Cultures of Light from Sun to Screen

I offered this intensive graduate summer course in Spring 2015 at Sensorium, Centre for Digital Arts and Technology at York University. It was devoted to thinking about light in relation to our visual cultures and material practices, continuously exploring the relationship between optics and vision. Derrida described light as the “founding metaphor of Western philosophy”; it is the medium that allows us to see, but that also transforms the way that we see by compelling us to develop practices and technologies that extend our vision. This course explored different epistemological and phenomenological dimensions of light and how they have historically shaped our vision, perception, and knowledge, transformed our landscapes, formed our media technologies, and engaged the arts in myriad ways. The analytical framework developed in the course drew upon an interdisciplinary selection of writings from media studies, visual culture, philosophy, science and technology studies, and film and photography.

Throughout the course we investigated light as a medium that is both “pure information,” as McLuhan argued, and invested with numerous other qualities: symbolic, aesthetic, therapeutic. To do so, we first turned to material and representational practices of light in the arts and sciences. This included considerations of optical technologies like photography, cinema, projection, and virtual light, as well as those like telescopes or x-rays that illuminate that which was previously invisible and unknown, transforming our understanding of nature, bodies, and universe. We also engaged with the social and cultural ordering that occurs as we have become increasingly able to produce and control light artificially in ways that reveals and connects our spaces while reshaping our ideas about time and the rhythms of life. Finally we considered what happens when the lights go out, and we encounter darkness, shadows, and the night.

Course Website