Let there be light: behind the trend of illuminating cities for art

By Scott McQuire, University of Melbourne.

If you’re in Melbourne or Sydney over the next couple of weeks, you can enjoy the nightly transformation of some familiar urban landmarks. How should we understand this growing global enthusiasm for spectacular urban illumination?

Tonight in Sydney, the Opera House will again become an urban canvas for Lighting The Sails, now an established part of the annual Vivid festival (May 23-June 1). Instead of reflecting the harbour’s ambient light, the sails will be shrink-wrapped with a large-scale video projection created by 59 Productions, the team responsible for the video design of the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

White Night Melbourne, February 2014.Michael Smith

In Melbourne in June, a new interactive light-based installation Radiant Lines by renowned London-based light artist Asif Khan will open in Federation Square as part of its long-running Light in Winter festival.

Radiant Lines is a sculpture comprising 40 rings of raw aluminium suspended in space and illuminated by hundreds of LED lights pulsing in a rhythm that mimics bioluminescence. As visitors approach, they are able to trigger new patterns that immerse them.

Urban illumination projects of this kind are increasingly popular, not only for festivals such as Vivid, Light in Winter, Enlighten in Canberra and various “White Nights” around the world, but for all kinds of transformations of urban space — both temporary and permanent.

New forms of public and commercial lighting, large-scale projection, urban screens and media facades have profoundly transformed the look and ambiance of cities around the world. In Hong Kong, the city’s skyscrapers even perform a nightly choreography of light.

Symphony of Lights, Hong Kong. Flickr, Anita Ritenour

A short history of lighting cities

While much urban lighting has a functional dimension, there is a long history of lighting cities for spectacle and pleasure. Gas-lit Paris was proclaimed the world’s first “city of light” in the 1820s. From the 1870s, World’s Fairs regularly showcased new developments in electric lighting, paving the way for the twentieth century “electropolis”, as cities such as Chicago, Berlin and New York came to be defined by the intensity of their illumination.

The “bright lights, big city” of which Jimmy Reed sang in the 1950s became a dominant image of the modern city, establishing a new rhetoric of urban space in which lighting for productivity and security was overtaken by lighting for spectacle, mood and advertising.

Curtis Perry

For a century, urban lighting depended on incandescent bulbs and various fluorescent tubes, such as the neon tube that became synonymous with advertising from the 1920s.

The current explosion of urban illumination projects has been sparked by a range of new technologies, including the maturation of digital projection systems, light-emitting diode (LED) video screens and LED lighting from the mid-90s.

The capacity to computer program LED lights down to the individual pixel means that lighting designers can create complex sequences and rhythms, such as the light narrative designed by Bruce Ramus, former lighting designer for rock luminaries U2, that plays on the LED skin wrapping Melbourne’s AAMI Park stadium.

Bringing computer-aided design together with high-precision large-scale digital projection has also created the distinctive new art form of projection mapping. Projection mapping enables real structures, such as the curvaceous Sydney Opera House, to be transformed into a screen on which images can play without distortion.

URBANSCREEN lighting the Sydney Opera House, 2012.

Precise integration of mutable light with material structures can result in astonishing contemporary retakes on the old son et lumière show, as solid buildings seem to come alive through virtuoso combinations of light and shadow. For Lighting the Sails in 2012, German company URBANSCREEN took the sails metaphor of Utzon’s famous structure literally, using projection mapping to make them appear to undulate and ripple.

Public space debate

New lighting technologies inevitably raise new questions about access and control over public space. The complexity and cost of large-scale projection mapping means it requires the deep pockets of large festivals. But it is also becoming an increasingly common promotional tool for high profile commercial events.

Sydney Opera house at Vivid Sydney 2011 Flickr, Pavel

Lighting the modern city has always had a strong commercial bias, and has been a key factor in tilting the contemporary city towards becoming a “brandscape”, a spectacle that is consumed rather than inhabited in other ways. However, new technologies can carry other possibilities for public communication.

The Helix Tree installation (video above) that Bruce Ramus designed for Light in Winter in 2013 lit up in response to people singing. Light became a medium for congregation and collective public participation.

There are also myriad examples of “unauthorised” illumination projects around the world, variously termed digital graffiti, photon bombing and mobile guerrilla projection.

During the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon in 2011 artists projected “99%” and “Occupy Together” right across the front of buildings such as City Hall. And predating Lighting the Sails was the memorable guerrilla projection in 2006 of the “We are all boat people” logo on to the Opera House sails.

More than ever before, lighting has become integral to debate over public space.The Conversation

Scott McQuire was part of an ARC linkage project, Large-screens and the transnational public sphere 2009-2013, in which Fed Square P/L was one of three industry partners.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Adam Ford's picture

Can we put 'art' in scare quotes when we talk about this stuff?

The reality is that 99% of what's presented at White Night is just facile decoration and has nothing whatsoever to do with engaging with an artwork. Not to say it's not valid on some level as a kind of urban enetertainment. But this is not analogous to an art experience.

Back to top
Mark Baljak's picture

Urban entertainment absolutely, but isn't artwork subjective?

Back to top
Bilby's picture

I think saying that artwork is 'subjective' sort of misses the point. I can't recall any of the apartment buildings on this site being described as works of art, for instance, but even if they were, that wouldn't preclude a discussion about their relative qualities and merits, would it?

Back to top
Adam Ford's picture

The point is less that art is subjective, more "is it actually in any way possible to experience something that in any way approximates an art experience whilst being jostled by 30,000 people staring at a barely visible component of an animation projected on to a building?" My experience of White Night is a resolute 'no'. I spent not one moment in contemplation of anything more profound than wishing someone would ring in a bomb scare.

Back to top
Mark Baljak's picture

good point

Back to top
Melbourne_Fragments's picture

good points Adam, thought by the last definition given the Mona Lisa can't really be called art either, given the experience of actually seeing it in the museum is somewhat similar and crowded, lacking any intimacy

Could just be that the White Night projections were very tacky this year, Gertrude Projection Festival in on a whole other level

Back to top
My Real Estate Mate logo

Development & Planning

Monday, October 24, 2016 - 07:31
A trio of apartment projects are before City of Melbourne, all seeking the right to add to the inner north's apartment stock. Lodged during September, the trio are also looking to bring a heightened design perspective to their surrounds. First up and Piccolo Developments are seeking another statement project, with...

Policy, Culture & Opinion

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 14:30
On Monday 24th of October, the iCities: World Class CBDs series conference kicks off. First held in Kuala Lumpur, this year's conference is to be held at the Langham Hotel on Southbank. iCities is owned and operated by iProperty Group, a network property under the REA Group umbrella brand. Over...


Visual Melbourne

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - 17:00
Melbourne’s architectural landscape is a wonderful juxtaposition of modern and Victorian architecture. Although the CBD has been peppered with many skyscrapers, its historical structures have won Melbourne the title of “Australia’s most European city”. Perhaps the most striking example of this juxtaposition between old and new is the Coops Shot...

Transport & Design

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 07:00
108 Leicester Street is a collection of eight multi-level Fitzroy townhouses that have been designed to respond to the changing face of multi-residential living in Melbourne. The hybrid inner-city dwellings combine developer/builder FOURSQ with Melbourne firm BKK Architects. The design acknowledges the housing typologies of the development's Fitzroy neighbourhood with...

Sustainability & Environment

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 00:00
The proposed new Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) on Sturt Street is shaping to become much more than a cutting edge venue. While the project has been given coverage to date across a range of mediums, very little has been said regarding the project playing an integral part in the...