Institute of Light

Early Days

One of the first tasks of the institute of light is to open its doors. Potential participants come from a wide range of disciplines: architecture, theatre designers, sculptors, experimental photographers, engineers, physicists, performance artists, philosophers, etc. In leaving their established professions, such candidates need to be reassured that the institute offers a serious forum for their endeavours. Such seriousness is placed in jeopardy by the more enthusiastic free-thinkers likely to come knocking at its doors. For an institute of light is likely to attract those whose interest is in the spiritual domain. The idea of an institute of light promises spiritualists a kind of Christian church which has transcended the spectre of carnal sin.

How might these mystics be dissuaded from seeking entry? One solution is to downplay the philosophical significance of light so that it is approached as a material problem rather than a key to the universe. This requires an attack on the whole history of metaphysics, for which light plays a central role in the understanding of being.

In Plato's eyes, light is the original source of the forms from which the substance of the world emanates. To this conception, Hegel added darkness as a necessary negation in the history of the spirit. And in our own century, Heidegger offered unveiling -- the moment between light and darkness -- as the poesis at the source of being. While such metaphysics makes the institute shine like a beacon that attracts free-thinkers from all corners of the world, its light it too bright for those working within.

The surrealist concept of the `fold' offers a more suitable philosophical ambience for the light practitioners of the institute.* The `fold' asserts a relationship of contiguity between language and image. It transcends the notion that the two are in any simple sense reducible to the other -- that the name of a thing is somewhere at the heart of its image. Seeing and saying are both `monads': light-being and language-being. This kind of philosophy is directly related to a surrealistic practice, evident in Rene Magritte, where the fold of seeing and saying is unravelled, where the relationship between the word and the thing is shown to be arbitrary, and where light-being and language-being reveal forth themselves.

Here is an entry point for writers looking to go beyond the confines of language. As it was for Wittgenstein, believing does not naturally follow from seeing. An influx of radical philosophers into the institute scares away the mystics and offers a secure conceptual base in which artists might operate.

From Strength to Strength

The disappearance of the mystics has cleared the way for diverse and rare practitioners of light to seek entry into the institute. Those working at the reception desk grapple with the problem of deciding which department to direct the diverse range of individuals now arriving at the institute's doorstep: pyrotechnicians, neon artists, solar anthropologists, exterior designers, glass blowers -- all who previously had no venue for their calling. To match this diversity, departments in the institute become increasingly specialised. The Department of Aquatic Light brings under investigation both coruscations and the wave theory of light. The relationship between light and time, with particular regard to the fate-making techniques in architecture such as the Pantheon, is the business of the Department of Luxochronometry. The Department of Contemporary Pyrotechnics exploits innovations in rocketry to develop new spectacles for the heavens. The collective theatre of light events from Haley's comet to the candle in the window is investigated in the Department of Light Dramaturgy. Departments multiply in an explosion of activity -- the institute expands.

The noisiest and most enthusiastic of those crowding the foyer are the holographers. Outside the institute, holographers are forced to ply their trade in carnivals and popular spectacles. The gee-whiz quality of their work attracts the crowds but earns the disdain of serious art viewers. In an age of Aquarius, many holographers embrace this mass appeal, calling themselves `Children of the Light'. There are others, however, who prefer a more official base that offers white coats, seminars, research grants and access to high wattage lasers. These professional holographers experiment with different sources of illumination (sun, moon, stars) and, for the first time, develop abstract holograms, exploiting the interference patterns that arise from coherent light.

While light practitioners are milling around the entry to the institute, an entirely different group is sneaking in through the back door. The institute of light attracts not only those who produce phenomena, but also those who seek to understand and refine the human response to light. This group has no official status in the institute and meets only after hours in a basement room known as the `lucubratory'. Part of their interest concerns the universal features of what is known as the `near-death experience'. Regardless of their culture or personal details, those who have been close to the point of dying often report seeing a light emerging from a long dark tunnel. While many doubt the spiritual significance of this phenomenon, it is held as emblematic of the framing role of light in life's journey. What concerns this backroom group is the intensity that accompanies the love certain people have of light. Traditional psychoanalysts* see this as a kind of perversion: love of light (scopophilia) is a response to the unresolved trauma resulting from the `primal scene' (the witness of parental intercourse). Rather than see scopophilia as a disease afflicting a few warped minds, this group sees the love of light as a widespread phenomenon. If there is a primal scene, they claim, it is more likely to be a late afternoon, following a rainstorm, when a break in the clouds emits a flood of honeyed light onto a sandstone wall. This group encourages a kind of connoisseurship, looking for increasingly rare light events and more subtle apprehensions of light's mysteries. In the rare atmosphere of these late night sessions (the `lucubrations'), some even claim that darkness is simply illumination too intense to be seen.

But nothing lasts forever. One fine day, the institute's accreditation committee expels a young artist who has chosen to explore computer-imaging. The reason: her practice lacks an `optic' base. Department heads become more interested in expanding their power bases than exploring new possibilities. From this point on, disaffection slowly mounts, setting the stage for the reaction against light.

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