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Christina Seely: Lux
For millions of years only dramatic shifts in terrain informed the reading of the earth’s surface from space. Now the cumulative light from highly urbanized areas creates a new type of information and understanding of the world that reflects human’s dominance over the planet. Christina Seely's Lux, titled after the system unit for measuring illumination, presents photographic portraits of cities within the most brightly illuminated regions on the NASA map of the night earth. This project is inspired by the disconnect between the immense beauty produced by human-made light and the complexity of what this light represents. Lux, focuses on cities in the United States, Western Europe and Japan. These economically and politically powerful regions not only have the greatest impact on the night sky but this brightness reflects a dominant cumulative impact on the planet. Collectively they emit approximately 45% of the world's CO2 and (along with China) act as the top consumers of electricity, energy and resources. In order to suggest the interchangeability of urbanization and the unilateral impact of these cities on the global environment each photographed location in the series, is indicated by the central latitude and longitude of the depicted city and is simply titled Metropolis. For most of human history, light has signified hope and progress. In Christina's project, light also paradoxically denotes regression or transgression -- an index of the complex negative human impacts on the health and future of the planet.
Interview by Joshua Berger
JB: How did you get started on the Lux project?
CS: A few years ago I rediscovered the NASA map of the world at night and I kept coming back to it over and over again. I was captivated by the beauty of the light on the map and also the complexity of what this light represents about us. It visually dominates the map with it's intense contrast to the darkness of the land and water, and also looks a lot like bacteria spreading. I also really like the relationship of light as both information on the map and information building on a negative so decided I wanted to do a project about this light. Three regions on the map are noticeably brighter than the rest and so I became curious about what this cumulative light signifies. It's not surprising these regions; the US, Western Europe and Japan, are the wealthiest and most powerful regions in the world (though that is now shifting a bit with the current state of the economy and China's major boom) and they use something like 2/3 of the world's resources and create around 45% of the world's CO2. I thus decided to photograph the brightest cities in these three regions.
Though these statistics lead to the conclusion that this light obviously equals an intensely negative impact on the planet, since it's inception man made light has also represented; ingenuity and progress, innovation, growth, prosperity, amusement, romance, optimism and promise – basically fundamentally positive and hopeful things. My real interest lies in this complexity and what it reflects about our current relationship with the planet.
So, part of the point of creating the images is to draw attention to the unsustainable level of human impact by industrialized nations on the world's resources. This raises an interesting dichotomy, one that maybe goes back to what you are saying about light equating to progress and promise. The images seem hopeful to me—with 'Birmingham' for example—I can put myself on the bench and marvel at the world, albeit the world created by human enterprise. Can you talk more about this? Do you feel hope when you make these images?
That is an interesting question. While part of the point is definitely to use light pollution as a metaphor for our own broader excess I think I do feel hope when making this work, hope that in 20-50 years the light in these images will resonate differently. If we can pull it together it can reflect a softer and more symbiotic relationship with the planet.
As the sun and moon have been our guiding life forces throughout our evolution, we as humans are naturally drawn to light whatever it's source. I love this quote about the early introduction of the arc lamp to a small US town:
"People stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the super natural. The strange weird light exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday… Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement."
I can relate to this as the images in Lux are made out of a true revery for the power and visual beauty of human made light. It's impossible not to be somewhat seduced and light has always had a relationship with hope.
As the Pictoralists used dramatic lighting to overemphasize the sublime in nature, Lux falls in line with a somewhat inverse message. Man is not so insignificant in these images but a powerful adversary blocking out and blinding the natural. In a way this work shows not only our genius but how we have forgotten our place. The bottom line is that when the sun comes up there is no competition. The hope in this work is that we can learn to remember this.
Thinking of your ingenuity comment—and the idea of light as information—reminds me of a map of a graphic mapping of the Internet I saw a while back. There are some interesting parallels with Lux… my guess would be that the higher concentrations of light / activity dovetail with the higher energy regions you are mapping...
There was a show at MOMA last year called Design and the Elastic Mind that included the Internet map and all kinds of other amazing maps. I remember realizing that the light build up on the Internet map must represent major urban centers and I tried to relate it to a map of the world based on major cities. I'm certain there is a lot of overlap with Lux cities. My favorite map in the show was an animation that tracked the trails of all flights moving around the US over a 24 hours period. It's gorgeous and startling. I am fundamentally drawn to the complexity of that kind of beauty as well as to the idea that information can translate into something beautiful or sublime which may in turn help to increase it's resonance.
That is a great example of human movement observed. I can't help thinking that amount of air travel must have a severe impact on the earth's environment. Though that's not really the primary thing I get from watching Aaron Koblin's piece. It is consuming because of its beauty, its ability to challenge our capacity for retention, and to marvel at what we are part of. In a way it equates with what you said earlier about forgetting our place. We can converse with another person halfway around the world in an instant. We can physically move ourselves like no humans before. There are so many currents crossing. The momentum seems beyond our ability to even comprehend. I think that is one of the reasons I am drawn to the Lux images, they are so peaceful, static almost, in spite of the activity they document.
