Rethinking participation through the allure of cheesy lights

A guest blog entry from Casper Laing Ebbensgaard, a PhD student at the School of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London.

I went to Canning Town on a cold autumn evening in late November. This would not usually be part of my every night routines, but none the less it proved to be something of an experience. 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. It invited light artists and designers to create site-specific installations, that would invite the local residents into actively participating in a luminous remaking of certain spaces. 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.”

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Light Echoes (by Speirs + Major) under the A13 underpass.

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 the Light Echoes installation (Spiers + Major): a circle of drums, filled with water and lit from beneath, creating changing lighting patterns once people started drumming. The participatory installation transformed the aesthetic appearance, perception and use of a usually deserted space, the underpass of the A13 flyover. The second photograph shows the Sand installation (Output Arts), which facilitated the real-time projections of drawings made on a set of iPads onto a pillar of the flyover, creating effervescent, luminous graffiti. People of all ages and ethnicities enjoyed playing with these installations that went on until midnight.

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Sand (by Output Arts) under the A13 underpass.

However, a much bigger draw was a somewhat unusual ‘installation’, a disco, featuring DJs (including some from the local Newham Sixth Form College) 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. They all had an immediate appeal to visual and auditory sensory registers that seemed to inspire practices and interactions that would not necessarily usually be allowed under the A13. However, 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.

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Disco facilitated by Newham Sixth Form College and Martin Joyce under the A13 underpass.

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. But the installations do so differently. In comparison the Fête des Lumières in Lyon presents very spectacular, cutting edge lighting installations that push the borders of what lighting can do technologically and conceptually. Such lighting festivals seem to reinforce the notion of light as an art-piece, placed on a stage (in public space), creating distanced experiences that ultimately reduce residents and visitors to mere spectators. What such festivals exemplify is the use of light to create spectacular eventscapes that challenge our perceptual apparatus and mental capacities by illuminating certain “dreams on display.” But, whose dreams do such spectacles express? The Light Night event worked differently. As Stephen Duncombe (2007) argues in his book Dream: Re-imagining Politics in an Age of Fantasy, we should rethink the ways in which popular cultural spectacles, by appealing to our desires and channelling these into the creation of consent, could instead be mobilised into creating dissent. At the Light Night event people were themselves creating the luminous spectacle. And, I would argue the popularity of the disco, in comparison to the more artistic installations mentioned above worked through the mobilisation of people to express their own desires—not the desires of and artistic drawing or drumming, but the desire to move. People were ‘seduced’ to have fun. Therefore, the luminous spectacle can function not merely as aesthetic veneer that covers up the social realities of a local area. It can be used to mobilise local residents by celebrating their popular or vernacular practices, and summoning new aesthetic expressions. It can be orchestrated as to mobilise their desires. 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. As seen on photo 4, the Glow installation where people could leave luminous notes to each other attracted a lot of calls from residents for “more community events like this for both adults and kids.” This is an important lesson. It might help us understand how the transparency of such spectacular illumination, by appealing immediately to people’s senses can actually play a role in improving local experiences and everynight lives.

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Glow, installation inviting for fluorescent drawing and tagging under the A13 underpass.

Posted on 27 Jan 2014, under Blog.