In Conversation with… Jo Joelson
To celebrate the publication of Jo Joelson's Library of Light, Alexander Harris thought it would be more than appropriate to begin Lund Humphries' new In Conversation series with an in-depth discussion with the artist, writer and interviewer about some of the ideas that informed the writing of her astonishing sui generis book.
- What was the initial spark (forgive the pun) that made you want to write this book?
I wanted to find a way to celebrate the cultural history of light in all its diversity. I had an idea to construct a ‘library of light’, whether physical or purely conceptual, including work by artists, designers, curators, writers, poets….an uncategorisable collection of material and ephemeral practices of light. The beauty of libraries is that they represent a democratic space, a place to house universal knowledge without preferencing one kind of knowledge over another. Having started work on this concept, a book seemed to be the right vessel to bring together all the interviews, conversations, texts and images – a compendium.
- In your first Instagram post for @libraryoflight you refer to ‘Thinking through light’. Could you unpack this idea, as it seems to function as an underlying framework for the book? How has it informed the way you have written Library of Light?
In making the book and researching light as a creative medium, I found I was constantly ‘thinking through light’ – immersed in this complex, multifarious subject, all its diverse uses, the practical and the symbolic, the spatial and temporal insights light enables. This exploratory process opened the medium to a new social and political critique. It meant considering light as a cultural and philosophical resource, a tool for social change even, supporting the possibility that light itself may be a kind of language. Dialogue became a form for engaging with the many hybrid practices and I found myself moving away from the familiar, instead taking unexpected side roads to focus on transition between disciplines or media and to discover the historical roots of these practices.
- The book is structured around four thematic essays: Political Light, Mediating Light, Performance Light and Absent Light. What drew you to these themes as a way of organising the project? And why do you think this organisation is fruitful?
Initially I found the idea of categorization unproductive, I wasn’t keen to pigeon hole artists which is why a ‘library’ seemed to be a useful framework– an open structure representing a physical and philosophical space to frame light in significant ways. Unlike light, itself predictable in its behavior, the various practices of light are less so, often performative, and in flux over time. Perhaps because of this, the documentation and categorisation of creative practices that involve light are inconsistent, with few collections dedicated to the medium.
I wanted the book to include some of the pioneers who were experimenting with light in the 1960’s when it became a recognised art form and to trace the processes, thinking and technologies and the way they’ve evolved and influenced new generations. I began to look for ways to organize this research.
Political Light became the subject of the first chapter and was inspired by a conversation with New York artist and curator Jon Hendricks, considering political and provocative uses of primal light and mechanical light – from fire to projected light. I had conversations with other artists including Manu Luksch who pointed me to an article through which I discovered the Washington D.C based artist and activist Robin Bell. His work connects to Jenny Holzer’s collision of light and language to create ‘social psychological portraits of our time’, the use of projection for political aims…these kind of conversations were meaningful and opened up new areas for research. I found and followed all these connecting points between artists, designers and their practices and the ball was rolling.
The second chapter Mediating Light explores artists and designers working with a variety of media and techniques including Solar, Holography and Virtual Reality and the challenges new technologies bring to contemporary art, architecture and light in the public realm. Within this chapter are interviews with: Susan Hiller, her work operating beyond the limits of visual perception, asking us to tune into the unfamiliar and unexplainable; Katie Paterson who collaborates with scientists and researchers to realise her poetic and philosophical concepts – engagements with the natural environment and the distant edges of the cosmos; and Rana Begum who creates sculptural works that destabilize what we think we know about colour and form through their interaction with natural light.
Having worked with light in performance contexts I wanted to include light and lighting used in music and performance so developed a chapter Performance Light and a sub-heading The Electric Drama which looks back at the light show movement of the 60’s and the 70’s, and its influence on designers such as Andi Watson, stage and lighting designer for the band Radiohead. Within the performance category are included performance groups of the 1980’s such as the Bow Gamelan Ensemble and Test Dept as well as some of the foremost lighting artists working in theatre and dance such as Paule Constable, Rick Fisher and Michael Hulls. Within this section is an interview with artist Chris Levine who works across music, performance, fashion and design with lasers, holographic and photographic techniques, and Jason Bruges who creates performative and interactive works exploring spectacle, time-based interventions and site specific experiences. The section Absent Light felt like the necessary ending to a book about light, challenging the common thinking and binary perception between dark/evil and light/good that still persists in common thinking and darkness as a companion of art and artists.
