Dissertation for the Ph.D. in German Literature & Culture / Visual Studies at Penn State (defended March 2023)

This dissertation, entitled Light/Play: Art, Vision, and Futures since 1920, examines the multifaceted revolutions and futures envisioned by artists working with light-based media from the Bauhaus to the postwar period to today.

The title of this dissertation stems from the German word Lichtspiel. A compound word, comprised of Licht (light) and Spiel (most commonly meaning play, in a theatrical sense, and in a gaming sense), Lichtspiel is an antiquated term that means film, a piece of cinema. Light and play bring together the artists featured throughout the coming chapters and their approaches to artmaking and critique. 

My artistic interlocutors include László Moholy-Nagy, Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, Peter Kubelka, Valie EXPORT, Mara Mattuschka, Hito Steyerl, Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joanna Zylinska, and Total Refusal, since they share a political impetus to use contemporary technologies and light-based media for artmaking. In the creation of electric light displays, photographs, films, videos, and/or performances, light, while immaterial, is nevertheless shaped and controlled by the artist and part of an apparatus that shapes appearances and catches knowns and unknowns on gallery walls, on film, and in code. 

The artists above see light-based media as revealing the “true” nature of formal relationships, meaning those relationships structuring the picture plane, the dynamic between art and spectator, and the world more broadly. In playing with light, they play with the structures and assumptions underlying art and the visual across the 20th century and today. From light bulbs, cameras, and exposed film to digital media and video games, the technologies used by these artists illuminate networked dimensions of power and aesthetics in the contemporary moment and possible futures. 

However, they do not illuminate in the mode of the Enlightenment; instead of offering clarity or objectivity, they illuminate the complexities of modern existence, its imbrication in biopolitical, capitalistic systems of the Anthropocene and (digital) culture(s) of militarism. In (re)working technologies, the artist becomes the artist-engineer, hacktivist, or “envisioner” (to use Vilém Flusser’s term) structuring an active viewership critical of their own positionality within systems of power and how these systems could change. Even as the artists above make non-apocalyptic declarations of futurity, some of the futures they envision are coded utopias, undergirded by universalist assumptions, shaded margins, and colonized environments.