What do architecture; design, theater, film, art, history, and science have in common? Light. The multi-faceted topic was the focus of discussion during a daylong symposium organized by the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City and held at Parsons the New School for Design. The museum conceived the idea and theme of the event, and then called on Chee Pearlman, of Chee Company, a New York-based editorial and design consultancy, to act as guest director. Pearlman planned an ambitious conference agenda and assembled an impressive group of speakers. "Light can be looked at through so many lenses," she explains. "My challenge was to take it beyond a design conference." And that she did. The day's events--11 principal presentations peppered with one-on-one conversations, film clips, and discussion time--were dynamic and thought provoking.
In examining the subject of light with such diverse and broad strokes, one is made aware of the complexities of light. Juxtaposing scientific discussions, like the talk by theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, with the work of artists such as Chris Levine who use fiber optics, LEDs, and holograms to create spatial environments, or the work of media artist Ben Rubin, who explores light as a form of communication, we are reminded that the perceived gap between the unimaginable and the tangible is really not that far.
Likewise, just when we think we have discovered something new, Mother Nature reminds us she has already figured it out. Dr. David Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute provided a fascinating view of life and light from the depths of our oceans. Organisms have learned how to live two miles below the ocean's surface, relying on bioluminescence and camouflage for their survival. In our light-filled world it is hard to imagine that such a severely dark place could exist, but as art historian Dr. Louis Lippincott discussed in a review of the exhibit she curated entitled, Light! The Industrial Age, 1750-1900, it was not all that long ago, before the advent of affordable, mass-produced electricity, that people lived in a much darker world.
As explained by legendary Broadway lighting designer Jules Fisher, it is light's ability to create drama, atmosphere, and "magic" that give it its transformative properties. In conversation with David Rockwell, the two discussed light's capacity to tell a story, and the challenge for the designer to do so in such a way that light is not visible. "Good lighting in the theater should not be seen," stated Fisher. "The audience should be watching the play." And so it is a similar task for architect Brad Cloepfil as he creates a new home for the Museum of Arts & Design. Spaces throughout the museum must have a luminous quality, but still allow visitors to focus on the art. Horizontal and vertical cuts through the floor slabs and walls allow light to interact with surface, structure, and people.
For Pearlman the measure of success for a conference such as this is if people come away having learned something and asking questions. "Speed of Light" will surely serve as a launching point for many more discussions on the most mercurial of topics--light.