Light Works

8 September – 25 December 2019


Social illumination schemes in Britain are over 600 years old. Even before Scotsman William Murdoch walked 300 miles to Birmingham and used local knowledge to spark the revolution of gas lighting, governmental decisions on the timing, capacity and duration of illumination have aided infrastructural and social organisation, producing uneven landscapes of development, electrification, profit and control.

Not only to exhaust human bodies by lengthening the working day in textile mills, where the first sale and use of gas-lighting was developed in Britain 1806, but also to reveal people’s movements in the urban realm at night. In 1825 the Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Light Company manufactured and supplied gas to the city, and its Gas Works became the largest in the country at the time.

Across the Empire, Britain used artificial light as a ‘civilising’ tool equaling progress and enlightenment with the colonial grid. Once electric light dominated the illumination market, the main light bulb manufacturers worldwide came together as the Phoebus Cartel in the first half of the 20th century to fix the useful life of their products. Their planned obsolescence lowered the industry standard lifespan of bulbs from 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours in 15 years, hiking prices, generating repeat sales, and maximising profit.

These fragments come together to show that over the course of its history, exhaustion, endurance, speculation and illumination go hand in hand. Even today, the area of Digbeth in Birmingham is dark for a reason. Its designation as ‘light industrial’ determines the area’s low lighting. At the same time, industrial decline and the abandonment of factories helped Digbeth become a centre of nightlife for 30 years; this built the cultural capital that so often precedes capital investment, and Digbeth now finds itself currently exposed by the headlights of the High Speed 2 railway tracks.

Light Works thinks through ideas around socialised illumination by forming a testing ground for the development of the Digbeth Access Group’s grassroots lighting campaign, challenging a quick-fix, highest-profit, privatised approach, and taking into consideration the social and environmental impact of light. Light Works applies the urban-scale lighting scheme of the DAG project to activate the architecture of Junction Works, turning it into a beacon for the future illumination of Digbeth, created by and for local people and neighbouring species.