Lights on for Corona!?

Lights on for Corona!?

We are living in dark times. Let’s be honest, this year did not start well. Bush fires in Australia, war-mongering in the Middle East. Then we received news about a virus in China, which now holds the entire world in its grasp. So on top of all the other worries we’ve been having, another, very immediate threat has entered our life. No wonder that we need to be cheered up.

Some see an easy solution: dark thoughts can be chased away by bright light! So right now seems to be the best moment for acknowledged and self-proclaimed light artists to install light shows.

Note: Due to copyright issues I’m unfortunately not able to show you pictures of the istallations I’m talking about. Please follow the links to see for yourself.

Some of these events have a history, like Savage Beauty, an installation by finnish light artist Kari Kola in Connemara. It was planned to be part of Galway 2020 and was scheduled to lighten up five kilometers of Irish coast line and hills with 10.000 lights between March 14 and 17. But due to Covid-19, the installation had to go along without live audience. It is fully understandable that the artist was disappointed, but there was a solution: the event was videotaped and can be watched online. These lights over Connemara can bring comfort to people in their homes whenever they need it.

And yes, Savage Beauty is an impressive event. It takes place on a cloudy night, so the lights paint a magical glow into the sky. But despite all its beauty, Savage Beauty does not meet its original goal: it was planned to raise awareness for climate change and preservation. It is rather questionable of illuminating five kilometers of coastline is the right way to do this. For human eyes, these lights have been visible from 50 kilometers afar, so just imagine how much wildlife has been disturbed by them, especially in an ecological sensitive area like a coast region.

The good thing about Savage Beauty is that it lasted only a few nights. The peak of Matterhorn is bathed in brilliant light for much longer. The artist Gerry Hofstetter projects flags of countries battling the corona virus on the face of the mountain to show solidarity with all people who suffer from Covid-19 and to thank those who fight in this crisis. The installation is streamed by webcam to show it to people in their homes.

No question, the idea behind this is beautiful. Sometimes the word hope is written on the mountain, in different languages. It’s seen as a sign that we are in this all together. Unfortunately, from an ecological point of few, there is lots of harm in this. These mountain ranges are home to many species, several of them endangered. Additonally, the light beams spill much further than Matterhorn and therefore lighten up the night sky in a vast area.

Mountain Wilderness Schweiz is not amused out the event. On Facebook, the organisation posted:

“In unseren Augen ist diese Inszenierung vor allem ein unangebrachter Marketing-Stunt. Berge brauchen keine Geschmacksverstärker – auch ohne Beleuchtung wirken sie auf viele Menschen beruhigend und sind Symbole von Stabilität und Beständigkeit.”

Mountain Wilderness Schweiz

“In our opinion, this production is an inappropriate marketing-stunt. Mountains don’t need taste enhancers – even without illumination they bring calmness to people and are symbols of stability and consistency.”

Mountain Wilderness Schweiz is generally against the illumination of mountains and asks to protect natural nocturnal darkness in any situation.

Light installations that show solidarity are also present in cities, for example in Osnabrück. Here, a laser show lights up a building’s facade and asks people to stay at home. Other cities illuminate buildings and trees with the same intention. Alll this cities want to give courage to the people.

One thing is without question: Right now, we need things that brighten up our minds. And there are great ideas out there. Tenors who sing on their balconies, videos showing dancers from the Opera Nationale de Paris performing in their homes, DJs who stream a club-session free of charge, children placing painted stone at certain places of putting rainbow pictures into their windows. Many beautiful small things that bring a smile on our faces. And this little bit of unity, of cheering up each other, is immensily valuable in these times. Some of these things do not thrill me, because they are not my form of art, but who cares, because they don’t harm anybody. If you don’t like them, ignore them.

Light installations are a different matter, because they actually cause harm. This crisis we all go through right now must not be a reason to put more strain on nature than neccessary. Light installations do not belong into nature, especially not if you can see them from a big distance. Keep in mind that many animals are much more light-sensitive than humans. We should alse be careful inside cities. Right now, millions of birds are migrating and illuminated facades or mountain tops are a death trap for them. Light can also harm another species, one that right now needs lot of help: us humans. Many people feel disturbed in their sleep by light installations, and sleep is one of the best weapons right now to help in fighting an infection. In times like these we should rather keep our nights darker to make sure that people get more and better sleep.

For projects like Matterhorn, there is a minimun of care that should be applied for the enviroment: the Gobo-system. Gobo-projectors use frames to restrict the light on the projection area and prevent light spill. This way the impact on sky brightness and light trespass is reduced. Gobo-technology is used on many buildings by now without diminishing the appearance of the installation. If you do an eclologically critical project like this, using Gobo-projectors should be self-evident. Then again, somebody who understands the ecological consequences of an installation like this would not have the idea to illuminated a mountain top with projectors in the first place. They would find other ways.

Despite all our worries about Corona we must not forget the other environmental issues we are facing. They haven’t disappeared, they will still accompany us through the next years, and when this is over, they might be even bigger. Some governments use their chance now to ignore environmental laws or invalidate them. Scientists from different dsiciplines, for example the German Leopoldina, have called for sustainable economy at the end of this crisis. Many believe that the Corona-crisis could be our chance for fundamental changes in many aspects of life. Why wait until this crisis is over? Why don’t we start now to use light in a more sustainable, more environmentally-aware, less harmful way?

Nonetheless, we don’t need to live entirely without light installations. A light in the darkness has always been a symbol of hope, and hope is essential to stay well and healthy. In the past, many light artists have shown that light installation can touch people deeply if you use only a small amount of light.

Probably the most amazing light installation I have ever seen was Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers. It was created by designer Tom Piper and and music artist Mira Calix to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I: 10,000 candles burning in front of the Tower of London. These pictures have been with me for two years now. For me, each single candle represents one life, fragile and easily extinguished. Together, all these lights brighten up the darkness and give hope. We are many, we are in unison, and together we can withstand the darkest moments of humankind.

Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers, November 2018
Andrew Davidson at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Corona-crisis is not the same as the horrors of the World Wars and by far not as dark. Many see a chance for themselves to stop for a while and rethink their routines. They read books, learn new languages, or simply try to find out what really matters in their lifes. Other face the daily fight for survival in a restricted situation. They are caught between home-office, child care, trying desperately to pay bills, or the fear to get infected. Maybe, instead of opting for bright and sparkling lights, we should slow down in light art too. This would suit those who use these times to relax and rethink, and it would bring some peace and quiet into the lifes of those who are overwhelmed by too much stress every day. It would be helpful for one party in any case: nature would win from less light pollution.

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