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Light Research @ MMU

Light Touches: an innovative history of 19th century illumination

Alice Barnaby’s recently published book, Light Touches: Cultural Practices of Illumination, ( offers a fascinating, theoretically sophisticated and critical exploration of the development of 19th century light. By drawing on a remarkable range of examples, Alice demonstrates how the everyday world was dramatically transformed by the use of illumination and daylight, with the emergence of new materials, innovative designs and novel aesthetics. Yet rather than considering this as a top down process through which capitalists, scientists and bureaucrats dispensed illumination, people themselves were intimately involved in the evolution of new ways of presenting public space, their homes and their own bodies. In middle class homes, ladies of leisure experimented with new forms of painting that relied on light to produce transparent images. They also investigated the properties with muslin as a material with which to drape across windows, furniture and their own bodies, playing with its diaphanous qualities. Gin palaces and sites of amusement lured in visitors to enjoy the multiple reflections produced by new technologies that deployed mirrors, creating spaces of fascination, sociability and display, with their refracting shimmers and multiple reflections. People participated in illuminated patriotic, royalist and military celebrations, yet such occasions could be unruly, offering opportunities for violence and political protest before their later evolution into more peaceful events. And in developing a range of contesting aesthetics, artists and gallery owners initiated the use of daylighting to enchant the works they displayed. In drawing on a diverse array of theories and examples, Light Touches reveals that the radical transformation in sensory experience heralded by new techniques of illumination was not merely part of governmental systems of control and rationalisation nor generated by passively consumed spectacles. Instead, in working with the possibilities offered by these developments in illumination, ordinary people fully participated in the dramatic changes in how the world was perceived, produced and judged through experimentation, imaginative play and adaptation.

January 23rd, 2017 - 00:53am

Circles of Light

In large windows that lie at either side of the junction of Montague Street and Rotunda, which skirts around the Museum of London and over which the massive, brutalist Barbican looms, are two beautiful  twin light circles, designed by artists Rob and Nick Carter. Though this is not a particularly prepossessing site after night falls, it has been re-enchanted by these ‘Spectrum Circles’, radiant, ever-changing concentric neon rings that reanimate this site of busy traffic, drawing in pedestrians to gaze at the shifting, rhythmic medley of colour.

circle 2photographs by Nadia Bartolini (thanks Nadia!)circle3

January 16th, 2015 - 16:11pm

Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra in London, August 2014

From the 4th to the 11th of August residents of London and visitors could witness an ambitious  light installation that commemorated the start of hostilities in World War One. Sited in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Palace of Westminster, Spectra, designed by Ryoji Ikeda, was formed by a twenty-metre grid containing forty-nine searchlights that blazed each night from at dusk to dawn. The work could be seen from far away, well beyond the city, and from a distance seemed to constitute a single column of vivid white light, ascending some 15 miles into the night sky. Variations of Ikeda’s installation have appeared in several other cities and yet in each location, new associations and relationships are forged. Most obviously, the symbolic commemoration of war conjured up the searchlights that criss-crossed London in earlier conflicts, and many reviews referred to the famous remark of Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary of that era: ‘The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time’.spectra1

And yet the powerful beam also suggested other resemblances: to lighthouses, the double beams installed in New York to commemorate the loss of the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers, or the searchlights that revolve around cloudy skies to attract those seeking theatrical or musical entertainment. As the source of the beam was neared, it interacted with, and made strange, the gothic towers of the Houses of Parliament, and the surrounding trees.

Yet when the park was entered and all searchlights were separately visible, the work took on an entirely different aspect. Each separate beam reaching vertically upward in the night sky, created a horizontal sequence that framed the Palace, the trees and the moon, and you could walk into the midst of a giant enclosing cube of shafts of light. spectra5

Remarkably, the work attracted hundreds of people, and at the site of the origin of the beams, the sober qualities of commemorating war were replaced by a carnivalesque, excitable frenzy of movement and chatter. People moved amongst the luminaires, waving their arms or craning necks so that radiant faces leered above the searchlights, taking photographs of themselves and each other. Others adopted a less playful, more meditative disposition, lying on the grass, some drinking wine, staring upwards into the disappearing points of light, as they converged in a single beam miles above. The unreal atmosphere was augmented by the electronic pulses of the minimal music composed by Ikeda that drifted across the park. The scene changed according to the movement of clouds, and must have dramatically transformed when the rain came the day after our visit.spectra4spectra2

And not only people were attracted by the light. For each beam was saturated with millions of insects and moths, which with the infinite, swirling dusk particles, revealed that the capital’s air was not some transparent substance but replete with matter and life.spectra3

August 15th, 2014 - 14:29pm

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

Carlos Cruz-Diez and Olafur Eliasson at the Light Show, Hayward Gallery, London

Carlos Cruz-Diez and Olafur Eliasson at the Light Show, Hayward Gallery, London

The Light Show at the Hayward Gallery runs to April 28, 2013. I recommend everybody who is able to see this exceptional exhibition, if they haven’t already. I will blog more on it later but want to draw attention to what, for me, were the two most extraordinary exhibits that reveal the very qualities of our perception – how we perceive light and see the world with light.

2013-01-30 16.15.13Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (2010) consists of three interconnected rooms, each completely monochrome.. One is saturated in purely blue light, another in powerful red light, and the third in a thick green hue. Because we are unused to seeing only one colour, it is almost painful to walk into these rooms. My eyes felt as if they were popping out. Amazingly, because we are geared to see the multiple colours of the world, our brain compensates by gradually draining the intensity of colours so that they become a pale blue, red or green. You think that the light itself must be changing in tone, but no, it’s your brain making it seem so! Go back into the blue chamber after being in the red room for a while, and the colour intensity has returned – only for us to bleach it out again subsequently again (see




   2013-01-30 16.51.30

The second revelatory piece is Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful Model for a Timeless Garden (2011)Walking into an otherwise dark room, at waist high, on a long table, an array of 27 small fountains of varying flow and height cascade upwards, a strobe light pulsing to freeze frame them before our eyes. The water, usually experienced as continuous flow in ordinary light conditions, becomes a sequence of separate diamonds and jewels, suspended in mid flow. This provides a unique perception of water beyond the usual capacities of the human eye, a breathtakingly gorgeous spectacle. (see

(photos by Elettra Bordonaro)

February 22nd, 2013 - 13:17pm