The Project’s Concept: to catch Words of Light

The historical research on the poetics and practical applications of stage lighting puts in evidence a knot rarely faced by the theatrical historiography: the flexibility of terms and the terminological uncertainty used to express concepts, techniques, and the material conditions that regulate the creation of stage lighting. That is, talking about the stage elements that are often immaterial — and together highly conditioned by material factors. What do “words” of lighting correspond to, in scholarship on lighting and in the practices of stage lighting? The project starts from the need to reexamine the words that define the universe of stage “Lighting”.

Dire Luce expresses, from its inception, the challenge of assigning words to describe light manifestation phenomena; the title’s definition is borrowed from a collection of writings by María Zambrano, and aims to underline the urgency, and at the same time the halt, when faced with naming and defining the “things” that concern Light. In our opinion, this is a crucial issue that demands a historical and aesthetic approach to the research and practices of lighting. On the one hand, lighting connotes fluidity and elusiveness, and on the other hand, it connotes materiality; contemporary discussions about the phenomenon of lighting are situated between these two poles. Material and immaterial, visible and invisible, presence and absence: these recurring antonyms are frequently encountered nowadays (both in aesthetics and in the visual and performing arts, in iconology and in film studies). And they all effectively correspond to the peculiarity of light as an “object.” We believe that this fluid ambiguity is reflected in the fluidity of the language used to describe it.

In concrete terms, is it possible to turn such indecisiveness into an object of study, by trying to “make light” in the tangle of terminology used in the artistic sphere, with particular attention to the performing arts? On the basis of the case studies emerged during our past researches, we were led by the lexical uncertainty that emerged, and we are convinced that from an analysis, contextualization, comparison of the definitions of devices, of techniques and “effects”, of the professional figures, of the design dynamics, it will be possible to “illuminate” essential nodes of the poetics and of the artistic and dramaturgical conceptions of light, on the backdrop of a fertile dialogue between different artistic languages.

It is worth pointing out that this is one of the subjects less dealt with by Performing Arts studies, not only for the specific aspect regarding terminology; and this inexplicably, since light is the very basis of vision itself, as well as of visibility; a constitutive and fundamental element of every performing experience. Perhaps its macroscopic evidence has meant that it has been taken for granted, and that for a long time historians have not duly treated light as a matter to be shaped, an object of creation on a par with other scenic coefficients. Only in the last two decades – but a few exceptions – has the thought and creation of light on stage started to receive attention, however limited.

The aim of the project Dire Luce is the elaboration of a Lexicon of light, which coincided with the realization of a data base; specifically a vocabulary of the lighting and its practices in the Performing Arts field (that is meant as a synthesis of the different languages that compose it: dramaturgy, movement, sound, lighting…). But the research could not disregard the exploration and comparison of non-performing arts subjects and their respective contexts: this object of study requires, maybe more than others, to draw data from extra-spectacular phenomena and their own fields.

We started from disciplines that are very close to the performing arts domain and in which the language of light is equally fundamental: the visual arts, photography and cinema. These areas also correspond to the expertise of the research group members, though the database’s structure and methodology were developed with consideration of further contributions from music, aesthetics, literary criticism, semiotics, architecture, and design. The encroachments into the linguistic territories of the science were also foreseen. The same perspective applies to the linguistic areas covered: at the moment a few areas are represented (Italian, French, English, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, German), in a further continuation it is hoped to expand the working group to include more diversified linguistic skills. Also in this sense, the development of the tools has foreseen the extension to other linguistic territories. We also encourage the involvement of all interested people, who can collaborate and help the project sending information about terminology and sources using the available form.

The words that inspire the title of the project are not just a tribute to María Zambrano, they are also inspired by qualities of her thought. If, in general terms, the research investigates the relationship between words and phenomena that we perceive as images, another consonance with the philosopher’s modus of looking at things critically is the fact that her thought stems from a direct confrontation with art works and artists. On the one hand, the research is based on a dialogue with key texts and theories on light, read within the aim of looking for terms and definitions, to verify the original expression in the case of translated texts, to compare it with other sources and other disciplines; on the other hand, it envisages a constant comparison with artists and operators who “act” light as poetics and as practice. Indeed, when an artist deals with the concepts of “atmospheric light”, “light painting”, “visual symphony”, “light score”, what is he/she referring to? An effect that involves a precise technique, a symbolization or a conception? Do they have a reference tradition in their mind? By comparing the words that are at work in the experience of art practices, the scholar can contextualize and distinguish according to the evolution of a certain expression over the ages. 

Beyond the study of the historical sources (in the different classifications, including iconographic ones, concerning the past and the present), important sources for the research are seminars and meetings, experiences that informed also the structure of the vocabulary. The working group record and examine the contributions against the backdrop of the project’s aim (terminology, context, and comparison). Furthermore, practical workshops (held by professionals working in lighting within the contexts of theatre, cinema, and the visual arts) will be organized in the hopes of creating dialogues among historical and historiographical context, contemporary creations and practices.

The seminars and workshops are at the same time a research laboratory and an opportunity for public presentation and dissemination of the project, also with a view to establishing new partnerships. In fact, one of the essential features of the project is the dialogue between these different competences, and also between different types of documents for the research. Thus, two main ‘actors’ act in a dynamic relationship within the project: the scholars who examine the historical sources (according to their area of research) and are in charge of analyzing and systematizing the linguistic occurrences and their correspondence with performances and artistic practices. The artists and professionals who offer case studies relating to contemporary practices, and who are also the living memory of our recent past. As a complex example, let’s think of the amount of technical and artistic implications of a semantic field such as “projection”, a converging point of a very broad spectrum of concepts and practices (with the corresponding adjective and device, projected and projector, which even technically imply various and different devices). We may also think of elementary definitions such as diffused lighting, direct lighting, reflected lighting, or atmospheric lighting, or we may consider devices such as panorama, cyclorama, or diorama: these are all terms that change in meaning or implication according to the ages and contexts in which they are/were used. It is also meaningful to think of the fact that the same art of orchestrating stage lighting has never found an unequivocal or stable definition, revealing, instead, an articulated range of expressions that do not always distinguish between technical and creative sides.

Supporting point for future developments of the project is the Laboratoire CEAC (Centre d’Études des Arts Contemporains, Université Lille3) (University of Lille, France) a research group to which the project leader of Dire Luce (Cristina Grazioli) is affiliated; together with Véronique Perruchon, she is also responsible of the project Lumière de Spectacle.