An aside, Bruce Mau / Institute Without Boundaries covered some territory in this area as well.
I love the context you put Lux into in terms of it's relationship to the buzz and intensity of the world that is reflected in Koblin's map. The peacefulness in the Lux images is ironic when we pick apart the truth of what we are looking at. I love that contradiction. As I've photographed for this project, each city actually reminds me of home as I tend to shoot from the same distance I viewed San Francisco growing up across the bay in Berkeley. At the same time the experience inevitably connects me to a more international consciousness and I'd like the work to perpetuate the development of our global view of cities and their power. We need to start thinking about our relationship to both home and away, to each other and think about what cities mean both as singular entities and as a network of highly impactive systems.
It's great that you brought up Massive Change because I am also a principal member of Civil Twilght, a design collective. We won Metropolis Magazine's Next Generation competition in 2007 with a proposal for Lunar Resonant Streetlights—lights that dim and brighten in correlation with the light of the moon allowing the city to use more moonlight and reduce light pollution. The project has gotten a lot of press and interest and was a finalist in the competition Lighting Africa that the World Bank recently put together as well as a finalist for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge last Spring which were both exciting.
Through working on this project I've been exposed to all kinds of innovative design from ID to architecture that gives me a great deal of hope about our ability and potential to change our relationship to the planet. It's been inspiring and I really do believe the new green economy, if allowed by those in power, could be revolutionary. I sincerely hope that both Lux and the streetlights can be a part of instilling hope and inspiring change for the better.
The streetlight project seems really smart. I like that it is also about light. Did the project come out of Lux in some way? This is maybe a bit off our original subject, but how did you as a photographer end up involved in a design collective? How does your collective work? What is your role?
I got involved with the streetlights while I was getting going on Lux. My friend Anton Willis, who is an architect and designer, came up with the streetlight idea and wanted to join together with our friend, Kate Lydon (an architect with graphic design skills), to submit a proposal as a collective, thus we formed Civil Twilight. We are all very idea oriented from each of our creative factions so it was a fluid union. The proposal was more conceptually focused. We present the Streetlights in relationship to rethinking the design of what is already established and functioning in a city and focus on the power to draw in the public in a more poetic way. Instead of encouraging a sense of guilt as a drive for change, the idea is to inspire the public to reconnect with nature and it's cycles and thus to rethink their relationship to these things from within a city. A real strength of the idea is that the project shows that there are ways to connect city life to the natural world. Maybe if we are more aware of the world beyond the city, we can make better choices from within. As an artist it has been fantastic to work on a project that is addressing issues I deal with in my photographic work in a tangible way in the world, and even better that the concept reinforces the complex reverence for both nature and light I aim to inspire through the Lux photographs.
The collective is set up so we mostly work on everything together. We meet once a week and get new homework every round. Recently Anton quit his job so he can focus completely on the project for a while and we've raised some money to help him do so. Both Kate and I have full time jobs so we follow his lead and help with whatever needs to get done. We are working with Dustin Kram, an exceptional engineer, to perfect the prototype and have also recently recruited a programmer to work with him on getting our sensor where we want it. Basically we are starting a business. There are so many details that go into making this happen so certain aspects of the work naturally gets doled out depending on our expertise, but otherwise we distribute the rest among us. It's not very glamorous work for the most part but we are all dedicated to the streetlights existing in the world and to getting them out there in a way we are happy with. We are definitely learning a lot along the way. Along with the history of man made lighting, I've inevitably ended up learning some pretty off hand things, from what solar garden lights are mass marketed at Target and Home Depot, to the types of bulbs used in cities across the world, to the complexity of how utilities systems in municipalities are set up. It's very different from making a series of photographs but I suspect down the road it might easily inform future photographic work and it's been fascinating all around.
Can you talk a bit about your process? I am curious how you choose a location in each city? How long do you spend there?
My process for shooting in each location starts with research about the geography of each metropolis in relationship to the underlying and surrounding landscape. I aim to include the intersection of the land or nature, and the city and if possible shoot from a distance that offers the feeling of a "portrait" of each subject in the final image. My research includes Internet searches for city viewpoints and a deciphering of these viewpoint locations by looking at maps and through exploring the area in Google Earth.
I acquire a contact through institutions I have attended, or worked for as a professor, and through friends and family in each city. I give a description and examples of the general viewpoint(s) I would prefer and ask the contact to scout out several options before I arrive. I tend to stay in each city for 2-3 nights as the exposure times for each shoot take between 1- 4 hours depending on my proximity to the light source. A self made rule is that I never shoot alone. I photograph using a 4x5 field camera with a lightweight sturdy tripod that together fold up to fit into a backpack I can easily carry to sometimes-tricky locations and Iusually end up with no more that 3 negatives to decide from.
It's a very methodical process and each image inevitably has a story behind it. It's been an unusual and amazing way to experience these cities. For the most part I end up sitting in some kind of quiet natural setting for a few hours in the dark staring out over some of the largest cities in the world.
More information at www.christinaseely.com