- Ranging from fine art, music, theatre, film, performance, architecture and more, this book is a celebration of the infinitely diverse ways in which practitioners have used light in their work. To try and identify a unifying thread therefore seems counter-intuitive, but do you think there is something specific about the way light is used that unifies the seemingly disparate list of artists featured in this book?
Overall the book focuses on hybrid practices, engaging with light as a cultural and philosophical resource. I guess it is no surprise that one of the connecting ideas is the human relationship to light which is discussed as both material and ephemeral. Many engage with narratives that light can evoke and underlying that is an exploration of the human condition in all its complexities.
Whether light is used to create spectacle, as a medium to entertain, to create immersive environments, is contemplative or functional, light can activate subtle emotion or completely overwhelm the senses. Each practice and response is unique, sometimes experimental and completely abstract and over a career there might be shifts in aesthetic sensibility and so it remains impossible to generalize.
- Given that light itself is perhaps the sole element that unites the work of those featured in the book, can you pinpoint why you think it (light) has been chosen as the preferred medium for creative expression by such a wide range of creators? What does holographic art offer specifically that other forms do not?
As a medium light is fascinating because it is so complex and whilst it can be precisely orchestrated it still has the power to exhibit surprising behaviours. Light is an amorphous entity that can be shaped and controlled but it resists complete human management in so many ways. It is a great medium for experimentation and can change a space and dynamic almost effortlessly. It is increasingly used as an active substance in both cultural and public space and artists are becoming more aware of the role light plays within politicised and controlled spaces, both a subject for concern and re-definition. It is a medium that can require vast amounts of power and so implementing a resource consciousness through design is a critical part of the conversation.
There is so much to say about the medium of Holography – and yet it is under represented as an art form. Holography was popularized through the Light Fantastic exhibitions at the Royal Academy in 1977 and 1978 and at the time it was considered to be a ‘medium of the future’, a technological medium imbued with a utopian vision.Holography is unique in that it can capture a slice of time in 3D, storing the optical information of a 3D object in a 2D plane. With holography we are kept on the outside looking in, whereas in another kind of simulation such as VR there is an attempt to become immersed within a rendered environment. In the book there is an interview with the artists Wenyon & Gamble who have pioneered and mastered holography as a fine art medium over more than 3 decades, extending the perceptual possibilities by combining it with other photographic techniques. Andrew Pepper whose work with holography since the early 1990’s is included as another great example of an artist bringing holography into the domain of contemporary art.
- The work of artist/activist Robin Bell aims to ‘illuminate struggles’ and is explicitly political in nature. Whilst Bell’s light stands in for a liberal progressivism marooned in a Trumpian darkness, do you think darkness is always negative, something to be resisted? Or are there creative possibilities hidden in this apparent conflict? If so, are there artists that engage with this idea in their work?
“Marooned in a Trumpian darkness” is such a great description, and yes Robin Bell has been absolutely committed to calling out this darkness through his political light projections in Washington DC.
Darkness in the broader sense is such an essential aspect of humans, a very necessary contrast and measure of what we understand as light. Darkness as a concept within us is often framed negatively, as the great unknown. In the book I write about the invasion into our dark interiors through mechanical means, such as x-rays and what this can possibly mean…without instrumentation our insides are completely mysterious, we rarely have a reason or opportunity to zone in. There are a number of artists in the book whose work attends to moments of darkness or dark experience, Rafael Lozano- Hemmer’s work Voz Alta, for example, a memorial to the student massacre at Tiateloco in 1968; or Liliane Lijn’s project Crossing Mapfor which she had “to learn how to visualize darkness, not just the absence of light but human darkness”, or Manu Luksch whose film Faceless, explored surveillance, the encoded, captured light of her own image recorded through CCTV. The entire world of performance relies on darkness to construct light images, build sensory environments and pull focus for the audience. Lighting designer Paule Constable reinforces the importance of darkness as necessary to support the image-making process on stage, a space for images to breathe, images which the audience can dive into: “We don’t need to assault the senses all the time.” Choreographer Russell Maliphant speaks of countering what we see in society, the constant leaning towards exposure. “Allowing someone to see something differently is often about not showing it in an overexposed way, but to bring it down, you can get kind of drawn in; there’s some mystery in that”.
- The Russian Formalists thought that poetry could act as form of linguistic defamiliarisation – whereby we recognize language’s innate qualities when it is deliberately alienated from its everyday social function. Do you think something similar is taking place with the way artists challenge and disrupt traditional notions of an image’s social function?
I think that is a particularly interesting observation about language.
