Tuesday, 14 April 2015

searching for darkness on the EUR campus

I was at a Surveillance & Digital Rights symposium at the Erasmus University. A specific takeaway I'd like to re-mention here is that the surveillance issue should never be treated as a zero sum situation between security and privacy. That is not the relationship we should assume between two ideas that are themselves never clearly and appropriately defined in the first place.

Later in the day I've used this false-dichotomy to think about lights in the urban night time setting. The modern urban space is usually lit up at night to improve safety and prevent crimes. In being so, however, people (criminal or otherwise) have lost the secrecy of public darkness to conduct their business in. Is public darkness EVER desirable? How about privacy in the public space?

I'm not a lighting engineer/designer/critic, I guess what I am is a fan of lighting, and I think of lights accordingly. I'm directing a horror short film late April (am I not yet the coolest guy you know? Have I told you I also play the guitar?), and the pre-production process had encouraged me to ask myself how darkness makes me feel, both on film and in real life. Does it scare me? Does it make me uneasy? Am I afraid of the dark?

I imagine that most people are not afraid of darkness per se, but rather of the implications of darkness. I can try to categorise the implications into two groups.  1) Firstly, what we cannot see, we also cannot know (or anyways cannot know soon enough to react to). It is a fundamental fear of an Unknown which can be whoever/whatever that resides IN the dark. 2) Secondly, in the darkness we cannot be seen, and we cannot be known. It is the fear of losing connections to the world, of being fundamentally alone, of being cut off, friendless and helpless.

You think darkness is your ally? You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, moulded by it! I didn't see the light until I was already a man, and by then it was nothing but blinding. 
-Bane, The Dark Knight Rises

There IS a difference between you and me. We both looked into the Abyss. But when it looked back at us, you blinked.  
-Batman, Crisis on Two Earths
Certainly there is not only fear. Each of those two implications of darkness has its seductive counterpart. To phrase them tersely, 1)There is pleasure in anticipating the excitement and curiosity of the Unknown, and 2) There is power in secrecy and mystery, there is power in BEING the Unknown. Indeed the darkness of Gotham City had enriched and empowered Batman and his villains both.

And then there's Frank Miller's famous analogy:  "Metropolis is New York in day time, Gotham is New York at night." Rotterdam is, no doubt, the nearest thing to NYC in this country. Accordingly, R'dam at night is the closest we can have to Batman's Gotham. Can we dream, here, of a Dark Knight rising?

On the night of the symposium, I gathered some of these ideas and set out for darkness on the EUR campus, hoping to find its darkest corners. I didn't have equipments to measure darkness, but anyways the kind of darkness we talk about should be experienced (rather than measured). I did a walking sweep on the Woudstein campus at between 21:00 and 23:00. The (spatial) coverage of this small investigation is limited, as is the night-time capabilities of my handy-cam, and I couldn't capture many visual examples in picture. However I think it is appropriate to present locations of darkness in a cannot-see. This single corner, in the following not-very-visible picture, is (in my experience) the darkest point in this institution (or anyways in all of its exteriors). 

I will not identify this spot on a campus-map (I imagine this as a polite gesture in talking about the dark and the unknown and the private). For those who do walk on the EUR Woudestein campus it's pretty easy to find anyways. It is not only a dark spot but also provides some level of segregation from the campus' various night noises (eg the water fountains). It is a zone of open-air late-night dark-tranquillity, fit for meditation and/or a breather.  

Probably, if we're measuring, this point doesn't have an extreme absence of light. In fact there is a (tube) light hanging not too far from it. BUT it is precisely this tube lamp that give off an obtrusive glare, which made the darkness appear much darker to my eyes in comparison. In every other dark spot I have noticed on campus, there were also always some remarkable relationship between light and shadow. In every case it is the surrounding lights that emphasised the shadows and vice versa. Surely the literary imagery of the light-dark contrast is a cliché, but I think the real-life conscious visual-experience of the literary imagery is not.

If we refer back to the discussion about security and privacy, we may notice metaphorical parallels. The sense of security/safety can be related to privacy in non-antagonizing ways.  It is not difficult to see that in some contexts we need to feel secure in order to feel private, and feeling private can also make us feel secure. On the other hand, acts meant to 'protect' our security can 'invade' our privacy, and there are situations where we may find other people's private business threatening our sense of security. Is this not like the empowering-depowering double-nature of public darkness/lighting? 

We can take these observations & discussions out of the university campus and into different parts of the city at night time. There are also other night-time light-related observations I want to look into that are outside of this metaphorical framework. (I think people's faces have more cinematic character under yellow street lights than white ones, for example, but I want to find a way to attest this point without too much staring. That's one thing.) Luckily the nights are warmer this season and it feels swell to be outside. Unluckily the nights are much shorter and I have less time. Anyhow these night sessions are on the list of things I should plan for. There are several GIR posts that I have planned and am excited about. On this matter I shall not keep you in the dark for long.