Designers should leverage the art and science of darkness
By Jane Slade
The field of lighting possesses an immense power to curate perception through both art and science. This dual approach within the lighting field is often a celebrated fact by lighting practitioners. Yet, when we look at the ever-increasing light levels on the planet, it becomes clear that we are not taking advantage of the full breadth of our palette. We are overlooking a powerful tool of perception: the art and science of darkness.
Natural darkness is harder and harder to find on the planet. The modern focus has been steadfast upon the effects of illumination, far past natural stopping points such as preserving a view of the night sky. All over the world, we leave lights on needlessly through the night. Yet natural darkness is a necessity for the proper functioning of the Earth’s ecosystems. Light at night not only threatens the survival of living things, it creates a massive shift in how we perceive the world around us.
Aldous Huxley once said, “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” The experience of standing beneath a true night sky is often described by observers as a feeling of awe and an unexpected internal shift of perspective. For humans, darkness empowers different modes of perception by cloaking our overstimulated visual systems and allowing our field of vision to be enveloped in natural darkness. When we deprive our eyes and brains from this feed of information, a different mode of thinking emerges. In the modern age of screens, this power of darkness cannot be overstated.
Light artist James Turrell explores perceptual deprivation to gain access to our inner worlds. Through the Ganzfeld effect, abstract lighting installations fill the complete visual field with formless light, flooding our visual systems with the void of contrast. According to Turrell, “My work has no object, no image and no focus. With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at? You are looking at you looking.”1 When we occupy the entire visual field with a uniform stimulus, we override our visual systems to access our internal worlds, much like the experience of the night sky.
Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist and Nobel Prize laureate, also studied this phenomenon with abstract artwork. Through the reduction of form and visual information, the analytical systems of our brains must give way, and instead we draw upon our more personal, interior worlds to find understanding. Kandel wrote, “Turrell’s installations allow viewers to explore light, color, and space. They bypass our conscious mind and access and celebrate the optical and emotional effects of luminosity on our unconscious.”2
NOT VERY LONG AGO IN OUR history, humans were highly sensitive to light at night. We spent hours of waking moments basked in the natural darkness of starlight, moonlight, firelight, candlelight, and the glow of dusk and dawn. We deeply appreciated and held reverence for the brightness of a full-moon night. These in-between lights released our visual systems from light-driven information and offered an essential period of reflection to bring awareness to our bodies and minds.
Yet in the modern world, we are bombarded with constant brightness and screens. We keep our visual systems fully firing and rarely cross the threshold of natural darkness in our waking lives. We produce more and more light-driven information, which quickens the pace of industry and increases the rate of information coming through our phones and computers. This imbalance reduces the quality of work, increases mistakes, and in turn, creates even more light in our lives.
The lack of natural darkness on Earth has serious impacts upon the mental health and systems of perception for both wildlife and humans. Pollinators stop pollinating, birds crash to their death, and humans are languishing and suffering from burnout. Our lighting practices are constantly stimulating living things, leaving no room for other forms of perception. Quite simply, darkness offers forms of awareness and a connection to our internal state in a way that light cannot.
If illumination draws our awareness outside of our bodies, then darkness draws our awareness within. What happens when constant brightness disrupts a connection to our internal state? It turns out that our inner worlds have a potent influence upon our perception. In fact, one study reported that 50% of our happiness is determined by a genetic set point, 40% is based on our attitude and intentional activities, and only 10% is based on our circumstances.3 This means that much of our perception is drawn from within, rather than external factors.
Design strategy that is aware of the power of darkness to access our internal landscapes utilizes the full breadth of darkness and light to sculpt perception. Theater lighting fearlessly utilizes darkness as a device to access our inner worlds. Through an interplay of light, shadow and darkness, the power and poetry of our imagination is harnessed to elaborate upon what is unseen. Darkness is an asset to our thought processes by taking our visual systems offline. If radio is considered the most visual medium, then darkness is a beacon for the imagination.
Yet in the built environment, we are leaving the power of darkness out of our work. Fears of darkness relentlessly drive over lighting. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, satellite images of the Earth show a 2% increase of light pollution each year. We must pursue the art and science of darkness just as we do with illumination. The study of natural darkness, which I am naming tenebrisology (derived from the Latin root for darkness), is to pursue the understanding, reclamation and protection of darkness as a natural resource. The immeasurable value of darkness deserves its own study as a starting point, to cultivate it as a critical tool of perception, to understand darkness-driven information, and to advocate for its necessity for all living things.
WE NEED A TURNING POINT. The preservation of natural darkness is not a casual cause. Starlight is the birthright of all living things. Our work directly impacts the natural resource of darkness and there are many occasions where we do not lead by example. It matters all the time, on every project and every fixture. Light pollution maps reveal increasing blooms of light all over the planet that did not exist 150 years ago and the impact upon wildlife is haunting. It is a false dichotomy that we cannot light for human activity and reduce impact.
The study of natural darkness is a framework to provide a more holistic approach to design, and a timely antidote to modern societal ailments such as languishing and burnout. When we open ourselves up to a world where darkness is beautiful, revered and protected, lighting design reclaims every shade and color to shape perception, space and experience, and above all to live more symbiotically with nature.
1 “Introduction.” James Turrell, jamesturrell.com/about/introduction/
2 Kandel, Eric R. “A Focus on Light.” Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures, Columbia University Press, 2018, p. 159.
3 Lyubomirsky, Sonja, et al. “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.” Review of General Psychology, vol. 9, no. 2, 2005, pp. 111–131., doi:10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.199.-