Technology and Art: Light

It’s Christmas! My manic insistence to write every single week outweighs my urge to take time off to be “festive” (the latest politically correct term from the UK), so Merry Christmas (or whatever other festive celebration you participate in). Christmastime always makes me think of light. And light, like much of everything, gets me thinking about art and science.

Technology and art are intrinsically linked. Really, technology is linked to almost everything. New technologies change the way that we live. And this influences just about everything we do. Anybody who thinks otherwise should take a look at their smartphone sometime and tell me technology doesn’t control our lives. But there are some specific instances in which art and technology are very specifically enabled by one another. And I’d like to take a moment to think about the creation of electric light as one of these ways.

We all know Edison invented the light bulb (in 1879). Some might even know that there were experiments in creating electric light well before this invention. But the invention of electric light did some important things for art, just as it did for everything else.

Portrait of Thomas Edison holing his light bulb.
Changing the face of art since 1879!

First the obvious effect of being able to spend more time making art without relying on candles and gas fuel. This lengthening of the productive day is true across human activities. Further, electric light allowed for new and exciting ways to illuminate forms to be drawn from life. Today every classical drawing class usually features at least one still life set up with dramatic lighting from a single source. I like to think this is what drawing setups might have been like in the early days of the electric light bulb, when there were fewer of them in general than today. There must have been some excellent mood lighting.
There are even many works of modern art nowadays that include electric light as a material. There is currently a whole room full of work like this at the Tate Modern in London. I went there recently and was captivated by this work, Blue Purple Tilt, by Jenny Holzer.

Six blue LED towers leaned against a wall bathed in purple light.
Modern art light show.

The bright LED lights dominate the small off-room the work is housed in. And the panels are actually flashing words continuously, with joyful, morbid expressions like “Enjoy yourself because you can’t change anything anyway,” and “Exceptional people deserve special concessions.” The work is edgy, modern, and powerful. Moreover, it would not have been possible if Edison had not invented that light bulb over a century ago.

And I suppose one other way electric light has influenced an aesthetic practice (if not a fine art one) is in the development of twinkle lights for buildings. A lovely shot of a building on campus at University of Edinburgh. What a wonderful sight. To all who read, have a happy festive season.

Building with white twinkle lights and red and green illumination.
This is the student union at University of Edinburgh. It’s also basically a small castle.

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