Jul 12, 2012

Anthropology of Light and Art

An Interview with ALTON BROOKS PARKER, 

This Saturday, July 14th, The Fine Arts Center will present James Turrell’s installation piece, Trace Elements: Light Into Space, in conjunction with an exhibition, Places Apart, by Colorado College professor and artist, Scott Johnson. We have asked Colorado College visiting professor, anthropologist, and expert on all things 'light', Alton Brooks Parker, to share his insights on light in art, cavemen, James Turrell,  even life and death.

Colorado College students create final 'light performance' as a part of "Anthropology of Light" course (image source).
FAC: You teach a course at Colorado College entitled "The Anthropology of Light". Would you give us a quick crash course?

Alton: The ‘Anthropology of Light’ is a study of the human relationship to light and to color theory throughout recorded history. The course covers the science of light and its current applications; as well as deconstructs our modern language of light and the unconscious symbolism we attribute to it.

When we talk about light, there is a natural transition from physics to anthropology. The five human senses developed independently, evolving as information portals to monitor the surrounding environment. The fourth sensory mutation, sight, provided humans the ability to ingest and decode photon activity and became man’s most powerful connection to the observable universe. It follows logically that many of our religious definitions use the language of light and illumination as metaphor.

Colorado College student experiments in 'Anthropology of Light' .
(image source)
When Prometheus brought us the ability to control fire, he gave man the leisure to develop forms of communication, to pursue philosophy and entertainment. Fire produced warmth in the winter and light at night, resulting in gatherings of people who took the opportunity to create language and to 'entertain' each other.  Yet long before the advent of written language, legends and myths were enacted by firelight.  From ancient Anasazi culture to Nordic peoples, traditions and ceremony were enshrouded by smoke and shadow play. The course examines the sociological development of entertainment through civilization’s emerging sources of light.

FAC: So humans have been harnessing light for entertainment since the days of Promethius. Visual artists are no exception - painters have toiled for centuries attempting to capture the effects of light in their work. Manet wrote, “the principal person in a picture is light”, and Monet stated “For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere (air and light) which gives subjects their true value”.  What are your thoughts on the human effort to capture, or mimic, the effects of light for aesthetic purposes?

Alton: I’m not certain that the aesthetic human effort with light is only to ‘capture or mimic’.  Some are, certainly, with static mediums of imagery such as painting and photography but I believe that we are more fundamentally entwined with light. For example, the first caveman to dig a window into the side of a cave became the first architectural lighting specialist.  Humans are intrinsically drawn to light.  Mediums such as architecture and performance, I would say ‘use’ or ‘acknowledge’ light rather than just ‘mimic’.

FAC: In the 1960’s, California based “Light and Space” artists took on the age-old challenge of capturing the beauty of light, but this time cut right to the chase – they used light as the medium.  What are your thoughts regarding this revolutionary “Light and Space” art movement?

What was observed in the 60’s I believe was a surge in the technologies of the time that gave rise to a zeitgeist of culture, including a proliferation of light medium artists.  I worked closely with ‘The Brotherhood of Light Show’ for many years (Founded in San Francisco, 1967) and one interesting theory Chris Samardizch proposed was specifically that the launch of the Pantone Matching System in
1963 created an explosion of physical color, which in turn informed the cultural revolution of that decade.

So in the 60’s, we have the rise of many great light artists, but the foundations of using light as the medium have been around since before the builders of Stonehenge were mapping giant boulders to the sky.  In 1730, the Jesuit, Father Louis Bertrand Castel, built an Ocular Harpsichord of small colored glass windows attached to specific keys. From the 1920’s-50’s, Thomas Wilfred created dozens of inspired ‘Clavilux’ light organs for performing ‘Lumia’.

FAC: For “Light and Space” artists of the 1960s, the result of using light as a medium was perceptual experience rather than a picture. What type of psychological effects could this type of “light experience” have on a viewer?

Alton: We perceive light and color with the entirety of our being.  A mechanical process of the visual cortex instantly transforms into an emotional, social, and spatial phenomena composed of vivid meaning. At 650 nanometers of wavelength, light is considered red.  However, it is experienced as danger or warmth, revolution or romance, evil or heroism, depending on the context in which it appears.  Creating spaces and experiences for people to explore this context is the fundamental role of the artist.
Student 'light performance' (image source)

4. James Turrell’s installation piece, Trace Elements: Light Into Space, will be on view in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in just a few short days. Westword news wrote, “Trace Elements (is) a light sculpture exuding such visual magnetism that viewers may believe
they’ve died and gone to heaven”. Heavy. Would you share your insights on the connections between life, death, and light?
Alton: No.  [Grin] Just kidding, but like you said, that’s a heavy question. I’m tempted to just quote the first line of the Tao Te Ching and walk away but then I’d feel obliged to punch myself in the face for being an art fink and have to explain the black eye to my wife.  So maybe stream of consciousness instead…
To begin with, I am a huge fan of James Turrell.  His grasp of concepts, study of science, and core understanding of light is evident in all of his works.  His Roden Crater project is breathtaking in scope.

The eye is the only sensory organ that can perceive information far beyond the observer’s immediate experience.  Touch, taste, and smell are immediate sensory responses.  Even sound dissipates and requires atmosphere… but light… light allows us to see not only solar system phenomena, but ancient galactic phenomena that has no immediate consequence to our survival mechanisms.  Light gives us a window into the divine and the constant by which we join it.


James Turrell | Trace Elements: Light into Space
Scott Johnson | Places Apart
July 14 - Sept. 30


C. Payton said...

Fascinating questions and even MORE FASCINATING ANSWERS. This discussion peaked my interest in LIGHT and our Sense of & need for Light even more.

Fine Arts Center said...

Thank you for the comment! Glad to hear you enjoyed this interview. Hopefully you'll be able to visit the FAC and experience this interplay with light while the James Turrell and Scott Johnson exhibitions are up.

POLOBEAR1975 said...

HEY! I went to elementary school with this guy. Glad to see he's doing well.

POLOBEAR1975 said...

Hey! I went to elementary school with Brooks. Glad to see he's going well.