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Light Research @ MMU

Light theme at the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham

I have recently commenced a 3 month fellowship at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study. Each year, the institute selects a particular theme, and this year, the theme is LIGHT. 9 scholars each term, from a wide disciplinary background, are invited to explore, discuss and think about light in the beautiful environment of the 18th century Cosin’s Hall (for a list of this year’s fellows see There are a wide variety of events being held to investigate the numerous ways in which light can be investigated: here’s the full list:

January 20th, 2014 - 15:40pm

Social Light Movement forces Copenhagen into TRANSITION

The neighbourhood of Sundholm, in South-eastern Copenhagen, is often depicted in popular media and planning documents as being socially deprived, economically challenged and physically run down. In 2011 the local neighbourhood-development office attempted to address and challenge this image. They invited the Social Light Movement to initiate a string of site-specific lighting projects in public space, a project labelled TRANSITION. But more than simply addressing the negative depiction of Sundholm, the project aimed to contest the stigmatised image by inviting local residents in co-creation of lighting designs that would help facilitate change. One of the projects, Home Sweet Sundholm, shows traditional street lamps, transformed into cosy coloured standard lamps. The social reality of the space is contested, allowing residents to imagine a journey away from what is present in space: Instead of feeling unsafe or depressed, the spectacle of illumination can make us think of something else.

SLM Copenhagen 2







A second project is Satellight, where satellite dishes on a building façade in Telemarksgade are bathed in different colours. Satellite dishes are singled out in Danish public media and policy as signifiers of segregated areas, or ‘ghettoes’. By illuminating the  dishes, these negative connotations are questioned and instead they are staged as glowing light art pieces aestheticising the street.

SLM Copenhagen







Both cases demonstrate how the popular order of urban space can be turned around with negative connotations of neighbourhoods being replaced by a spectacular senseations. Though such imaginative approaches can provide an aesthetic veneer that anaesthetises the public, these lighting (re)designs potentially destabilise fixed ideas, and challenge normalised conceptions of space. They not only beautify the neighbourhoods in Sundholm but also inspire a critical approach towards the  stereotypicalpopular discourses about parts of cities that stigmatise inhabitants. The projects in TRANSITION reveal how experimental forms of urban illumination might develop more critical approaches to how lighting design can enhancethe meaning and experience of cities.

Blog posted by Casper Laing Ebbensgaard

November 18th, 2013 - 12:44pm

NOOR – Mouraria Light Walk

Noor - grammofadoNoor - AbandonadaNoor - the entranceThe Ebano Collective (Ethnography Based Art Nomad Organization), a non-profitcollective based in Lisbon, Portugal that carry out site-specific projects and urban interventions, has organised NOOR Mouraria Light Walk, a three days light and art event that encourages a new look at the Moorish quarter ( NOOR, which in Arabic means ‘light’, adopts a historical perspective towards the Moorish quarter, and in involving the local community, is ethnographic and participatory in nature. The Moorish quarter was historically one of the first EuropeanMuslim ghettos. Noor - fragilFacingthe Tagus River and therefore with no sun most of the day, its dark alleys became synonymous with illegal activities and bohemian life   Performed with light, the intervention invites new perspectives and dialogues with the invisible and forgotten dimensions of this simultaneously traditional and multicultural neighbourhood, drawing attention to  its internal diversity. The route has two entry points and provides stages related to significant elements of the tangible and intangible heritage of the district, underlined by installations and interventions from different artists (posted by Elettra Bordonaro).Noor - the arabic lantern   Noor -the playground designed by the kids -

July 30th, 2013 - 12:38pm

Blackpool Illuminations lecture at the Manchester Geographical Society

Giving a lunch-time lecture today at 1pm to the Manchester Geographical Society.  The lecture will examine how the production and consumption of Blackpool Illuminations presents important challenges to the rebranding of places as creative centres.  Drawing on ethnographic work and interviews undertaken in Blackpool, the lecture will include historic photos of the goings-on inside the now demolished Rigby Road depot, where the Blackpool lights were formerly constructed and maintained.  The lecture concludes with some thoughts about what we might learn from Blackpool in terms of lighting the public realm

Brian Griffiths

Grundy Art Gallery

The lecture starts at 1pm in the Cross Street Chape, Cross Street Manchester. M2 1NL

February 26th, 2013 - 11:53am

Modernity, municipalism and light: 100 years of Blackpool Illuminations

I have been working with the Manchester Modernist Society , North West Film Archive and Manchester City Art Gallery, curating a season of monthly archive film screenings as part of the Gallery’s Thursday Lates programme.

