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Light Research @ MMU

Interactive Displays at VIVID: The Pool, Ray and Mirror Heart Ball

As the entry below about the Harbour Bridge exemplifies, one of the key elements of VIVID, perhaps the defining characteristic of the festival, is the multitude of ways that installations invite people to interact with them. Three adjacent harbourside attractions encourage visitors to discard self-consciousness and perform in public space in ways they would usually not, adding to the giddy atmosphere. Visitors can move between these attractions, engaging with them through different physical actions that loosen inhibitions and produce an effect not unlike that of a fairground.PoolPool2

First is The Pool, an area fitted with over a hundred concentric circular pads. Visitors leap between pads, producing a burst of colour when you land according to how heavily you land, and they also respond to the volume of participants in the intensity of their colours and the speed with which they change colour. On busy nights, the scene is of a horde of people of all ages, jumping between pads, collectively generating swirling, dynamic patterns of colour, enjoying the tactile engagement with the soft plastic material and the swirling movement of bodies and light.

Ray, by contrast, is activated by visitors when they pull on one of three ropes that charge pods to activate the bright colours of the sculpture, powered by solar power, that shoot up to the top of the sculpture and then surge down its base in in myriad, ever-changing patterns of light. The amount and flow of light depends upon the energy with which the ropes are tugged. The socio-political significance of the display inheres in how it may also be interacted with virtually, on social media, where Ray discusses the quantity of the solar charge he accumulates, with information about how many Australian homes this could power, in comparison to the number of smaller Indian slum dwellings.

Finally, is Mirror Heart BaRayll. The installation, which takes the form of a pulsing ballroom floor of ever changing colours bordered at one end by neon strips formed into a vertical heart shape, is populated with dancing adults and children, enthusiastically to cavort wildly. The display was inspired by the stage version of the popular Australian film, Strictly Ballroom, and served as the centrepiece for the Destination NSW float in Sydney’s celebrated Mardi Gras parade this year, serving as a subtle advertisement for the show. The playful design thus seems to recognise both the expressive quality of Baz Luhrman’s movie and celebrate the cultural significance of Mardi Gras, chiming with the camp, spectacular and expressive qualities of both ballroom culture and Mardi Gras. Here then, the display celebrates Sydney’s liberal qualities, and it is pleasing to see adults and children of all ages and kinds happily dancing upon what has been previously assigned as a stage for the transmission of this year’s Mardi Gras theme ‘kaleidoscope’ to the song, ‘Love is in the Air’. Camp performance seems to have transcended its usual cultural confines? Although the connections between the display and Mardi Gras culture may not be recognised by all visitors, some may argue that this is an easy, ‘acceptable’ way to market and incorporate Sydney’s sexual diversity and the Mardi Gras, and indeed, there is little overt representation of sexual diversity in the display, whereas a more overtly political, challenging representation of sexuality might be more challenging. On the other hand, the attraction seems to demonstrate the protean ways in which popular cultural forms, representations and practices that originate from particular contexts can extend into multiple spaces and be adopted to serve a range of purposes and express a range of identities (thanks to Anna de Jong and Gordon Waitt for their suggestions) Dancers Mirror Ball Heart

June 2nd, 2014 - 05:42am

James Turrell’s wonderful Skyspace, Kielder Forest, Northumbria

With Ulisses, Julie and JSkyspace cloudsan from the IAS at Durham, I headed out on a bright but chilly February day to visit James Turrell’s Skyspace at Kielder Forest, situated a mile and a half from the nearest metalled road, amidst a coniferous plantation. It takes the form of a broad, low tower built from local stone, with a passageway leading into a circular chamber. A concrete bench surrounds its inner circumference, painted grey like the lower wall, which is detached like a thick skin and rises at an outward angle to about 8 feet. A higher wall, painted white, extends to the ceiling, at an angle leaning towards the perpendicular. It joins the ceiling which covers an area of some three feet, at which point a perfectly circular aperture with a very sharp edge has been cut, open to the sky. Sitting on a bench, in daylight, all attention focuses upon the intense, radiant circle of sky that contrasts with the lower light levels that it disperses in the interior like a haze. This light is the interface between internal and external space.  Skyspace fading afternoon

The light of the sky continually reveals its temporality, shifting according to the time of day, the season and the prevailing weather. Whether flecked or thick with cloud, full of stars or midday blue, a succession of intense colours dazzles the eye and conditions the glow or gloom of the interior. The bench invites visitors to sit and look at the circular aperture, and while at first they may seek to glean particular features within the sky, or to situate the experience within a conceptual framework, after a while, as we sink into the work, the intensity of the light absorbs our attention.  The sky garners a focused attention in a way uncommon when outside, and acquires solidity because of the brilliance of its colour and luminosity. As dusk descends, the sky seems to become closer as the gloom of the interior blurs details within, and sunset and moonbeams tint particular sides.Skyspace dusk (2)

