polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Bright Lights, Big City

by Vivien Park

“There are two kinds of light - the glow that illumines, and the glare that obscures.” — James Thurber

I recently came across a point-counterpoint style interview with a lighting designer and a dark sky activist on the subject of light pollution. It’s a fascinating topic that touches on energy consumption, aesthetics, safety and the effect on ecology. The conclusion of this interview is that a middle ground exist within thoughtful lighting design. With better light bulbs, regulations, and placement of light we just might be able to solve everyone’s needs. The two-part interview can be found here and here.

Interestingly, an argument for dark sky activism is the preservation of cultural heritage as well as inspiration for the arts. However, as an artist, I find myself increasingly drawn towards outdoor light projections as an art form. Artists such as Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Tony Oursler have all utilized this ephemeral medium in various ways. Many of the works display political messages in monumental scale, while some simply augment the appearance of a building in a seemingly magical way.

Outside the realms of lighting design and dark sky activism, whether lighting is considered glow or glare is somewhat dependent on perspective. I’m thinking of the beauty found in aerial shots of nighttime skylines, in curtains of light projected at outdoor cinemas, and in holiday lights that outline trees along city streets. There is something mysterious and dramatic about light surrounded by darkness. Perhaps it’s not just a matter of more or less light, but a presentation of intervals and contrasts that can raise the light bulb past its utilitarian status.