Right now, in the middle of December, there are many houses on my quiet street decorated with outdoor festive lights. From the aggressively flashing blue and white bulbs to the more ambient golden glow of fairy lights, there is plenty to draw our attention during evening walks through residential streets at this time of year. Christmas lights are so enchanting that we are drawn to them, often going on walks or drives to find the brightest houses or most garish displays. There are many streets all over the world which are vividly gleaming every night during December (the famous Dyker Heights in New York now offers walking and bus tours to enjoy the spectacle). This blog post will describe why light displays in any form captivate our attention.
In the urban nightscape, we are accustomed to illumination which never gives in to the winter darkness, from streetlights to brightly lit shopping centre windows. The 24/7 illumination of the city is part of the attraction for many people to cities that never sleep. The process of lighting the city occurred through a process known as ‘nocturnalisation’ where street lighting slowly came to the urban environment. No longer were nights in the city a time to lock oneself indoors with the glow of candles inside to bring relief from the darkness. Instead, people began to emerge into the cities to seek new forms of amusement, conviviality, and excitement. However, Tim Edensor (2015) points to the fact that slowly the homogeneity of most urban lighting creates ‘blandscapes’. We become overly familiar with streetlights, car headlamps, and the brightness of urban centres. This is why many artists and light designers are now exploring other forms of illumination which defamiliarise our experience of the urban nightscape.
Defamiliarisation is a process whereby ‘the redeployment of everyday objects’ (Edensor, p8) disrupts our expectations about particular places. This can make familiar spaces feel strange, uncanny, or magical.
Light festivals are an increasingly common global phenomenon. They have a varied background from the phantasmagorical nature of world fairs, light architecture, and cultural or sacred festivals which have made use of modern artificial light. Typically, these festivals are short-lived to emphasise their uniqueness in interrupting familiar ways of knowing the city. Not only aimed at producing a defamiliarised nightscape, these events can also act as a form of entertainment in order to attract tourists and businesses. The latter reasoning behind light festivals can make them feel like another commodity, packaged up as a spectacle, which risks their assimilation into the ‘blandscape’ of the urban night. However, other events can reveal conviviality or a stronger sense of place (Edensor, 2015). Right now in Bristol, industrial cranes on the harbour are illuminated in golden bulbs for the festive season. In 2015, they engaged in an illuminated Bhangra dance, choreographed perfectly to reanimate this part of the city’s harbour. Drawing people’s eyes to aspects of the city’s heritage which are perhaps unnoticed is another way that temporary illuminations can enchant us, which Edensor (2014) emphasises can be an important potential feature of urban light festivals.
Moving from the urban nightscape to a gallery setting, techniques of light art experimentation are becoming more frequent. Aesthetic experimentation with our mode of visual attention can reveal to us, cognitively, the instability of our perception and our relationship to illumination. Furthermore, these pieces often emphasise the multisensoriality of light. Not only is the brightness sensed by our eyes, but the heat of a strong light or the buzz of a neon tube is also picked up by our skin or ears. Artists such as Dan Flavin have played with colour, shadow, and intensity to create a beautiful immersive rainbow (above). The architectural qualities of contemporary art galleries lend themselves to this kind of method because of their ‘white cube’ nature: shadows can be easily controlled and there is no intrusion of luminous ‘noise’ as there is on the street. For this reason, light art in galleries is not only about seeing, such as experimentations with neon, but also being in the work. As well as the example of Flavin’s work, there are two examples that spring to mind which exemplify this. Liz West’s ‘Our Colour’/’Your Colour Perception’ Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Chromosaturation’ use coloured lighting as a kind of sculptural medium which we can become immersed in. We are drawn to being ‘in’ these artworks because they demonstrate how ‘in flux’ our experience is as we move between spaces of different tones.
Playful experiments with illumination, whether in the urban nightscape or the gallery, can act as a way to reconfigure our relationship with light through defamiliarisation or strengthening our sense of place. For Christmas lights, the attraction may be attributed to the atmosphere that is produced during this time of year. Edensor describes the concept of a ‘thick’ atmosphere as something wherein ‘intense modes of sensual, emotional and affective involvement’ exist (2014, p4). For me, ‘intense’ here refers to the Deleuzian understanding of intensity as the experience of difference which characterises many aspects of the festive season, including the appearance of Christmas lights. They bring an enchanting illumination to our residential streets where we have become overly familiar with streetlights, car headlights, and glimpses of television screens through curtains. Wherever it may occur, this kind of defamiliarisation is always an atmosphere of enchantment and wonder.
‘The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark’ by Tim Edensor, 2015, in Urban Studies 52 (3)
‘The Potentialities of Light Festivals’ by Tim Edensor, 2014, in Durham University’s Institute for Advanced Studies’ Insights 7 (3)
‘Light Art, Perception, and Sensation’ by Tim Edensor, 2015, in The Senses and Society 10 (2)
‘Experiments in Urban Luminosity’ by Johanne Sloan, 2015, in The Senses and Society 10 (2)