As an artist who creates interactive installations and site-specific interventions dealing with the cultural and social implications of emerging technologies, light is of particular interest to me. An enigmatic material to create art, light is fully specified as a phenomenon-a particle since Newton, a wave since Huygens, and a quantum in wave-particle duality since Planck and Einstein. Throughout history, the uses of artificial light remains tightly linked to social and cultural contexts, and should not be separated from from its contemporary context. My artwork excavates light's invisible systems of power, inherent in public spectacles, contemporary art, and law enforcement. It is active in contexts where personal freedom is expressed, or at stake.
Artificial light has never been a neutral. We've used light to mesmerize, illuminate, dazzle, and paralyze. Works of art that employ of the powers of artificial light are beneficiaries of its heritage, inherently and invisibly. When Louis-Bertrant Castel (1688-1757) played his famous colored-light organ Clavecin Oculaire illustrating musical harmonics—founding thereby a new art of light—harsh punishment was already mandated in German principalities against the use of blinding lanterns by poachers and commoners against the rulers' property—in France the death penalty.
On the battlefield, the same lanterns were mandated for tactical advantage in service of the superpower. During times of peace, guests marveled at the candelabra and mirror effects enabled by this technology. The blinding lantern, precursor of the magic lantern, is also the direct forerunner of all film projection.
From the first synesthetic experiments to Thomas Wilfred's polymorphous Lumia art with its fluid streams of color (Clavilux, 1921), light art forms a lineage in the early 20th century with Clavecin Oculaire, using piano-like keyboards to control the visual music performances. Bauhaus artists advanced the musical development in the 1920s with improvisational performances, alongside kinetic light devices using reflective colored surfaces and perforated cylinders. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Thomas Wilfred, Nicholas Schoeffer, and Otto Piene artistically elaborated the abstract figurative shapes through an extensive body of kinetic light work, including the Light-Space Modulator (1930), Opus, Prisma, and Light Ballet, to name only a few.
Outside the realm of playhouses, concert venues, and museums, light made its way also into homes and popular culture. Wilfred's Clavilux performances in the 1920's found in Clavilux Junior its first home device housed inside a custom cabinet and a (remote) control panel to change the work.
From his Long Island studio, Wilfred would not have witnessed the (presumed) world's first disco ball spinning around 1920 in the Lion's tavern (Gasthaus Loewen, Kaltenbach) of Germany's Black Forest. There, a modified electrical gramophone mesmerized guests with light reflections created with a mirrored gramophone funnel and a rotating octagonal ball stuck with colored glass elements [Fig. 5]. This piece of media archeology (on display in St. Georgen/s Phono Museum), developed geographically in an area known for its clockworks, and later emerged into Europe's center for turntable manufacturing at Dual's company headquarters
To understand electric light as a contemporary art medium, it is important to consider its contemporary impact. In the late nineteenth century, light was considered more than a disruptive innovation. The illuminated artifacts presented at expositions, fairs, and public spectacles were perceived as 'icons of cultural grandeur' telling a story of superlatives, dazzling the crowds.
"Ringing of the Court House bell announced the exhibition. The city presented a gloomy uninviting appearance. Suddenly from the towering dome of the Court House burst forth a flood of light which, under ordinary circumstances would have caused a shout of rejoicing from the thousands who had been crowding and jostling each other in the deep darkness of the evening. No shout, however, or token of joy disturbed the deep silence which suddenly enveloped the onlookers. People stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural. The strange weird light exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday." Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement.
Marshal McLuhan refers to electric light as pure information to exemplify his postulate 'the medium is the message.; He argues for the necessity to separate medium and 'content,' and points out the insignificance of what is 'spelled out' relative to the significance of the light as medium. He asserts that particularly electric light seems to 'escape attention as a communication medium just because it has no content.'
Searchlights in particular played an important role in the public light spectacles of the late 1870s and early 1880s. During the opening festivities for the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, a great beam of light in Jackson Park was circling across the horizon with the world's largest projector at the time, which could be seen twenty miles away. It demonstrated electric light as a symbol of status, progress, and power, leaving an impression on 27 Million visitors in one of the most successful late-nineteenth-century spectacles. The Edison Tower of Light in the Chicago Exposition, shaped as a sparkling replica of an incandescent light bulb using thirty-thousand prisms, instilled a sense of the emerging significance of electricity and artificial light.
Albert Speer used the electric light to design a choreographed spectacle for the Nuremberg Party Congress in 1935. He employed 150 anti-aircraft searchlights to form a virtual temple of light. Paul Virilio compares this meticulously choreographed manifestation of power with great 'command operas,' where commanders were able to exercise their authority directly and invisibly from remote locations, disconnected from the controlled context. The 800,000,000 candlepower searchlights found their actual destiny during WWII, shedding light on enemy airplanes, and blinding enemy forces much like their ancestors in the 17th century.
In 2002, Tribute in Light, produced by Creative Time and Municipal Art Society at Ground Zero, replaced the footprints of the Twin Towers with eighty-eight searchlights. The connotation of gigantic lights directed to the sky creating a virtual architecture triggered some associations with Albert Speer's design for the Temple of Light, exemplifying the ambiguous symbolic notion of light in its contemporary context.
"Rather I felt pained because I saw in the memorial echoes of another monument, another history, one that has also seared itself into the public consciousness. When I considered architecturally the "Tribute in Light" I thought of The Zeppelinfield, designed by Albert Speer both as a site for the 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress and, in that, as a set for Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. In short, I thought almost immediately of Hitler's Third Reich."
Artists like James Turrell have mastered the sculptural, object-like qualities of light, creating powerful illusionary spaces and alternate realities for the viewer. He was already influenced by Wilfred in 1950, and spent a lifetime refining the craft of perceptional illusion shattering spatial boundaries. His most renowned work mixes natural and artificial light, and there is probably no type of light bulb that he did not studied or use to create art. This certainly includes the ubiquitous Light Emitting Diode, which we've by now grown accustomed to in night-clubs, smart homes, and the one-person architecture we inhabit through with our device screens. It allows for precise control of light hue, intensity, and frequency. Turrell's most extreme work, the Perceptual Cell is a spherical enclosed structure, surrounding one viewer at a time with intense, saturated light. Described as 'invasive' and 'oppressive' by Turrell himself, the piece challenges the viewer's body as perceptual organ. Viewers surrender themselves to the piece for twelve minutes—like human subjects in an attended laboratory setting.
Bodily affect is also the subject of pseudoscientific chromotherapy, believed to balance a person's bodily energy through light therapy. It builds on the theory that exposure to specifically colored light can create positive and negative psychological and physiological effects. A light spa treatment of a different nature [Fig. 1] is specified in US patent 7180426 B2, called Incapacitating flashing light apparatus and method, an "apparatus and method for using a light source to incapacitate a subject in which the light source strobes by a spatial scanning through a pattern and a temporal flashing at a rate sufficient to cause incapacitation." A member of the non-lethal weapons arsenal, the invention is intended "for personal protection," "law enforcement purposes," and "combat purposes" with different flash rates, beam angles, and radiant aperture. Since the materials involved are readily available, DIY culture has made this lesser-known device already ubiquitous.This project is partially supported by an Individual Artists Program Grant from the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. Special thanks to Paulo Guerra for his production lead on the project.
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