Green light – An artistic workshop
Texts
Assembling a Light, Assembling Communities
Olafur Eliasson

Making art is making a model of the world. It proposes what the world might look like or what the world does, in fact, look like if we only look at it differently. I am especially interested in models exploring our notions of self and other in relation to how we live in our societies and in the globalized world of today.

 

Art can activate our imagination, listen to us, create beauty, exercise critique; it insists on complexity—rather than easy-to-consume one-liners—and in that, forcefully pushes in the opposite direction of populism. Art challenges notions of identity, of belonging, and estrangement, and questions borders and the distribution of privilege, to mention only some of the things it is capable of doing. To me, Green light - An artistic workshop is about all of the above. It is a model of the world that is a part of the world. The Green light project began at a specific moment in time, in 2015, when refugees were arriving in Europe by the hundreds of thousands, fleeing hardship, political and economic instability, and war in their home countries. Although these problems had begun years before, many—myself included—often felt emotionally disconnected from the reality of what we read or saw on the news. Art and culture, I believe, can have a pertinent role to play in responding to such events: as a start, it can reverse our emotional disconnect and, whether directly or indirectly, inspire us to take action. This conviction was also shared by Francesca von Habsburg, founder of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), and by TBA21’s chief curator Daniela Zyman, with whom I had extensive conversations throughout the late summer of that year. We believe that culture is able to shine a light on and shape discussions about contemporary global challenges such as climate change and forced migration, and is able to develop new models of interaction and catalyze positive change.

 

But how does one proceed from the assembly of a light module to social change? The journey might seem long and convoluted, yet a simple but crucial first step is to trust the potential in the non-spectacular situation of sitting down together and doing something basic with our hands—in this case, working on a lamp that is more easily assembled by two pairs of hands than one. Add to that a multifaceted program of shared learning, with practical workshops, counseling, language classes, cooking, sports and cultural events, and knowledge exchange. What emerges during these activities is a shared social space. And once the initial nervousness has evaporated, moments of relaxed enjoyment unfold, pieces of personal history are exchanged. This elicits a feeling of interconnectedness that is incredibly strong. I believe that allowing ourselves to be open to this feeling is key to intensifying our engagement in society and to participating actively in coming up with solutions in times where forced migration affects us all.

 

The Green light lamp module is a stackable polyhedral unit, initially developed by the late Einar Thorsteinn, a mathematician and architect who was a close friend of mine. Einar called it the “super cube,” and it is one of numerous geometric studies that he and I began together and that my studio team and I have continued working on over the years. The Green light units themselves are made mostly of recycled and natural materials and fitted with small green LEDs. They can be hung alone or assembled into larger light sculptures. I love the fact that you can make unruly, wild growths of lamps from them as well as ordered structures like a luminous wall or a sphere. The question for me is not so much what the lamp is, but what it does, both in the social spaces out of which it emerges and in the physical spaces in which it is installed. Every Green light has agency.

 

I undertook the Green light project with TBA21 with the hope of developing a scalable model that would work in an art context, but could reach beyond it and also be implemented in a school, a public library, or a political institute. So far, we have been able to bring different versions of the project to Salzburg, Basel, Houston, and Prague, in addition to Vienna. And, now, we are presenting the Green light model at the Venice Biennale in an attempt to bring one of the most urgent issues today to the heart of the art world. Next up is Yokohama, and further stations are under consideration. While the Green light community expands, I hope that cities, national governments, and policy-makers also begin to see the potential of creative approaches to welcoming refugees, addressing concerns among their populations, and devising collective solutions. Populations around the world will become increasingly multi-ethnic and multicultural and it is clear that the near and distant future will continue to be shaped by migration. We therefore need solutions, now and into the future, at all levels of society.

 

Photo: Sandro E.E. Zanzinger / TBA21
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