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Peter Freeman

issue 37 Jun / Jul 2007

Julie Harper talks to Peter Freeman, the Cornish-based light artist who sees light as a spiritual medium.

In what he terms an “ongoing project to discover what light can do”, Freeman works to create  “an architecture of light that is full of optimism and the joy of light” expressed in a language which will “add human qualities to practical lighting.”

Freeman’s first introduction to artificial light was the ambience created by the multitude of candles in his father’s church and the gaudy delights of Blackpool Illuminations – “a heady mix of sacred and profane” which has proved a fascination for him ever since.

For Freeman, lighting is not about lux levels but about how humans respond to light and the consequent value attached to it. Ironically this is also, he feels, why light as an art form is undervalued, its aesthetic influence on the human psyche not being obviously quantifiable in financial terms.

“What interests me is the spiritual dimension of light and the way light is associated with a sense of the divine and the way it can become a reflection of the human soul,” he explains.

Freeman’s years spent at Bristol in the 1970s studying for a fine arts degree involved much discussion on the nature of sculpture and its relationship to the space surrounding it. Most sculpture and space is revealed through reflected light “so it was interesting to turn things on their head and make sculptures that generated light,” he says, “and in so doing dramatically changed the material nature of the sculpture and the surrounding space”.

However, it was a visit to Las Vegas that was to really turn his ideas around. “I was completely blown away by the neon architecture and how it could transform sheds into stunning architectural edifices! I loved the idea that you could build a whole city out of light,” he explains, “and work on such a scale!”

Freeman returned to the UK where he trained, in “incredibly Dickensian” conditions, as a neon glass blower (“without my vision I would probably have dropped out’) before starting his own company making neon signs for film and TV sets (the Blue Peter ship being one of them) and making large scale lighting features for architectural spaces to commission.

Neon provided a means of ‘drawing’ in light in a way that the strip lights available at the time would not allow and with total creative control over neon’s wide pallet of colours since he made each piece himself. This control is something he retains with his LED sculptures, each of which he makes from component parts rather than off the shelf units. This practical ability to design, make and deliver every aspect of his artwork also gives him leverage and confidence when working on site during installation.

Further training at The Bartlett in 1992 consolidated the scientific background to his artistic training and as a result he feels he straddles both disciplines of sculptor and architectural lighting designer. His work deliberately blurs the defining line where architecture stops and sculpture begins since he sees them as “essentially part of the same perceptual organisation”, the use of light changing the perception of the architecture to make it “more fluid and interesting”.

“I really like the way LED technology is making it possible to merge many of the different cultures of lighting like theatre, entertainment, advertising and architecture. The control technology, long life, increasing brightness and energy consumption means it’s the beginning of a revolution and we need to change the way we look at lighting”

Freeman certainly looks at lighting in a very different way. Taught by Patrick Heron and Terry Frost – both local artists – at Bristol, to express emotion through colour he finds inspiration in the light and colours of his Cornish surroundings: the changing light reflected off the sea, the wildness of his garden (3 1/2 acres of gorseland, studded with mine workings and a stream) and the energy brought to the area by tourists in summer. His work transposes some of that light, colour and energy back into the urban environment – often in those areas attempting to recover some value - to inject some joie de vivre of a more satisfying nature than that afforded by commerce alone. “I humanise space using light,” he explains and, in a phrase which echoes his view of light as a living energy: “it’s brilliant that you can have the whole skin of a building articulated with moving colours and images”.  The frequent interactive nature of Freeman’s work is intended to give ownership to the people who live there and emphasises the role of art as a two-way experience which never remains static. Light sequences are often programmed to be changed by the passer-by sending text messages via their mobile phone, or simply by walking past the installation.

The advent of LEDs, Freeman feels, has brought about a revolution which enables light to be not only decorative but functional, transforming both interiors and exteriors in an exciting way.

“However, I don’t believe LEDs are going to provide the solution to the debate over the environment with public lighting.  They may use less power but they will just add another level to lighting in addition to all the other light sources currently used.”

Freeman believes the combination of political and emotive power behind lighting is too strong to be curtailed.

“Light has always had strong symbolic and mythological associations with the divine throughout history and across many cultures. Humans want to reflect that divinity. In secular terms, light is seen as representative of power and wealth so commercial imperatives are also driving a continuous undercurrent pushing for more lighting, Lighting generates activity, and historical evidence shows that economies dive when lights are turned out. If your city glows it emulates power  - it’s a concept that is very evident in developing regions like Asia who aspire to our Western style of lighting as a mark of progressing themselves as a global presence. Human beings have an inbuilt drive to progress and improve - its not going to stand still, and it’s not going to go backwards.”

