— Cultural Sources of Newness

Hot and bright – conference on ‘light pollution’

In the face of over-illuminated night skies researchers join forces. The conference The Bright Side of Night tackled the issue of so-called light pollution on June 20-21 in the  Leibniz Institute for Regional Development and Structural Planning (IRS) in Erkner, close to Berlin. The event was organised by the interdisciplinary research project Loss of the Night and assembled panelists with research backgrounds in political science, history, economics, law and urban planning in front of a just as diverse audience including also physicists, engineers, ecologists and local citizens. Despite the extreme summer heat discussions were lively and the audience attentive. I take it as an indicator for the quality of the event. (Part I)


Summer outside and hot topics inside the IRS in Erkner. © NSR

Lighting cities involves politics, cultures, economics and histories including path dependencies and traditions. None of these social dimensions was left out. This  conference on Perceptions, Costs and the Governance of Lighting and Light Pollution” started with a bible quote—“And There Was Light”—and ended with economic models for quantifying the value of darkness and the sight of the Milky Way.

It is impossible to do justice to all these perspectives in one blog post. I therefore start at the beginning, with histories and festive traditions of urban lighting as they were presented in the first Panel.

The opening paper was by Jane Brox, the author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. In 20 minutes, she took us to places of the past where houses were locked after dark, curfews were tight and streets were blocked with chains at night to stop circulation. Who was out on the streets after dark was suspicious, unless s/he had a good reason like for instance midwifes or doctors. Especially women risked their good reputation and were associated with prostitution—revealing the exclusionary and stigmatising side of the night. As the ethnologist Beate Binder pointed out later in her commentary, nocturnal practices and semantics thus reveal who belongs to a place and who does not.

The first stationary city lights were installed in the 1600s and oil lamps or candles burned in moonless nights for a few hours only. But as Jane Brox’ detailed account of the following technical developments and surprisingly diverse local practices revealed, it was still a long way until illuminated urban spaces were taken for granted.  “Modern night life”, so the historian, was an invention of the mid-nineteenth century.

As many of the power point presentations revealed, images add to reflections on light and darkness. Susanne Bach’s and Folkert Degenring’s work reveals the potential of literary studies—from Plato to contemporary ‘eco-criticism’. Citing from novels like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or Oscar Wilde’s poems, Degenring nicely illustrated how written language can reveal the social and cultural meaning of light and darkness. In Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, a nobel drawing room is atmospherically lit by candles while a poor family sits under a ‘very bright’ electric light.

Lyon on December 8, the traditional date of the annual light festival. © NSR

Lyon on December 8, the traditional date of the annual light festival. © NSR

Temporary transformative city lights

Equally sensitive to the ambiguities of light and darkness is Tim Edensor’s take on festivals of light. The cultural geographer has studied very different festival formats including the Fête des Lumières in Lyon and traditional celebrations like the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival. Edensor’s ethnographic approach neither merges with traditions of cultural criticism of the spectacle (Debord), nor with idealised praises of cultural events, e.g. as motors of urban regeneration. Rather than categorising the event as a whole, he explores festival experiences: “I could go on for ages on how festivals de-familiarise space”. Yet, “festivals can also generate a deep sense of place”.

I could go on for pages, too. But I will stop here, while the event had still much more to offer:

  1. …and There Was Light (see my conclusion above)
  2. Lighting up the City
  3. The Dark Side of Light: Lighting Conflicts and Regulation
  4. Valuating and Evaluating Light and Darkness
  5. Conclusion: Towards a Brighter Future?

As the following panels and discussions generated equally rich material for further reflections there will be more on the subject on this site in the near future. So watch out for Part II and III…