The Blessing and Burden of Light Art Technology

Anna Weissmann for Distilled Post

One of the most significant technological advancements affecting artists is the rise of digital tools and media. Many contemporary artists now use digital software and hardware to both create and display their works. Digital painting and drawing apps provide new options for visual expression. Meanwhile, technologies like video projectors and LED screens allow artists to immerse viewers in dynamic images and animations.

Another important technological shift involves the internet and social media. Online platforms give artists a direct way to showcase their portfolio and connect with potential collectors or clients globally. Social media also provides artists a space to share works-in-progress, give behind-the-scenes looks at their creative process, and engage with fans. For example, an artist might post timelapse videos on Instagram showing how a painting developed from start to finish.

Some visual artists are exploring innovative techniques like virtual reality and 3D printing. VR can transport viewers into an immersive artificial environment where the normal rules of physics may not apply. Artists working with 3D printers can create intricate sculptures and structures that would be difficult or impossible to make using conventional methods. Technologies like motion sensors and artificial intelligence are also being incorporated into interactive and generative art.

While some traditionalists argue technology risks overshadowing the human element in art, proponents say it simply provides more options for expression and enables artists to engage audiences in new ways. The interplay between technology and visual art will likely continue generating vibrant discussion and groundbreaking works in the years to come.

Artists harnessing new capabilities, yet avoiding creative paralysis

Four new exhibitions of light art this autumn—two in historic churches in London; two in locations purpose-built for immersive experiences and 21st-century technology—demonstrate both the blessing and the challenge that artists find in working with light using the latest technology, including algorithms written to manage ever more powerful, and efficiently packaged, arrays of light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

It is a combination that has allowed creatives to play with light—composing it with code—over the last two decades, with the related challenge that they may suffer the creative paralysis of (too much) choice. (The technology has also allowed the development of mega screens to show immersive light and video pieces, culminating with the recent opening of the 360ft-tall Sphere in Las Vegas.) London Design Festival and Bloomberg Philanthropies commissioned the church pieces from two artists, Moritz Waldemeyer and Pablo Valbuena, to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of Christopher Wren—a giant of British architecture, master of light and mathematics, and creator of London landmarks including St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Sweeping Light Pendulum by Waldemeyer

Waldemeyer, the London-based German artist and designer, devised Halo for St Stephen Walbrook (1672-79), the City of London church where Wren built the first dome in any British building. Waldemeyer’s piece is made up of a 20m-long pendulum, with an LED light source that moves up and down the cord from which it hangs in frequency with the rotation of its brass weight, sweeping low and meditatively over the rim of Henry Moore’s massive 1972 marble altar. Waldemeyer made use of a pre-packed tube of LEDs known as COB (chip on board) which he finds performs with a smooth, fluorescent effect similar to that of neon.

Sound-Reactive Light Sculpture by Valbuena

Valbuena, the France-based, Spanish installation and light artist, created Aura for St Paul’s Cathedral (completed in 1710). Aura is suspended by a cord from the oculus at the centre of the building’s inner dome. The light sources, a series of hundreds of custom-made LEDs, are hung on a pencil-thin aluminium frame, 20m tall. The light piece in Aura is activated by sound, using an algorithm devised by Valbuena’s team. The audio is captured by the cathedral’s microphones, for spoken words, while additional devices are used to capture the singing of the choir or placed in the organ pipes.

As the sound varies in pitch, volume and intensity, so the patterns of light generated by Aura change. The higher the pitch the higher the light glows on the artwork’s frame. The greater the volume or intensity, the brighter and denser the light that Aura emits.

Emergence of Programmable LED Art

All the artists concerned have emerged on the light art scene in the past 20 years—paying homage variously to their living predecessors James Turrell and Robert Irwin and to the late Dan Flavin and Ingo Maurer—during the period in which LEDs have gone from being an electronic component for industry, to the equivalent of another group of pixels, in programmable digital art.

“I started out in the early 2000s,” Waldemeyer says. “The time that LEDs started this incredible journey from being an indicator light on your stereo to be an actual means of illumination.” An LED is an electronic component that works well, he explains, with a programmable controller: “[This] gives rise to infinite amounts of creativity.”

For UVA the creative realisation came when Clark saw that with LEDs “you are sculpting a mass of tiny highly efficient light bulbs”. For its new show, Polyphony, UVA is showing a mixture of new commissions and a site-specific recreation of Our Time, a piece previously created for 180 Studios which examines our perception of time, with a score by the late electronic musician Mira Calix. For Clark, Synchronicity at 180 Studios is an opportunity to show "new interpretations of ongoing lines of inquiry. When working with specialists you get to dive into their world of expertise and knowledge, and we really wanted to revisit some of the highlights of our journey. But we did not want just to represent works that people had seen before, but to create new works."

Avoiding Creative Paralysis

“For me, the use of tech is interesting,” Valbuena says. “Am I allowed to speak from a more contemporary mode to questions that have been asked throughout human history?... I try to use the simplest way to do it with the available technology,” he says.

Koch says that, at Nxt Museum, Random is recreating Living Room, a piece using light and fog launched at Art Basel in Miami Beach 2022, where users feel they are interacting with a spatial intelligence. To achieve this, Random’s R&D team developed narrow-beamed light sources using custom lenses strong enough to reach the ground from four metres up, combined with powerful Lidar sensors—as used in self-driving cars—to feed into an algorithmic environment that sometimes responds to a person’s presence and sometimes not.

Koch and Ortkrass have been "looking for past decade and a half at how our environment has developed in an increasingly sentient and increasingly responsive manner", with smartphones and the growing use of sensors in daily life. Light, Koch says, is "a great medium to explore how that has happened".

New technology “does not replace strong ideation, strong... intention,” Koch says. “What we are trying to do is to simplify things.” Random’s dramaturge, Héloïse Reynolds, has a counter to the fear of “feature creep” that comes when a medium reaches a state of creative facility such as has happened with programmable LEDs. It is an answer that might apply to all the artists under consideration. Her colleagues, Reynolds says, will “always find the hardest way if it means they are [as artists] doing the right thing.”