What is a design language in the service of the experience of light? Exegesis.

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Key, Robert
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Master of Design
Unitec Institute of Technology
de Groot, Cristiaan
Hedges, Susan
Masters Thesis
Ngā Upoko Tukutuku (Māori subject headings)
perception of light
light and design
light installations
ANZSRC Field of Research Code (2020)
Key, R. (2013). What is a design language in the service of the experience of light? Exegesis. Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of: Master of Design by Project, Unitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand.
The intent of this project is to explore the perception of light through a set of experiments, creating opportunities for narratives driven by light. These experiments define a process that becomes more and more reductive in order to get close to the light. This is not a manual on light, it is a record of a personal investigation into a language of light. In order to get closer to what a language is, the experiments have gone from the everyday world of light effects in context, to an intimate engagement with the qualities of light using minimal contextual interference. If we choose to observe it, there are resonant narratives in everyday visual experiences of light. What is a design language in the service of the experience of light? On the surface, this question points towards a technical lexicon of effects and phenomena to do with a designedly appropriation or manipulation of light. The focus here is not so much what a design language of light is composed of, it is more about what is a language of light, where can a design language begin to be formulated? This project explores experiential qualities of sunlight, the primary causal and capricious substance of our world. Beginning with light’s role in the perception of reflection, refraction and colour, then delving further into concepts of space (thresholds/depth) and time (motion/duration). While looking at the physical side of light perception in simple experiments, there is also exploration of psychological concepts, reflexivity (seeing our seeing) and embodiment (our body as the primary site of knowing). There is a contrast of context: the pared-back experimental arena of this masters project, in relation to a professional role as a set designer/art director producing television content. My professional work environment involves interaction with directors, producers, agencies, clients and crew. This environment is a multi-layered setting, managing: design, budget, crew and construction. In juxtaposition to this work environment is the Masters project, which opens up potential for a design-aptitude to use light as a building material in a more explorative, yet structured environment. Observing light’s narrative qualities is like contemplating the dynamics of an empty vessel, looking at the space between things, not focusing on just the objects themselves. This is a technique used in the work of Light and Space artists like James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson whose installations highlight the process of perception, light becomes the object to see and perception is the medium to see the light with. It is a challenge to achieve a separation between the process of seeing (instinctive) and seeing the process of that perception (apperception). Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writes in Eye and Mind about reflexivity as being the paradox of human vision. The body that sees, and sees itself, leads to an ambiguity of vision. Connected to this is the idea of being-in-the-world; that representational minds and represented objects are not separate, vision and movement are united in a body that moves and sees as part of one complete process; embodiment. The way we experience light’s authorship with our eyes and minds in a reflexive and embodied way is an impelling subject. There is so much instinctual processing through the senses of the world around us. American architect and photographer Henry Plummer argues for deepening an appreciation of light through simple observations of light’s phenomena, “Discerning elusive and subtle aspects we often fail to consciously notice". This describes a conscious gaze, lingering on sunlight’s phenomena that is never static, observing subtle shifts in the complex interaction of light and other matter, including ourselves. Light is the ethereal fabric that holds everything together. It is the one seemingly constant phenomena that we experience – from the cosmic, to the everyday. This project is not about understanding what light ‘is’. The project is about ‘painting’ with light, exploring the perception of light, observing how its narratives can be manipulated in various settings, contributing towards a design language of light’s poetic vocabulary.
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