Arts & Culture

Installation gives light a life of its own

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Monday, November 22, 2010

Art can bring to life what was never meant to breathe. Streetlamps, speakers and projectors assume the roles of the undead and the never-born in AS220 artist-in-residence Lyn Goeringer’s “Liminal/subLIMINAL.”

Though it’s physically located in the Nightingale-Brown House, home of the John Nicholas Brown Center, the installation is really in the eyes and ears of the beholder. It speaks in the second person, engulfing and digesting visitors until they are integrated into the exhibit. To objectively dissect it, probe the artist’s intentions or describe the materials — which are vehicles for ideas — would miss the point.

The Nightingale-Brown House sits at 357 Benefit St., where College Hill’s slope settles. A sign on the front door directs you around the back. Let the courtyard foliage derail you, then continue through the homey entryway and windowed corridor to a dark hall. At last, arrival.

Yet you’re compelled to turn around. Amidst the darkness is a deep, ominous buzzing. Changes in tone and volume startle periodically. You begin to feel trapped in a survival horror video game, at the stage when deranged demons may emerge any minute, leaving three options: right, left or backwards.

To the left is a former living room — literally, the room is living — dimly lit by humming streetlights. Black velvet has barred all natural light, save a struggling sunbeam peaking out the bottom of each window. The fireplace is eerily empty.

To test the limits of your control over this virtual world, you flick the lights on and off, fearing that it’s secretly some kind of electroshock death trap. Nothing happens: You are more of a character following Goeringer’s script than a collaborator in her environment. The autonomous lights hold this game’s control panel — they threaten to leave you in the dark.

Darkness fosters the weakness of oblivion. The less one witnesses, the less one knows, so people constantly seek illumination.

Further disrupting your sense of security, the lamps are individuals with signature voices. Their tonality fluctuates, signaling the part of the game where the dead make demands and reveal the motives behind their droning.

Tip-toeing across the wood-panelled floor, you surrender to darkness so you can better decipher these creatures’ instructions. Secrets accumulated, you can progress to the next level.

You don’t step, but stumble into the right room — seriously, watch the ledge. Creaking noises suggest a need for hesitation, but the only inhabitants are rustling leaves and a convex white sheet curving from the left wall.

The dancing lights on the fabric’s surface are the only features that seem volitional, that seem human. Your eyes cling to the sheet like a baby’s fingers to a blanket. You strain to peak behind it like a child checking for monsters under the bed.

Once again, you gravitate toward the light switch. You can control it this time — a relief. It illuminates a circle on the next room’s cracked-plaster floor.

This subsequent room is an old garage, an inherently creepy setting — but this one is especially haunted. It speaks. The ceiling growls, the walls knock on themselves and the floor swishes — or is it the sound of cars outside the veiled windows?

Pink specks accumulate like glowing insects and dissolve on the left wall.

Examining this activity, you realize you have stepped into the spotlight you yourself activated. Rather than illuminating your view, the light you flicked on has made you into a specimen under a microscope. Combined with the banging and rustling of the room, this makes you feel under attack, and you run.

“Liminal/subLIMINAL” reveals light not as a natural resource but as a technology. It makes the natural seem unnatural — supernatural, even. Afterwards, you’ll wonder whether the flickering streetlamps are gossiping and conspiring in your absence and whether the leaves catapulting down Williams Street are riding on the breath of a ghost.

“Liminal/subLIMINAL” is open at the John Nicholas Brown Center Monday to Friday through Nov. 24.