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August 6, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Matters of Illumination

It is night. The waterfront, as always, is glittering. This evening, though, there’s an intentionality to the sparkle. It is the first night of Wellington’s Lux Light Festival, a ten day annual event that gathers light-based art and displays it on the waterfront. Children dash around me, licking glowing electric sticks (I will later discover that, as a fun gimmick, candyfloss is being sold wrapped around these sticks).
The “Massey Mosh Pit” casts pale electronic music across a neon terrace. Few people dance. Scattered around the area between Te Papa and Frank Kitts Park are pieces of art.
A work called “Seed” consists of suspended chicken wire, wrinkled like a brain. Colourful projections ripple through its layers. Above Hikitika hangs “Bloom”, an illuminated jellyfish, bizarre yet appropriate. I wander between the artworks and talk to people at the festival, asking them to consider the role of the light and darkness that they consume.
By “In the Edges of the Universe”, a work consisting of falling letters coalescing into lines of poetry, I talk to Edle Puodziute. “[Light] makes an impression, in the dark it stands out easily,” she says. She thinks the festival encourages people to get outside at night. She’s right: though there’s a brisk breeze and I’m wearing four layers, there are a decent number of people around.
Mo Zareei is a VUW music lecturer who has exhibited at the festival several times, though not this year. His office is filled with strange instruments, boxes of clear plastic with pieces of metal inside, capable of being linked into “sound sculptures” which also use light. “I’m interested in the basic physical principles behind sound and light […], the visceral bodily perception of sound and light.” As we talk, he pauses to show me videos of his work, and the art that inspires it: peculiar compelling rhythms, glad flickering, humans made tiny and enormous as they are immersed in their shadows.
Light has immense power. Humans are designed to use light; and we could not exist in darkness. It literally lets us see, and idioms reflect that: as clear as day, a stab in the dark. There are connotations attached to both light and darkness. As Caroline Bennett, visual anthropologist and lecturer at VUW, said, “We use light to make metaphors [not just] for brilliance and ideas and knowledge, but particular kinds of knowledge”.

References to light come up everywhere. “You have to look at the fact that the Enlightenment is called the Enlightenment [and] it came after the Dark Ages.”
She is hesitant, justifiably, to make any big calls about the meaning of light. “I wouldn’t feel confident saying that [light and dark] are always a symbol. But there’s always symbolism.”
New Zealand has its own commemoration of light in the many connotations of the stars rising for Matariki. Bennett comments on the “strange disconnect” of having “Lux as winter is coming in but it not [being] connected with Matariki”.
At Lux, the people I talk to know what light means, as if it comes naturally. Steve Haewara tells me, simply, that light means “life”. “It’s usually associated with warmth and sight, […] it illuminates what’s in front of you.”
“Light is the positive one,” Alex Arizaba says to me, asked to identify the qualities of light and dark. His daughter clambers over his knee and waves a glowstick in his face. “[Light means] hope, goodness, fun,” says Chitra Srivalsalan, holding food for members of her family. “I can’t feel negative about light.”
One of the reasons that dark has negative connotations is because it is heavily linked to crime, particularly in urban areas. Francesca Gino and other researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill conducted experiments, finding that participants in dark rooms or wearing sunglasses were more likely to lie about money. However, there’s no solid scientific evidence that darker places have more incidents of crime.
There’s a famous experiment from 1965, where two cave explorers in France, Josie Laures and Antoine Senni, chose to spend several months in darkness. Over that time, their circadian rhythms lengthened so that they were sleeping in 30 hour cycles. They lost their sense of time, thinking the date was months before the actual one. In the darkness of their caves, they tried to befriend rodents.
Darkness seems unnatural, for all that we give half our lives to it; absolute darkness erodes the human psyche. In the short days of winter, people use bright lights to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder. Dark was causing depression, light was fixing it.

Darkness is about isolation and fear. Srivalsalan says that “there is nothing to celebrate in the dark, there is just hopeless[ness]”. Yet it is also essential, because its rhythms and blankness give us space to breathe. Lux is a festival of light, a celebration of brightness, though it relies equally on darkness.

Some people reject the significance attached to light: Arizaba tells me, perplexed, that “light means light!” Zareei agrees. “I don’t think that light necessarily has symbolic connotations.” In his own art, he “[doesn’t] work with the symbolism, I work with the pure visceral element of it”.
I ask several people if there are any negatives to light, and, conversely, if there are positives to darkness. Despite general consensus that light is positive, many people appreciate the darkness. Erin Coffin, who grew up in Alaska, says, “your body needs to have that flip [from light to dark]. If it’s summer and it’s eleven o’clock at night or midnight […] your body doesn’t shut off, and in the wintertime when there isn’t much light, you kind of get drowned; the energy isn’t there”.
“Light can show the negative things,” Puodziute says. The waterfront is more beautiful in the darkness, the water of the lagoon glossy rather than gross.
Only one person I talk to at Lux, Orin Lee, a molecular biology student at VUW and volunteer at the festival, knows what light pollution is. He points it out to me, a greasy smudge obvious over the Hutt Valley. “In big countries, there’s problems with light pollution,” he tells me, though he doesn’t know what those problems might be.
Light pollution is not like air or water pollution; light is not being polluted, it is the pollution. Essentially, light pollution is human originated light at night anywhere it is not wanted, and there are various types of it. Light trespass is intrusive light, such as a bright street light shining in your window. Glare is light placed at angles that stop you from being able to see. Skyglow is that dull radiance over a city from the waste of all upward-facing light.

From above, we might look like a galaxy: bright points of light shifting in tides of human movement, edged by the blank expanse of the harbor. But while I may be in a constellation, when I glance up I see no stars. They are blotted by leftover light.

A week after my initial visit to Lux, I return without a voice recorder and with a friend. As we sit on the steps by the lagoon, dreamy shadows projected across a spray of water, I look at the reflections. In the water, the blurry remains of the lights from the buildings by the waterfront dissolve the original edges of the art.

The offices are empty, of course — it’s ten p.m., and everyone has gone home. But the light shines on, perhaps a reminder of continuing existence. I think of how I frequently check my bike lights when I ride at night, letting them affirm my existence.
I am familiar with the lustre of moonlight, the glow of incandescent bulbs, and buzzing, clear qualities of fluorescent lights. I know the person I am in them: exhilarated under the moon, thoughtful in incandescence, unfocused in fluorescence. I do not know who I am in darkness: philosophical, perhaps?
Before electrification people had to engrave their landscapes on their bones, be absorbed in the darkness in order to navigate. People could disappear.

Human pupils function best in darkness if their environment grows slowly dimmer over a period of about half an hour, the conditions of twilight. Many people never let their eyes adjust to the dark, a latter-day luxury. With light as with so many other things, we live in a world different to the one that our body grew to fit.
I think of my most precious experience of darkness: about two a.m. on a summer night, looking out from the door of my tent, cradled at the bottom of a Himalayan valley. Arching snow peaks flickered with the echo of distant lightning. Above: a black sky sprinkled generously with swirls of stars. My breath, clouded in frosty air.
The lights have been alluring, but it’s time I go home. At the first traffic lights, an inebriated Russian jaywalks, flouting the codes we have lent light, red for stopping. By the fifth traffic lights, I face Parliament.

The windows of the Beehive are black, but the flag on the top is bright in spotlights. As I come up to my house, I see eleven streetlights and no people. I unlock the door, enter the dark house, and turn on the lights.


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