In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vaughn Sadie: Arguments for Light

Gas lighting was first installed in the streets of Europe in 1807, fundamentally shifting the conception and experience of urban environments. According to an article entitled ‘Arguments against Light’ published in the Cologne Zeitung (1816), this new street lighting was deemed objectionable on a number of theological, judicial, medical, moral and socio-economic standpoints. From a contemporary viewpoint, it is difficult to imagine lightless cities, let alone a delegation of those against it. The fear was that lighting the city would lead to illness, depravity, and economic loss and would tamper with “the divine plan of the world”.

Vaughn Sadie, untitled (passive separation), 2007, 2D 16watt two-pin compact fluorescent and 4m of 0.5 mm/sq x 2 co-white twin flex, dimensions variable. Photo: Andrew Griffin
Almost 200 years later, artificial light not only permeates our public and private spaces but also shapes the ways in which we experience the world. So ever-present are these forms of lighting that they have become banal and imperceptible. The only time artificial light is considered is when it fails or is absent. It is only in its absence that consideration is given to the impact it has on the spaces we occupy and ourselves.

This paper explores how social relations are controlled, not always overtly, but rather indirectly, through the regulating of space with the use of artificial light. It will define the nature of the relationship between artificial light and space as a means of establishing possible metaphorical readings of artificial light, and by implication its tone and colour, affect our reading of space and becomes a mechanism of social control.
In The System Of Objects (1996), Jean Baudrillard offered an interesting explanation of artificial light used in domestic interiors, suggesting an aspect of historical and social relations, when he said: “Everything suggests that the source of light continues to be evocative of the origin of all things: even though it no longer illuminates the family circle from the ceiling, even though it has been dispersed and made manifold, it is apparently still the sign of privileged intimacy, still able to invest things with unique value, to create shadows and presences. Small wonder that a system founded on objective manipulation of simple and homogenous elements should strive to eliminate this last sign of internal radiance, of the symbolic envelopment of thing by look or desire” (p.20).

This gives a clear indication that artificial light and light fittings have become commodities, therefore they too are subjected to the same reductive processes of consumerism. This makes them both easily reproducible in multiples therefore allowing for easier use as a uniform, or singular, strategy that illuminates space seemingly neutrally.

The medium for my work untitled (passive separation) (2007) is a familiar object that illuminates our daily lives. The 2D 16-watt two-pin compact fluorescent is left to perform the last stage of its 8,000-hour lifespan. The isolated object becomes an object of contemplation – our contemplation of mortality. We are made aware of the compact fluorescents’ imminent expiry, and our own. Rike Sitas argues, “it does not only ask us to think of our individual mortalities, but questions the nature of that which we produce (objects, spaces and relationships)” (in Sadie, 2009: 25).

In public space the compact fluorescent illuminates corridors of office buildings and public toilets; it is often imperceptible. The 2D 16-watt two-pin compact fluorescent becomes an irritation when it flickers and ceases to function. In the context of public space it would be replaced almost immediately to regulate the space and to optimise the functions of the people in that space. Sitas suggests that: “They have a lifespan and are endlessly replaced. Positioning one in a gallery reasserts its importance as an object that shapes our reality. The nature of its decay, like all of Sadie’s work in this installation, reminds us to question materiality, production and consumption in that the technologies we have built to construct our physical spaces, also play part in constructing the way we perceive the spaces we live, work and play in and between. As each light dies it gets endlessly replaced in an eventually unsustainably cycle of capitalist production and consumption” (p.25).

This work, exhibited on my exhibition situation at Durban’s Bank Gallery, critiques the gallery as an authoritative institution. The works exhibited explored the way in which the gallery asserts meaning through the use of artificial light and space. In the context of the gallery the viewer’s experience is mediated by the considered placement of works and use of artificial light to emphasise elements of value and importance.

Henri Lefebvre warns against considering space in isolation; rather, he suggests we should uncover the social relationships that produce social space and that are lived through social practice. For Lefebvre social practice is a means of ensuring continuity of a collective experience. Lefebvre speaks of “representations of space” where institutions and practices design space as symbols of power, ideology and knowledge. Doreen Massey has suggested that spatial organisation does impact on how society works and changes, then space and the spatial are not static or inert, but implicit in the production of the historical and political. Massey agrees with Lefebvre that space is the embodiment of power; and it is through social relations that we perform hegemonic power in the form of social and spatial practices. Artificial light thus affects our relationship to space and can be used as a means of controlling spatial and social relations. This opens possibilities of using artificial light and space to subvert our accepted understanding of the gallery and social norms. As Ernesto Laclua (quoted in Massey suggests, “it is not that the interrelations between objects occur in space and time: it is these relationships themselves which create/define space and time” (p.263).

In The History of Sexuality (1978), Michel Foucault suggested power is “tolerable only on the condition that it masks a considerable part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms” (p.154). Artificial light and space are the embodiment of power, and can therefore be considered mechanisms of power. This is important as uncovering the meaning and function of artificial light in space makes us increasingly aware of the complicit nature of artificial light and space in constructing meaning and value.