We are seeing light in a pure form here, not as it refracts off the textures and features of the landscape. Isolated from the everyday surroundings with which we usually perceive it, light is revealed as integral to the experience of the world. But more than this, the depth, angles and height of the inside walls and ceiling seem to change according to the shifting qualities of light. Turrell’s work thus makes us aware of the ways in which we perceive light. We can’t be sure what we are seeing is there, or whether our eyes are being tricked. In addition, attention is drawn to the sky, which is usually sensed as a sort of neutral background above and around us. Here, it is the central focus and with its changing light and colour it seems to take on a solid, material form. This work does not only make us aware of light: far from any roads or houses, the interior also rings with the echoes of sounds made by visitors or amplifies birdsong, wind or the buzz of an aeroplane from outside, but at other times encloses an unfamiliar and complete silence.Skyspace Moon

February 8th, 2014 - 17:12pm

Subluminal at John Rylands Library, Manchester

On Deansgate, a main artery of Manchester, lies John Rylands Library, an extraordinary, charismatic Victorian neo-Gothic building that testifies to the power and confidence of the city’s entrepreneurs during its industrial zenith. On the nights of 30th and 31st of January and 1st February, the library was the site for Subluminal, a event devised by a group of design professionals from North West England. Their aim: to transform the usual sensory apprehension of the building. blue ceiling

Visitors were invited to enter the usually unused main door, and make their way through the library’s interior, where a plethora of light effects highlighted sensational architectural features, design details, sculptures, artefacts, stairways, niches, chambers and passageways.  Initially, we lingered in the cavernous reading room, where coloured and white lights highlighted key features, punctuating the general gloom. Then, thrillingly, we descended a very narrow spiral staircase into the bowels of the building. Walking through a dark corridor lined with leather bound books, usually inaccessible to the public,  a strobe light  briefly illuminated the surroundings.

door with bars

Further along, chambers bordered by doors with iron bars were illuminated by a soulful red light, compounding the thick atmosphere. The tour was accompanied by evocative sounds, including a welcoming introduction from the statue of industrialist John Rylands himself, ambient drones and whispers, and throbbing bass notes that spread through the subterranean passageways. At points, the gloom inside contrasted with the light from outside that shone through the ornamental windows. In wholly defamiliarising and enchanting the library through the deployment of sounds, illumination and especially darkness, Subluminal made a powerful statement about the potency of light and sonic design to enrich the sensory experience of place. For more details and selection of images, see

figures sculpture trio



February 4th, 2014 - 15:39pm

The potential of shadow: Alexander Calder’s sculptures

At a marvellous exhibition in New York’s Venus Over Manhattan Gallery, the mobiles and stabiles of esteemed modernist sculptor, Alexander Calder, have been transformed by the use of spotlights. The mobiles in particular are re-enchanted, lit to produce powerful, dancing shadows that complement the sculpture. The exhibition gives a new sense to these works, offering a fuller, more three dimensional appreciation of their shapely, dynamic qualities. A YouTube video gives a good sense of their seductiveness:

Calder in shadow

January 28th, 2014 - 15:42pm

The Power of Candlelight

free to be 2On the evening of 19th January, Durham Cathedral  held an event labelled Free To Be, in which much of the lower areas of the building were illuminated by candlelight. Upon entering the cathedral, visitors could experience an atmosphere and setting staged to solicit prayer and meditation, and become absorbed in the large expanses or in smaller spaces, ‘walking, pausing, watching and listening for God as you like’, as the hand-out advised. Dimmed lights illuminated the upper reaches and roof of the building in a pale grey wash, contrasting with the yellowish, warm glow of the candles that lined the nave and aisles, and clustered in other places. Cathedrals are designed to manipulate light and dark in sophisticated ways. During this event, the capacious interior could be experienced in an entirely different way to how it is apprehended in daylight, by which numerous shafts of sunlight flit across the gloom of the space, cutting shards of light into floors and walls, and stained glass casts glows with saturated colour. Instead, soft candlelight chimed with  the mellow qualities of the stone, revealing the smoothness of carefully chiselled newer sections as well as  ancient surfaces, pocked and hollowed through the ages.

Free to be1

Deep shadows also focused attention on tracery, niches and sculptures, and foregrounded the theatrical layers that extended through the linear expanse of the cathedral, with rood screens, pillars and choir stalls forming darker sections that divided lighter spaces. A harp player added to the contemplative mood, tumbling notes resonating through this glowing realm, and along with incense, she contributed to a rich multi-sensual experience, conjured through the simple deployment of a form of lighting that would have illuminated the cathedral in earlier times.

free to be 3

January 20th, 2014 - 16:10pm