Non In LuceInstallation, Interactive
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 beginning 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 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 first 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.
Non In Luce was an installation about electric light. Over the course of a weekend visitors to the Wellcome Collection were asked to help build a city in complete darkness from over six thousand black Lego bricks. Invited into a small room somewhere in the bowels of the museum, people had to feel their way tentatively across the floor to a map in the centre of the room, seeking out an appropriate spot for the building that was to be their contribution to this ever-growing miniature city, attempting not to trample on other earlier parts of the city as they did so. Every fifteen minutes a camera flash would briefly illuminate the room and the city. These photographs also form the only documentation of the event.
The city grew in fits and starts. It changed shape regularly as buildings were added and others were crushed underfoot. The outlying buildings were always the first to go, accidentally toppled as people crawled on their hands and knees towards the centre of the installation. Slowly and delicately something resembling the discordant messiness of an actual city started to emerge. A skyline of towers and spires; some elegant, others distinctly less so. By the end of the weekend, the black outline of buildings swept across the white floor in a pronounced curve that almost, from the right angle, could be mistaken for the long tongue of Manhattan.
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.
Non In Luce was an installation about power, inspired by a short passage from Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful book A Paradise Built in Hell in which she uses electric light as a metaphor the hierarchies and institutions that maintain and constrain our modern lives. Stripped, even just temporarily, of such comforting support we are required to resort to more instinctive strategies of collaboration, generosity and collective care.
I wanted to create a space in which people were asked to perform a simple activity in a darkness which rendered that activity no longer simple, that instead required them to think differently and to relate differently to each other. I hoped that the symbolic task of ‘building a city’ might invite people to consider these improvised modes of collaboration within the wider context of the cities they lived in and the lives they lived in them. I am interested in the idea that doing can be a form of thinking – that the collective shuffling, negotiating, giggling, crushing and building that constituted people’s experience of this project might be a way of figuring something out using our bodies rather than words.
People reacted very differently to encountering this space. Some took enormous care as they picked their way across the floor. Some waded into and over the city like baffled Godzillas. Some groups were cathedral quiet, whilst others chatted and joked, helping each other to negotiate their way across the room and find the city at its centre. Some were quick to leave as soon as they had placed their building, others spent a long time thinking about its placement, and longer afterwards sitting, waiting in the darkness. The photographs from the project document these different responses – people caught in the act of arriving or leaving, lost in thought or stifling a yawn, or simply sitting in the dark with their back to the camera seeing and not-seeing the city unfolding in front of them.
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?
[Non In Luce was created by Andy Field. Italicised text in this article was written by him to accompany the original installation and handed out to people on arrival.]