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Light Research @ MMU

The allure of cheesy lights

drummingOn a cold autumn evening in late November, the artist collective, The Brick Box,
initiated a night of festive illumination to ‘entertain and illuminate, inspire
and celebrate…Canning Town like you have never seen before’. The project was
funded by The Arts Council England, and supported by Newham Council ( The goal was to create a positive atmosphere in “an area which suffers from negative perceptions and which truly benefits from the transformative power of the arts’. In addressing the negative perceptions of particular spaces, Light Night Canning Town was staged through the inclusion of citizens into a temporary remaking of the city. The first photo shows a circle of drums, filled with water and lit from beneath, that creates changing lighting patterns once people started drumming and transformed the aesthetic appearance, perception and use of a usually deserted space, the underpass of the A13.

The second photograph facilitated the real-time projections of drawings made on a set of i-pads onto a pillar of this underpass, creating effervescent, luminous graffiti. People of all ages and ethnicities enjoyed playing with these installations.

light graffitiHowever, a much bigger draw was a somewhat unusual ‘installation’, a disco, playing  90’s dance music and emitting laser and party lights, as seen on photo 3. Instead of demanding the effort of getting in the mood for drumming or drawing, the disco encouraged playing, dancing, interacting and smiling. The different installations created different luminous spectacles, engineered through different affective tools. The disco’s immediate appeal to visual and auditory sensory registers seemed to inspire practices and interactions that would not necessarily usually be allowed under the A13. The disco differed from the other installations in not demanding some abstract engagement with space. Rather, the disco appealed to embodied movement, releasing potential tension and suppressed smiles. It simply presented itself as a cheesy disco.

cheesy disco

What might we learn from this? The installations at Light Night Canning Town demonstrate how luminous spectacles are employed to manufacture certain forms of experiences and practices that are not manipulative and distorted. As Steven Duncombe (2007) argues in his book Dream: Re-imagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy, such popular cultural spectacles appeal to desires, channelling these not into the creation of consent but into the creation of dissent, mobilising people to express their own desires, not the desires of a corporation or state authority. The luminous spectacle does not merely create an aesthetic veneer that covers up the social realities of a local area but can be used to mobilise local residents by celebrating their popular or vernacular practices, and summoning new aesthetic expressions. The disco, the drumming and the luminous graffiti seduced people in different ways, but the disco was by far the most popular, because rather than manipulating residents to experience a fake world, it took residents local everyday, vernacular practices as its starting point. Posted by Casper Laing Ebbensgaard.

January 20th, 2014 - 15:31pm

Light installation at Sunderland Railway Station: Ghosts on the Hidden Platform


I have recently visited Sunderland and saw the magnificent light wall, installed in 2010. The wall, over 140 metres, is on the opposite side of the platform from which trains takes passengers to nearby Newcastle. As passengers wait for their train, they witness the continuous movement of ghostly forms – mothers with prams, couples, backpackers – walking up and down a virtual platform opposite. Behind the light wall and long hidden from view is a disused platform and these ghosly forms both capture the passengers of yesteryear and mirror those of the ropesent day on the platform opposite. A superb and evocative piece of public art.

Sunderland Rail Station

December 11th, 2013 - 10:51am

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