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For ages, our mastery of light was measured in how many things we could set on fire. 

If it was dark, we lit a torch, or a candle, or later, switched on a bulb. Still we capture light and shadow in paintings or photographs, or the flicker of a cinema projector. Most of our relationship with light until recently has been how we respond to the absence of it. But of course, light is for way more than keeping us out of the dark. It’s for Daft Punk shows and warehouse parties. It can be therapeutic, and elicit powerful emotion. It’s also the basis of astrophysics and quantum computing. So you could say it’s a versatile fundamental aspect of the universe. 

Digital technology has completely changed our relationship with light. Since we all carry little boxes of light in our pockets, we’re becoming more hands-on with it. Not only are we blogging about the nuances of blue light’s effects on our sleeping patterns, but with products like Philips Hue or IKEA’s Trådfri, we can go from hygge to discothéque with a simple swipe…or split it down the middle and go for "hyggscothéque.” It’s all about balance, bb. 

But any way you slice it, our desire and ability to use light for more than just lighting is becoming ever more present. As Maximo Recio (co-founder of the London based half-lab, half-art collective Another–Space) puts it, "Light shapes the way we perceive our direct environment, which makes it a key tool for artists to create immersive experiences and to challenge our perception. Digital technologies allow us to control light environments in ways previously not possible, but the fundamental approach has always been to enable new perspectives and unusual ways of experiencing the world we inhabit.” 

But maybe all this experimenting is beginning to illuminate a world we’re about to inhabit. 

Now, predicting the future is mostly an exercise of the imagination meats, the results being mostly bonkers (uh, asteroid skyscraper). But influencing the future is exactly what art is for. At their best, artists bring the absurdity of the future into the context of the present to introduce far-out ideas in ways that may not make logical sense, but help prepare us for what’s coming on an emotional, reptilian level. With looming notions of a future involving the singularity and transhumanism, where billions will be spent trying to help humans ditch their meat in favor (?) of a purely data-based existence, there are no shortage of bonkers future visions to play with. And since the texture of our digital life is light, it follows that it’s a material that may be tantalising to artists just now, and there are many working with it.  

Anthony McCall's work, Line Describing A Cone is a good place to start. It was created in 1973, but made a strong appearance in the Whitney’s recently closed Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016. The piece is a radial line projected through space to create the volume of a cone. It’s a bit of a trip to behold: kinda cool and kinda foreboding, it’s an early experiment in augmenting reality that truly feels like another reality.

Then there’s Yayoi Kusama’s universes-in-a-box (video). One…get some lights in a box. Two…put mirrors in that box. Three…snap selfies in the box. That’s the way Ya' do it. You’ve seen it on the ‘grams: a lone figure stands surrounded within an infinite nebula of glowing, undulating rainbow lights. Though the pieces have been around for years, it’s hard not to see them as a projection of our digital lives with endless data streams hovering around us…or maybe Amazon drones. She's a visionary, so…

Refik Anadol’s SXSW 2017 Infinity Room (video) used digital projection mapping in a reflective space to choreograph a light show that projected itself to infinity (mirroring…ahem…Kusama). It also infinitely enhanced all those edibles going around, bro. But in describing his work, Anadol says, "Light is the major element…used to blur and interconnect the boundaries between two realms: actual/fictional and physical/virtual[1].

James Turrell’s works play simply on the mind’s relationship with fields of color, bathing the viewer in light to make the infinite tangible and present. Speaking of the infinite, lines to get into any of a number of Turrell’s exhibitions may be an exercise in spanning light-years. He’s shown at MoMa PS1 and the LA County Museum of Art this past year, all while working on his magnum opus, Roden Crater. Some of his works even produce hallucinations as the brain attempts to make sense of the vastness of a shapeless field of light. No edibles needed. 

Finally, Anila Quayyum Agha’s floating arabesque cubes maybe bring all these ideas together in a series of stunning, otherworldly packages. Her glowing, floating geometric forms throw intricate patterns from a central light source that look like a cross between a Doctor Strange astral projection and an evolved, omnipotent Amazon Echo. Appearing simultaneously ancient and technological, they could easily be described as vessels containing the embers of digital souls. 

Each of these artists and their pieces come from different angles and perspectives, but taken together, they start to build toward the question, "what does it feel like to be digital?” 

This idea might already resonate if you subscribe to the ideas of transhumanismBut if you’re not quite ready to merge your mortal coil with a bank of quantum superconductors, don’t fret, there’s still plenty of new ways to go toward the light. You could say there’s a veritable…spectrum…of options: you can get LED skin therapy, using photons to undo the work of…other photons. Look, it’s complicated. Not for you? What about Chroma Yoga, a new concept in the UK, blending Asana and Turrell to put some color in your chaturanga. But if you want your mind blown, you can read about what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” where “entangled" photons behave identically regardless of where they are across the universe. 

Just like that Beatles song. 

 
The Sniffer Monthly: What being digital smells like. 
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