sculpting space with light: the corporate, the popular and the mass

I caught up with Tim Edensor recently, a cultural geographer based at Manchester Metropolitan University and probably the only person in the academy who can greet me with ‘hello missus’ and get away with it (seriously, he is the only person, so don’t even think about it).

Tim has been one of the most significant contributors to the development of cultural geography for some time now, with a series of books, papers and edited collections including Industrial Ruins (and there’s an associated website here), Urban Theory Beyond the West (co-edited with Mark Jayne) and Geographies of Rhythm.

His recent work has been focussing on light, particularly light installations and contemporary artists working with light.  He curates a blog with Steve Millington called MMU Light Research, which is fascinating and eclectic, carrying everything from reactions to James Turrell’s Skyspace in Kielder Forest Park, UK, to enthusiasm for houses swathed in light bulbs at Christmas time.


Tim’s arguments focus on the beauty of light, its affective power to generate strong moods and atmospheres and its ability to engage people, whether to contemplation in Kielder forest or to conviviality along the promenade of Blackpool, a seaside resort in the northwest of the UK (there’s a great blog here on the Blackpool illuminations).

I’m interested in how light is so important now to so many urban redevelopment projects.  Architects work with lighting designers on prestigious new developments; permanent light installations are seen as an effective way to revamp or enliven tired urban spaces; temporary installations are often part of art interventions into urban spaces.  The global company of designers, planners and engineers, Arup, for example, has a whole section of its website devoted to its lighting design work, including this video, which notes that light “in the right hands, light enhances, sculpts and inspires”.

Like Tim, I’m sceptical of critics who would dismiss the increasing integration of lighting into urban redevelopment simply as the latest example of neoliberalism’s spectacularisation of cities; Hal Foster seems to do this in his book The Art-Architecture Complex, for example.  Tim points to the continuing vitality of popular forms of urban lighting to challenge this dystopic account.

And I wonder if this might be one context in which to think about the constant stream of photographs that get taken in cities.  After all, LEDs aren’t the only form of technology that ‘enhances, sculpts and inspires’ with light: so do cameras.  And thus so do all those gazillions of photos that get snapped in city streets.  Is this one way to think about the patterns shown in Lev Manovich‘s Instagram Cities, for example, which are part of his Phototrails project?  Instagram Cities shows what a city looks like in 50,000 Instagram photographs by visualising tiny thumbnails of each photo, distributed according to its colours’ hue and saturation.  Phototrails suggests that its visualisations of so many Instagram photos shows the temporal rhythm of mass urban photography, which is true.  But you could also understand the patterns of light and colour revealed in Manovich’s methods as a popular counter to the designed lightscapes of urban capital: each one of those photos a tiny piece of  light, thousands of them accumulating into an alternative urban lightscape.

Architects, lighting designers, homeowners, engineers, artists, cameraphone owners, then, all sculpting spaces with their various lighting technologies.