal Festival is to the Czech Republic what Carnival is to Brazil: it’s a way (albeit nascent for now) for a small nation to come together to observe, appreciate and play in the capital city’s streets and urban spaces.
This year’s festival took place along three routes: Centrum (the historic city centre), Vinohrady and Karlin. For four evenings, historic sites, palaces and national libraries were transformed by light into modern design installations. For a first time visitor such as myself, it was a rather practical and ideal way to experience a new city and the secret places it holds. Without any notion of where to go and what to look out for, the festival guided me to important landmarks in the evening to see how young artists build upon the work of older architects. Some of these buildings I visited again the next day, to appreciate them in daylight and to observe their original use. At both the historic designs of Prague and the contemporary art projected onto this canvas, I stood to marvel.
Here are some ways that light and art transformed cultural places in Prague over the course of four evenings.
Bar/ák is a cultural centre in Prague, known among local residents for its calm courtyard, outdoor seating, great beers and variety of evening programs from live music to screenings. During the festival, a group of artists and programmers at 3dsense — known for their expertise with 3d sensors — used synchronized projections and videomapping to create an otherworldly atmosphere of a black hole in the courtyard.
Kasárna Karlí was once an abandoned army barrack, although it is hard to tell. It is now a multipurpose cultural space in Prague with a beautiful and large open garden, an outdoor cinema, bar and cafe space, a sculpture garden as well as contemporary art gallery called Karlin Studios. Here you’ll also find Prastánek, a drink stand that has found a home inside a 300 year old oak tree thanks to Czech artist Frantíšek Skála. For Signal, Hotaru Visual Guerrila created a 3d interpretation called “Biofilm” in the courtyard of Kasárna Karlí to explore how microorganisms can possibly create and maintain building materials in the future.
At Karlínské Square, bordered by apartment houses and a church, Romain Tardy — a French artist and co-founder of visual label ANTIVJ —morphed the old Church of St. Cryil and Methodius with digital projections and twelve light statues scattered through the garden. It’s what he calls “imaginary debris,” and each shape derived from a specific element found on the church’s facade illuminates the garden at night.
The most popular square in Prague, Repubic Square (Náměstí Republiky) hosted the work of Czech industrial designer and architect Tomáš Dymeš. Set in the heart of the city, the installation, Touch, communicates with the crowd of people touching it — each person’s physical contact with the installation lights up a line, and the foggy, globe-shaped light installation reflects a world of contact forming right at that moment, with people from every angle able to see and respond to each other.
Clam-Gallas Palace, designed by imperial court architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, is a baroque residence in the Prague Old Town neighborhood that once held Jewish concerts attended by music’s greats such as Beethoven and Mozart. Here, Richard Loskot and UAII Studio have created a physical manifestation of clouds in heaven called “Sky on the Earth.” Soft, bubbly, foamy incandescent shapes surround two sides of a low lying pedestrian bridge. Festival goers can take a slice of heaven with them by reaching into the clouds.
Prague’s Signal Festival is underrated. When I was there for the weekend, I shared tables with tourists from America and Australia at Cafe Pavlac and they had no idea that the cultural event was happening. To be fair to them, it’s rarely listed in travel guides or cultural event calendars; that’s understandable given the event’s youth, but also quite a shame. It was a great reason to visit Prague and see historic buildings through new eyes.