In situation the overhead lighting of the gallery was removed, preventing all the works from being uniformly lit. The works illuminated themselves allowing for the artificial light to reconstruct the space idiosyncratically. The different tones and sources of artificial light are juxtaposed against each other to subvert a singular reading of space and each work. Untitled (risk posed to waiting) (2007- 08) consists of three elements with multiple light sources and fittings. The elements don’t illuminate the same area in the gallery. However, the quality of light they emit impacts on how each is perceived to occupy the space. The viewer is confronted by two apparently disparate pieces, physically positioned on separate walls within the gallery. The artificial light directed onto the floor and walls conceals the cable that connects two of the three elements, masking the fact that the function of one is dependent on the other, as Bronwen Vaughan-Evans has noted (in Sadie, 2009: 39).

The use of artificial light in constructing our domestic space is questioned by the presentation of the light fittings in the gallery space. Previously each of the light fittings performed a particular function within a domestic space; in the new context they suggest a multiplicity in function that subverts conventional associations made with the objects and by implication the space. The familiar in situation is present in the everyday experiences within which it is imbedded, and associated, with the tone of artificial light as well as the actual fitting. The familiarity of the banal becomes the means through which the viewer explores the works’ conceptual concerns. Personal associations by the viewers, brought on by the tone of artificial light and actual fittings, become a way of mediating new relationships with the space. This illustrates the complex and nuanced way in which artificial light impacts on the representation of space, and how our experience of space is complex and heterogeneous, thus subverting the homogenous space of the gallery.

“The artificial light,” Bronwen Vaughan-Evans, “alerts us to the structures around us. It emphasises the individual in space, the individual within society” (p.41). In discussing the use of artificial light in situation Sitas notes that the artificial light “is used as a literal, metaphorical and theoretical tool to build a body of work, and an argument about consumerism – in effect, illuminating the complex and contradictory relationship we have to the objects and spaces we are surrounded by” (p.23). In this installation the perceived passive nature of artificial light, and its relationship with space, is questioned. The objects that make up the installation not only illuminate themselves, and each other; they too are complicit in altering our perception of the gallery space, the spaces we occupy, and the social relations that constitute that place for us. “This carefully considered process serves to challenge the normative use and understanding of these seemingly everyday materials,” writes Sitas, “through the assembling of these materials into his situation(s), the meaning and function of the objects are subverted” (p.22), along with the function of the space. Untitled (sleep state) (2009) speaks directly to the way that time affects our experiences and perception of both space and artificial light. The 28, 600mm, 1/l ip65 fluorescent fittings are the same light fittings that are used in office blocks, parking lots and workspaces as part of a uniform lighting strategy. This imperceptible lighting facilitates our movement in communal or public space – in this instance Florida Road, Durban.

The 1.2 x 4.5m analogue display fixed to the facade of the gallery is imperceptible during the day, washed out by sunlight. However, in the evening, time in the form of fluorescent light spills onto the sidewalk, affecting the passing pedestrians and traffic alike, actively reshaping this public space as time changes. The cables are fixed to the wall of the building leading the viewer into the gallery entrance to reveal the smaller Light Emitting Diode (LED) digital clock face that drives the analogue clock face outside. Sitas related the artwork to a critique of capitalism when she said: “The fluorescents flicker as they endeavour to keep up with their controlling mechanism. Sometimes they cannot keep up. Instead of punctuating the passing of time, this clock performs the passing of time. This reminds us to question the dominant capitalist ideologies associated with time as commodity, and prefers us to see time as a movement” (p.24).

Artificial light in this instance is used as an active agent that continually reshapes public space and, through the flicker present in the change of time; it starts to address social structures that affect our behaviour. As the intensity of the artificial light varies and changes, so does our awareness of time, as we move through both public and private spaces. In her discussion of untitled (sleep state) (2009), Vaughan-Evans suggests, “The clock monitors all the time even when the individual is asleep. When we are cognisant and rational we don’t see it due to the drowning daylight. It talks about the surrender of the individual to the greater system. But it also alludes to the fragility of the system or the bureaucracy” (p.51).

Light, Vaughan-Evans further writes, “is the work’s very essence of being, but it is also the element that destroys its memory, often leaving only the structures that hold them in place” (p.46). The exposed structures become both imposing and symbolic of regulated behaviour and institutional ideology. In the context of this paper artificial light has become a mechanism of control that regulates both our domestic and public space. Artificial light is the tone and colour of regulation.

Vaughn Sadie is a visual artist currently based in Johannesburg 

Jean Baudrillard, System of objects (London: Verso, 1996). 
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon, 1978). 
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) 
Matthew Luckiesh, Artificial Light: Its Influence upon Civilization (New York: BiblioBazaar, 2007). 
Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994). 
Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Visual Culture Reader (London: Routledge, 1998). 
Vaughn Sadie (ed.), situation (Durban: Vaughn Sadie, 2009).

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