Modernist Lighting

17/12/14 - An essay exploring the relationship between LEDs and the Modernist Art movement.

Lighting as a discipline has traditionally been subject to the influence of a variety of external factors outside of its own. The most significant of which is that lighting has been driven in form and function by the inherent constraints of its light source - victim to a seemingly endless number of structural archetypes, only reimagined by the application of its creator. Other factors including architectural requirements, sculptural aesthetics, and decorative implementation have constrained the field to serve a secondary purpose other than its own. Historically, lighting has existed first as a structure as opposed to a pure form of its own medium.

The advent of LED technology has managed to radically change all this however, allowing the historically impossible to be manifested, and significantly broaden the spectrum of what is considered a lighting fixture. Designers are now constrained only by their imagination, and subsequently the goals of the projects stakeholders. This has been hailed by many as a grand opportunity to push, destroy, and rebuild the field of lighting, and of course it is, however it also serves as a chance to greatly simplify and reshape the field of lighting.

The discipline of lighting has the emission of light as its medium. As paint is to painting, or stone to sculpture, lighting designers craft and shape the production of light. When this expression finds coincident with functionality, successful lighting is created. Light is a highly unique medium - its inherent structureless form is only perceived relative to its relationship with the physical world. It offers performance without substantial form, a critical existence we experience daily though usually without conscious perception. It is this unconscious perception that can be harnessed to create a new direction for the industry.

The underlying goal of a lighting fixture is to illuminate a designated space - to facilitate vision and to emotionally shape an environment. This is the principle goal of all lighting, and with the endless potential of LEDs this field can now dramatically narrow its focus and remove all the traditional archetypes that have driven the industry for decades. Now lighting can get closer to existing solely within the bounds of its own medium.

A similar phenomenon was seen in the artworld with the rise of abstract expressionist painting in the middle of the twentieth century. Although this movement was not brought about by the implementation of new technology, it was spurred by a shift in production and criticism. Artists like Pollock and Newman redefined the discipline by utilizing only that which existed inherently in the medium itself, and in doing so forged a revolutionary movement in art. This newfound direction was rooted formally in the dissolution of the picture plane, utilizing the inherent nature of paint, and above all else, a self critical approach in its criticism.

Clement Greenberg, arguably the most notable and prolific art critic during this period, described this approach as "to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might be conceivably borrowed from or by the medium of any other art. Thus would each art be rendered "pure," and in its "purity" find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence"1

For lighting, this would equate to existing strictly in the bounds of its own discipline, free of physical form and solely as a means of illuminating a given environment. Placing performance and production as its principle objective and removing all external elements that shaped the discipline historically.

The driving force of this shift lies within the vast and seemingly endless possibility of LEDs. Almost negligible in their physical size and with the ability to be mounted in any configuration, the creative possibilities using LEDs are infinite. This potential coupled with an incredible level of performance, colour rendering, and efficiency means not only is the avant-garde possible, but lighting's principle goal of illuminating an environment can be achieved in a manner far superior to that which has come before. With the market price of this technology now at a stage of common adoption, it means this capacity is now a standard in the industry. And looking even farther forward, the potential of OLED technology offers an even greater opportunity to purify the medium.

LEDs present a crisis in the lighting industry - a good problem. They represent a dramatic shift in how the discipline is perceived and designed. Herbert Read, another Modern Art critic of the 20th century, states that the designer "resolves the crisis by a leap forward into a new and original state of sensibility - he revolts against the existing conventions in order to create a new convention more in accordance with a contemporary consciousness."2 This can be understood in terms of lighting as a movement towards originality in the medium - the pursuit of the new and unseen in response to the contemporary technological opporunities.

Retrofitted LED fixtures deviate from this proposed theory. A lighting fixture that has existed with a traditional light source, but has now been redesigned to include a LED light source disregards the great design affordances of LEDs. Of course, this is a necessary undertaking to respond to the markets traditional understanding and demand as it improves an existing fixtures performance and efficiency, but ultimately it marginalizes the progression of the discipline.

With the advent of LED technology lighting can now become far more self-critical - fixtures can be evaluated with a greater adherence to their successful completion of their principal goal of effectively lighting a space, instead of of first being considered as beautiful objects. The medium can now be subject only to pertinent critique within its self defined bounds.

This theory is by no means a statement towards the abolition of decorative lighting fixtures, ultimately towards a hyper minimal performance driven scope of the profession. It is the suggestion that a new perspective and direction of the lighting is now possible - one that is free of its historical constraints, allowing lighting the ability to exist as its own entity.

1 Greenberg, C. and O'Brian, J. (1995). The collected essays and criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pg 86
2 Read, H. (1955). The philosophy of modern art. New York: Meridian Books.