Darkness: Back to a future of a quality approach to lighting / Jan Maertens

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To a lighting designer, darkness could/should be seen as the equivalent of a white canvas to a painter or simply silence to a composer, conductor or musician: the absence of content that is yet to be create as the necessary condition to effectively pass on that content.

In today’s theatre venue, alas, the absence of light has become a rare condition to start designing/presenting lighting from. Be it that this condition, indeed maybe not always necessary in its absolute form, seems pretty evident to effectively pass on lighting content.  So it is, that creative content more than often ends up in a state of being already contaminated almost by default by other, non creative, lighting agents. We can enlist here plenty of wrongdoers situated in the executive, efficiency and safety protocol of today’s venues: Emergency exit lights together with door- or step lights starring in a lead role. From functional standby LEDs, over remote control, surveillance and protection systems to genuine LED screens of all sorts of technical equipment. Or light simply leaking from under door ways or roof tops…. and believe me, today’s efficient theatre architecture is often as inadequate in “darkness” control as it is in creating a compliant acoustic space while keeping up appearances with black moleton… yep, the old Greek didn’t have wireless microphones to stand in for their ignorance:-)

But also, often audience members themselves, exactly while looking out to be addressed by creative content, seem to more and more become as much a villain in spoiling the conditions for creative content to fully become. Or to at least to be well received by their fellow audience members. Only, a mobile phone screen in a theatre is somehow thought to be less harmful than a ringtone in the middle of a concert… Or how can one think to be discrete by using a smartphone as a light torch in a dark theatre? It has occurred to me that, while preparing the light plotting in a dark theatre, an accidental intruder, or be it an incidental colleague, is much less aware of being disturbing with uncontrolled directional lighting than ze would be while talking aloud or chattering during a sound check.

Let’s face it: light pollution is a fact …. and becomes the more, the bigger a problem. But not only in the theatre. And not only towards creative content making. To a certain extend, I think we all start to suffer from the effects of not being embedded in or even not understanding darkness anymore. It might be interesting to imagine to measure in what way the amount of light we produce and emit as humans on this planet contributes to our apparent global system crisis… if not directly, then at least as a metaphor for our uncontrolled self-inflicting consumption pattern. In that perspective, it speaks for itself, that since technology has reached out with the latest energy friendly alternative for artificial lighting: the ubiquitous LED light source, we haven’t been consuming less (energy for) lighting, but more! And on top of things: in that mass consumption of LED-lighting, we’ve been out ruling all quality approach for the benefit of an even greater quantity approach under the guise of a sort of efficiency thinking that has long gone obsolete by now. That means losing twice: Once more, an economic fix is installed on the back of a planet in crisis and once more, we(‘re made to) mistake quantity for quality.

Extending further on the ever complex planet-in-crises-discussion is not the intention here… and there’s nothing against the introduction of a new and energy friendly (= not necessarily eco friendly!) light source as such, on the contrary. But it must be clear that the light-efficiency fix greatly effects the way we all mass-consume light these days, often in total neglect of its quality. Nor the intrinsic quality of the light being produced, nor the quality approach in our lighting purposes seem to be questioned anymore. As if quality becomes a redundant attribute when being technically efficient or abundantly available. So also, this efficiency fix has installed itself in the stage lighting design business: We slowly loose acces on quality-full manipulation of artificial light sources that do represent the full and continuous spectrum our eyes have been designed for, while a dogmatic idea of replacement makes our toolbox more and more hollowed out notwithstanding the newly introduced technological assets. But above all, stage lighting tends to become a commodity (again?) for an efficiency-driven theatre machine, after a seemingly too short awakening period in proving its potentials of being an active and artistic agent-performer on the post-humanist stage.

Or to approach things differently by a photographer’s statement I recently read: “watching carefully is a form of yoga with one’s eyes.” Be it that watching carefully is exactly why we need a quality approach for with/by lighting. Watching carefully implements being guided carefully to watch carefully. Or in other words: being lit carefully! It is indeed in our approach to making an audience -and other stage media for that same matter- watch carefully that we valorise our agency as lighting designers for the stage: making images of thought (visible). And it is exactly here that a technical approach to efficiency stops being efficient, becoming even contra-productive… as well as contamination starts to be more than a temporary nuisance. (Helping in) making/visualising/seeing/watching/understanding images of thought by (stage)lighting efficiently, demands an abundant tool box and conditions to be manipulated in the best way possible.

Let us renounce the newly installed over-exposure to light(ing) while re-embracing darkness as the necessary condition for lighting carefully. For lighting quality-full and dynamically. Both on- and off-stage. Darkness as a statement against today’s mass-consumption of light. Not by being efficient - art never is - but by being quality-full. Then maybe not only the artistic content we generate as lighting designers, but also the way we teach, guide and manipulate to watch carefully might help to add value to life.

Because lighting design does not equal efficient light scenography.

Because lighting design, in the first place, wants to invite to carefully watch… and watch carefully!

Let there be darkness!