[A short text written to accompany an installation I created as part of On Light at the Wellcome Collection this weekend]
In the busy city-centre supermarket they are moving awkwardly down uncomfortably narrow aisles, metal baskets clashing with an echo of mumbled apology, negotiating their way past crates full of unstacked items in search of the end of the checkout queue snaking its way endlessly through the store. The glass-fronted fridge units glow magnolia white, the colour of hospital wards and nightclub toilets. Strip-lit low-energy halogen. The kind of light that never gets switched off.
It is approximately seven minutes past one in the morning and all the lights are about to go out. They will go out with the dull thud of giving up. They will go out all of a sudden. The store, and the street and the city outside will be plunged into darkness. They will be deluged by it. And when this happens I want you to observe the shoppers. Look at the way they place their baskets on the floor and reach their arms out tenderly in front of them, their instinct almost immediately reversed; no longer retreating, now reaching out, seeking some connection, some previously dismissed solidarity with the people and the shelves that were only moments ago nothing more than an impediment. In the darkness we draw everything closer. We draw closer to each other.
It is just after 4pm on August 14 2003 and inside a computer in the control room of the first energy corporation in Akron, Ohio a software bug is about to cause the largest blackout in North American history. 55 million people will be affected in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.
In Manhattan a new powerlessness descends upon the country’s centres of power, from Wall Street to the United Nations. All railway and subway lines into and out of the city are shut down, as are all the airports. Mobile phones have no reception. Without the thousands of lights that normally direct them traffic comes to complete standstill. As the sun starts to set people leave their offices and begin to walk through the hazy warmth of the hot summer’s evening. Deprived of power for their refrigerators and freezers, restaurants cook the food they have and hand it out to anyone who wants it. Impromptu parties break out amongst those stranded on the island. People reach out, they draw each other closer, and in the night sky above them the stars of the milky way are visible against the dark shapes of looming, powerless skyscrapers.
Where were you when the lights went out?
Were you one of those queuing for a payphone? Were you directing traffic? Were you lighting candles? Were you starting fires? Were you helping with the alleged baby boom that was to arrive some nine months later? Were you worried? Were you angry? Were you excited? Were you trapped in an elevator? Or an ATM vestibule? Or a traffic jam? Or a subway car? Were you lost in your own newly unfamiliar neighbourhood? Were you drinking in the park? Were you dancing in the streets? Were you emerging slowly, gingerly from the narrow aisles of an overcrowded supermarket, or were you simply standing staring up at the overwhelmingly starry sky?