Entitled The Changing Face of the North West: Modernist Dreams and Utopias, the films chart the transformation of the North West landscape through the aspirations of 20th Century dreamers, citizens and planners.

This evening I showcased three films about Blackpool, sourced from the NWFA: Blackpool: A Nation’s Playground(1939); Holiday!(1957); and Northern Lights (1959).

A Nation’s Playground

Blackpool: A Nation’s Playground (1939) was made by the London Midland & Scottish railway Co, which made over thirty films between 1934-1939. Playground was probably shot in the last summer before the outbreak of WWII to promote Blackpool, which they hoped people would then travel to, using the company’s trains of course.


Holiday! (1957). With the coming of peace and the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, individual railway film units, such as, the London Midland & Scottish railway Co, became part of the British Transport Commission. Made by British Transport Films in 1957, Holiday is one of over 1300 educational and promotional films commissioned made by the BTC. In 1955 the film unit had travelled to the North West to work on a promotional film for the region’s resorts entitled Lancashire Coast. But with so much good material available, another film was created, said almost to have been made up of the ‘leftover trims’. With the addition of a jazz soundtrack by Chris Barber and his band we end up with a film simply called Holiday!

The pre-war art deco landscape is submerged by resolutely post-war design, where concrete, colour and pop-cultural stylings contrast starkly to pre-war Blackpool. In 1950s Britain, the post-war optimism of the new Welfare State and the 1951 Festival of Britain continue to resonate in Holiday!, which foregrounds progress, technology and change. The shots focusing on the Illuminations, in particular, underscore these themes, as the lights themselves were reinvented.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights (1959), features both Morecambe and Blackpool illuminations. The film includes footage of the 1959 switch-on ceremony, noted for how the Mayor deals with the sexual presence of Hollywood superstar Jayne Mansfield. Thisceremony remains a key event in the Blackpool Calendar. Whereas other resorts shut up shop after the summer season, the switch-on event at the end of August marks the beginning of Blackpool’s busy period. In recent times, the event has been reinvented as a televised extravaganza, featuring chart topping pop-stars and TV celebrities.

The array of ‘people’ who have switched on the lights is bewildering, from George Formby to Red Rum. The chosen personality is often figure at the centre of British popular culture at the time. And so Stanley Mathews in 1951 is no surprise. And neither should we be surprised that in 1971 it was the cast of Dad’s Army, whereas in 1991 the stars included Judith Chalmers and Derek Jameson.

In the 1950s, however, the ceremony became particularly fascinating as a balcony attached to a municipal town hall in North West England, become the focal point of the Cold War. For reasons, we still can’t quite understand, a delegation from Soviet Russia visiting housing developments in Manchester, were invited to switch on the lights in 1955. This party included the Soviet Ambassador, Jacob Malik, who was to become a key figure in the Cuban Missile Crisis. To restore international diplomatic balance, US ambassador, John H Whitney was invited to switch on the lights two years later. But typically for Blackpool, sandwiched in-between these two global political figures, was Reginald Dixon, inventor and long-time player of Blackpool Tower’s famous Wurlitzer.

The film concludes with an interview between the technical director of the illuminations, Harry Carpenter, and Professor Stanley Unwin, a British comedian fluent in the language of Unwinese, or “Basic Engly Twenty Fido”. Carpenter was appointed in 1950 and become a key figure in transforming the lights during this decade. Carpenter introduced fibre glass mouldings, which enabled the illumination’s team to create and shape a much greater menagerie of three dimensional objects and figures. This material also enabled them to create plastic panels that could be illuminated to create new forms of animated tableaux. Both these technologies remain significant elements of the Illuminations today. Gone, however, are Carpenter’s huge theatrical animated tableaux, which dominated the North Shore, including a huge 650 ft long Merry England display. Tableaux remain important, but many of the traditional displays, including the wonderful Alice in Wonderland tableaux, were damaged beyond repair during recent bad weather, leaving huge gaps along the seafront. Unfortunately in age of austerity, we are unlikely to see large scale displays like this return to Blackpool in the near future. At least Northern Lights gives us some indication about what these spectacular displays were like.

For information about future screenings please check out:

Thursday Lates

February 21st, 2013 - 14:25pm