Academic journal article Romance Notes

Verne at Lyon's Fete Des Lumieres: New Media, Old Dystopia

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Verne at Lyon's Fete Des Lumieres: New Media, Old Dystopia

Article excerpt

The city of Lyon has hosted the Fete des Lumieres starting on December 8 every year since 1852, with the exception of 2015, when it was cancelled due to the Paris terror attacks of the previous month. The festival commemorates the spontaneous lighting of candles across the city to celebrate the long-awaited inauguration of a statue of the Virgin Mary on the Fourviere hill. In 1852, the inauguration had been postponed from September 8 to the Day of the Immaculate Conception, because the high levels of the Saone river threatened the procession. (1) Though the Lyonnais still adorn their windows with small candles, the city now also organizes electric light shows orchestrated to music to decorate a variety of sites, which has become a major tourist event. (2) In addition to abstract installations, some also reflect on the past and its relation to the present, as for example in 2016's illumination of the Cathedrale de St. Jean facade. It sought to digitally recreate the building in various materials of significance to Lyon, ranging from the original stone to paper, silk and metaphorically, light.

Installations can also reflect on issues of current significance, as did Joseph Couturier's illumination of the Hotel de Ville and the Musee des Beaux Arts buildings in the Place des Terreaux, entitled "Sans Dessus Dessous," after the Jules Verne novel. (3) Billed as describing climate change, the official website of the Fete des Lumieres promised the show would sweep spectators away:

a la decouverte d'un voyage imaginaire sur les traces d'un dereglement climatique conte, alliant lumiere et projections. Un savant fou, responsable du climat et des oceans, vous entraine a la poursuite d'une chouette ayant deregle la machinerie ... Ensemble, vous parcourez le monde, du centre de la Terre au pole Nord, pour constater l'etendue des degats. Une feerie d'effets confronte la terre, l'eau et l'air, pour en saisir toute la complementarite et l'interdependance ... (4)

A great success thanks to its appealing, detailed visuals, the performance attracted an estimated 720 000 spectators over 3 evenings. (5) However, it is my contention that the mass appeal conceals a dissonance between the show's cheery cartoon aesthetics and its dark Vernian framing realized through the title, the use of Verne's image for the main character, and an ominous motto drawn from his work: "Ce ne sont pas de nouveaux continents qu'il faut a la Terre, mais de nouveaux hommes" (Vingt mille lieues 141). Likewise, given the subject, the playfully rendered mad scientist protagonist appears at odds with the seriousness of the devastation wrought on the environment through rampant industrialization. In addition to the "cuteness" of this fictional Earth, it is one devoid of population: (6) the scientist and his owl appear alone in the world they are rendering urban and industrial, and the motivation behind their work is not revealed.

I argue that Couturier's streamlining of expected narrative content allows a clear message of human-caused climate change to emerge, while the Vernian frame is used to comment on its history, motivation, and consequences. Verne's novel is a dystopian tale of climate change brought on as a side-effect of the greedy pursuit of capitalistic desires. Human viciousness, greed, and lack of regard for the suffering of others or the destruction of the environment are among its key themes. Referencing Verne without faithfully adapting his novel allows Couturier to maintain a lighthearted tone for the show, with the evident gap between it and its motto prompting the audience to investigate the 19th century source. More traditional adaptations, as for example from novel to film, would entail transferring elements such as plot, characters, or themes into another medium, but in the case of new media, Moore has shown that "adaptation" gains the sense of an acknowledged reworking of a source without concern for fidelity on the part of the media producer. …

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