In terms of disrupting the social function of images, possibly Jenny Holzer provides a defining and lasting example of this – her ‘truisms’ posted onto the large electric Spectacolour light board in Times Square, ordinarily used for advertising propaganda, completely transformed its context. Or the more recent example of re-messaging of public space by Robin Bell projecting his guerilla statements and comments to bring a sense of humour and hope to current political issues. Or Katie Paterson’s Ancient Darkness, in which an image of darkness was transmitted from the furthest point of the observed universe for one minute on New York TV, this poetic act causing people to think the transmission signal was down, that something was wrong, the ultimate malfunction.
- Collaboration appears to be a central element both of your own work as an artist, and those who make up the impressive list of interviewees. Why do you think that is the case?
Light is often used in conjunction with other media and requires expertise to control and sculpt it. This naturally leads to co-working and collaboration. More broadly speaking though, there is a real joy as well as certain challenges involved in the collaborative process, expanding your own vision, knowledge and patterns of working by joining with others, not to mention the value of teamwork in developing a healthier conscience, supporting ideas about how humans can live more respectfully and harmoniously alongside the natural world.
- In your interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, it is suggested that ‘the Latin American tradition of light is unexplored and more people need to know about it.’ This seems to be largely reflective of the experience of artists working in the global south more generally. Is there an artist working with light outside of a western context that you feel isn’t as recognized as they ought to be?
I would have to mention the Chilean artist Iván Navarro (whose work I first came across in Light Show at the Hayward Gallery) and who’s politically charged work with light is not at all unrecognized but is less well known than the major Latin American artists, Carlos Cruz-Diez and Julio Le Parc, who played a key role in the development of installation art and who paralleled developments in the Light and Space movement in the 60s and 70s. Through his work and thinking Navarro demonstrates how light (as a language) can be transformed according to social and political contexts – a reference to his experience growing up under the dictatorship in Chile and the way that Minimalism was used to communicate political ideas in Latin America.
- Without asking you to name a favourite practitioner from the book, are there any works that you find yourself particularly drawn to? If so, for what reason?
And that would be an impossibility! So some works highlighted below reflect a few current thoughts and if asked tomorrow they all might be different.
Firstly, I am drawn to Yoko Ono’s Lighting Piece (1955), one of her earliest ‘instructions’. Lighting Piece focuses the mind whilst evoking a more destructive or mortal comparison, I think of this duality as productive. There is a freedom and permission in Ono’s ‘instruction’ pieces, they are as simple or as complex as the imagination allows and I love that. Mark Titchner’s The Only Language is Light uses light to dissemble reality, a direct reference to Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine and his idea that language is inseparable from the material of the universe. Titchner’s projection for Blackpool What Use Is Life Without Progress? references Blackpool’s borough motto “Progress”, as well as reflecting on a kind of governmental message for citizens to strive for improvement, another great example of his sociopolitical works.
Anthony McCall’s ‘Solid Light’ works attract me on many levels, their genesis from McCall’s experimental film days, the minimalist aesthetic and the pure form of escapism for that moment of stepping into a beam of light and almost vanishing, dissolving into the hazy, silent, cinematic world. McCall’s naming of his works referring to the corporeal, Meeting You Halfway, You and I, Coupling,speak of a certain intimacy, ambiguity and perplexity that exists between humans and our relationship to matter. Light as a subject rather than its manifestation within art as a physical medium is evoked in a number of works including Katie Paterson’s The History of Darkness, a slide collection cataloguing space and time, a conceptually brilliant idea. The feminist aspect of light and darkness has been explored through the work of Liliane Lijn who over a number of decades has pioneered a cross-disciplinary approach incorporating science, technology, eastern mythology and female mythology. And of course there are many others who I should mention, Haroon Mirza, Laura Buckley, Chris Levine, who in uniquely different ways challenge the material, the spiritual, the spatial…the magical trickery of light.
- You said in your introduction there are some omissions, who do you regret not interviewing?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have interviewed all those that make up the book, however for the sake of gender balance and because there was more material than could have been accommodated in one volume some of the interviews could not be included in their entirety, only extracts.
I wished I could have interviewed the artist Nancy Holt before she died. Mary Corse, Jenny Holzer, Brigitte Kowanz, Iván Navarro are just some of the artists I would have liked to have included in the book and so the list continues!
- Besides promoting this book, are there any similar projects you are going to be working on in the near future?
I’m continuing my researches and writing, culminating in the completion of a doctorate at the end of this year, and current ideas are also coming together as short films – at the moment I am working on some ideas around materiality, specifically concrete / concreteness.And because they are somewhat overlooked in this volume, non-western light practice and the geographic specificity of light, are areas I’m working with.
175 colour illustrations
UK customers can order the book here
North American customers can order the book here