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Light and participation

Civic action by both people and institutions often uses light

Published: 21 Jul 2021
Light is a powerful and transversal way of launching messages to society. It is powerful because in the darkness of the night, light attracts our attention and arouses intense and enduring emotions. It is transversal because very different places and contexts all use light for civic engagement, as we will show in this article. Citizens, organisations and institutions of all kinds use light to attract attention to the issues of collective life they are concerned about, to express their positions and to denounce injustice.

Torchlight processions Fire has always been the first source of light that human beings learnt to tame and for millennia, it was the only one. Today, however, fire is used for lighting relatively rare, and the effect is even more evocative when it occurs. Torchlight processions, in fact, which are long parades of people holding flaming torches, are often demonstrations with a high level of emotion. Common examples of torchlight processions are those held in memory of innocent victims of the mafia or ’ndrangheta in Italy.
Citizens, organisations and institutions of all kinds use light to attract attention to the issues of collective life they are concerned about, to express their positions and to denounce injustice.

A photo of a torchlight procession in Fiumicello (UD), the municipality in Friuli where Giulio Regeni grew up,
organised to continue highlighting his murder.

Outdoor lighting

In many cases, the façades of buildings that are important for local citizens and the urban landscape – such as, museums, theatres and historical buildings – have lighting systems that illuminate them at night too. But, even if the habitants of a particular town and city are used to seeing these buildings lit up, their attention can still be captured, and messages launched by changing the lighting for special occasions.

This is what happened in the United Kingdom on 11th August 2020, when numerous buildings and structures were coloured red for the Red Alert initiative. The aim was to ask the government to intervene and give their support to the live concert and event venues that had been closed because of the Sars-Cov-2 pandemic.

The red coloured buildings in London, on the banks of the River Thames, include the National Theatre,
the London Eye observation wheel and London County Hall.

Indoor lighting

Buildings that do not have illuminated façades can still make themselves seen, though, and if the people who live inside want to send a message, there are numerous ways to do it. A great example of this occurred in Sydney several years ago, in a protest made by about 500 residents from the Matavai and Turanga towers, two 60-floor high skyscrapers that are part of the Waterloo Estate social housing project.

The Matavai and Turanga towers in the Waterloo Estate in Sydney

In 2016, the residents launched the We Live Here campaign to protest against the government’s plan to redevelop the district, which would have involved moving about 3600 people, most of whom were elderly. One of the initiatives they used to attract attention to their protest was to create a sort of public art project, decorating the inside of their windows with flexible luminous tubes.

One of the We Live Here participants photographed in their flat

Luminous messages

Displaying banners on overpasses above busy roads is a common way of launching messages. So, in 2011 two professors from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Lane Hall and Lisa Moline, found a way of replicating traditional daytime demonstrations at night by creating handmade luminous messages.

This led to the first Overpass Light Brigade, that was organised to support protests being held to defend the salaries and trade union rights of workers in the public sector in Wisconsin. Even when this particular issue was resolved, the protest continued to operate with the aim of promoting social justice, democracy and ecology. Above all, it aroused the interest of numerous other activists in the rest of the United States and the world, and led to a network that now features numerous Overpass Light Brigades in locations as far apart as Hawaii, France, New Zealand, Croatia, Sweden, and many more.

The Overpass Light Brigade banner supporting environmental sustainability

Light sabotaging

Sometimes civic engagement is expressed, not by launching a message, but by blocking a different message that is considered to be in some way harmful. And what is the simplest and most peaceful way of making luminous communications invisible? By projecting other lights onto the same screen.

To reference a remarkable example, we go back to Sydney. In 2018, the government of New South Wales had approved the projection of an advertisement for a horse race on the outside – “sails” – of the iconic Sydney Opera House. This decision provoked an outcry right across Australia as people thought that the business operation insulted the country’s most famous building by promoting a horse race that also meant promoting betting. A petition against the initiative collected 290,000 signatures. Even so, the projection went ahead.

Some films of the demonstration in Sydney

So, hundreds of protesters met outside the Opera House with electric torches and lit the sails in a way that disturbed the projection of the advertisement by making parts of it invisible.