Playing With Magic: On Light as a Material


In 1952, the architectural lighting designer Richard Kelly wrote in a short article on the importance of lighting to architecture: “To play with light is to play with magic”. Coming from a designer whose legacy is the gleaming brilliance of modernist architecture at night (Phillip Johnson’s Glass House, Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building), these words offer a startlingly poignant critique of the regime of contemporary western vision.

Kelly, one of the original designers to specialize exclusively in architectural lighting schemes, clearly saw light as a medium or material to be manipulated. This is far from surprising. Much of the work of the twentieth century— from film, to military technology, to advertising— has been about introducing increasingly pervasive, and convincing, techniques of visualization. We can take infrared surveillance cameras, CGI special effects, and Oculus Rift as three examples. What a marvellous challenge it is to create new ways of seeing that render last year’s spectacle visually obsolete!

But magic and spectacle are not the only connotations we associate with light. We still understand culturally that “seeing is believing,” that vision illuminates. We reflect on our experience. We shine a light on a problem. What is at stake in this cultural tie between light, vision, and knowledge?

We use light and vision as a metaphor for intellectual command, and in turn, I think we use light to create the semblance of command. This metaphor for light has profoundly affected our urban and televisual ways of seeing. Rather than tending to the urban factors that cause violent crime in cities, like poverty, drug policy, and rape culture, cities eradicate dark spaces with electric light and surveillance cameras. Television teaches the human eye to dissociate from what happens outside of the frame of the television— we are aware of the red glow of flames on Rambo’s face, but not of the flickering blue glow on our own. To me, the result of this is that we prioritize visual powers given to us by technology over powers that we already have biologically, like peripheral vision, night vision, and cognitive vision. Humans are gifted with incredible powers of focal vision-- but we can see in many other ways that technologies have taught us to ignore.

How can we explore our vision? This is an ancient question. There are long traditions of vision seekers: cultures in which receiving a vision is a rite of passage, artists who have drawn inspiration from dreams, chemists who have devoted careers to the synthesis and exploration of psychedelics. One such vision seeker is Brion Gysin, who discovered a kind of cognitive vision in himself in 1958, retold here in an extract from his diary:

“Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees. was that a vision? What happened to me? (Gysin).

What Gysin experienced was a flicker potential— a cognitive form of vision caused by a visual flicker around the frequency of the alpha rhythm. The alpha rhythm refers to one of several brain wave frequencies in humans recorded by electroencephalogram (EEG). It has a frequency of around 10hz, and corresponds to a state of meditation or deep relaxation. In 1934 Adrian and Matthews showed that Alpha waves could be induced in human subjects by sensory stimulation around the alpha frequency. Gysin’s Dreamachine, effectively a spinning lampshade that flickers light in the alpha range, was an attempt to domesticate the effect and make it available to people at home. A simple flicker can induce kaleidoscopic visual stimulation in the human brain, along with a state of deep relaxation and euphoria. What does this mean to our televisual minds? Is it frightening? Exciting?

At Goldsmith's, I prototyped a digital version of the Dreamachine as a kind of virtual reality headset, and gave a demo to visitors at an open studio night. One user noted that the flicker of the lights brought him to the edge of sleep, but offered just enough stimulation to keep him awake. Others were far less calmed, finding the device to be intrusive and abrasive. My own experience falls somewhere in between-- there is something vaguely trance-like about the experience, which can be relaxing, but also frightening (am I being hypnotized??).

To me, the dreamachine is a startling reminder that vision is a much more complex process than our enlightened understanding might have us believe. In the spirit of Richard Kelley, light can be a material for playing with magic-- and in the spirit of Brion Gysin, we can perceive that magic in many different ways.

Works Cited:

Gysin, Bryon. “Dreamachine | Bryon Gysin”. The Academy of Everything is Possible. Web. 27 Mar, 2015. www.bryongysin.com/?category_name=dreamachine

Kelly, Richard. “Lighting as an Integral Part of Architecture”. College Art Journal. Vol. 12, No. 1 (Autumn, 1952): 24-30. College Art Association. Web. 27 Mar, 2015.

Toman, James. “Flicker Potentials and the Alpha Rhythm in Man.” Journal of Neurophysiology. APS Journals. Web. 27 Mar, 2015.


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© 2019 by Galen Macdonald.