Lighting it seems, is seen as excessive and unnecessary and Freeman fears we are in danger of turning off “the most visible and interesting light” because it is perceived as the symbol of waste, purely because of a lack of understanding of the true value it represents. 

“How do you quantify, in financial terms, food for the soul?” he states. “We have to recognise our responsibility to the environment but we also have to acknowledge the exciting times we live in. Look out of the window of an aeroplane at, for example, the M62. We are looking at an emotional mapping out of landscape in lights - the need to light ourselves to be seen from space conflicting with our concern for the environment. It’s a difficult situation but personally I consider it a privilege to be witnessing lighting in our generation.”

Any projects he would like to change?
“I don’t change any of my projects as they exist as a statement made at that particular moment. I see each project as an opportunity to do something new and to resolve any issues that cropped up in the previous one.  However, it’s rather like using a torch in the dark and as you move along you illuminate something else and a whole new vista opens up.”

Project he dislikes
“None that I can think of!  If it lights up its OK by me!  I can normally find something interesting in even the most dubious project – I am such an anorak!”

Project he admires

“Philip Vaughan’s Neon Tower at the Hayward Gallery.  This is one of the first lighting sculptures in the UK and has a voice which still makes it interesting today. All art goes through a phase when it’s too ‘yesterday’ to be of interest – which is what happened to it in the 80s - but if it is any good it will start to look interesting again. The fact that it is being restored shows that people began to place a real value on it.  All through my career I have had to pitch my work against this beacon of a work!”

Lighting hero
“Motoko Ishii from Japan who, in her early works in the late 70s, made parallels between her lighting and natural light.  To our Western eyes it may look brash but we miss out on a lot of her meaning because we separate light from emotions.  She recognised the human necessity in light – how we respond both visually and through circardian rhythms and makes references in her designs to natural light and natural cycles like summer, autumn and winter.  In Eastern thinking there is no separation between the viewer and the viewed. We are part of the universe and reflect it in turn. This is an important concept which is brought into even the most mundane forms of lighting such as supermarkets.

“Closer to home I really admire Jonathan Speirs. He was the first LD in the UK to use light and colour in an interesting architectural way and he transformed the culture of lighting design in the UK. His lighting of the CIS building in Manchester was crazy and unnecessary but superb - full of verve and energy.  We have a plethora of fantastic designers in the UK but they are held back by our deeply entrenched puritan culture which labels lighting as frivolous or sinful.  How else could it be that the only places using interesting lighting when I was growing up were Blackpool and Soho!”
Notable projects
Luminous Motion, Winchester Cathedral – the first project to use text messaging to change the lighting. Sited as it was in a sensitive area – on historic religious ground beside a commercial centre – it successfully crossed the boundaries between sculpture and interactive art.
Glam Rocks, Blackpool – “It was a privilege to contribute to the mayhem that is Blackpool” Inspired by the rocks at Zennor and Cot Valley in Cornwall they combine beautiful natural shapes with a seedy man-made edge under a frivolous name. Unlike many public works of art, these encourage people to walk and climb over them in a different form of interaction made possible by the relative safety of fibre optics.
Travelling Light - is sited at junction 21 on the M5 and welcomes the travellers to the SW with a sparkling display of 2000 digitally controlled LED lights mounted on a 13metre mirror stainless steel column. Each RGB LED node is individually programmable and a computer with an astronomical clock creates programmed lighting events for every day of the week and special effects for specific days and times of the year.
Light Elements – this is the current name for the two bridges in Maidstone lit with strings of LEDs and controlled by text messaging using wireless DMX control system. “Names take several years to settle and this one will probably change several times before it takes a permanent name”

Current projects

Newlyn Gallery, Penzance – the local telephone exchange having recently been transformed into an art gallery, Freeman has illuminated the 60m of curtain wall with high-powered LEDs which change colour in response to changes in atmospheric pressure reflecting how the gallery acts as a barometer for change.
Woking Galleries – Known as the Light Box, the exterior walls are a combination of dichroic glass and high-powered LEDs. During the day the sunlight shines inwards through the dichroics whilst at night the LEDs shine outwards and are triggered by people walking in and out and sending ripples across the surface of the building, increasing as the amount of activity increases. The history of Woking becomes a living history with people, literally, walking through it.
Travel interchange in Isle of Wight – in conjunction with Mark Sparfield Architects, due to open 2008. Sculptures responding to different traffic movements of trains, buses, boats, taxis etc
Milton Keynes piazza – in the absence of real water, lighting features will give the impression of a flow of water while interactive text messages will trigger lighting animations.


Peter Freeman
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