Light tends to evoke predominantly positive associations. As an emblem of progress, prosperity and glittering metropolitan culture, artificial – and especially electric – light was often equated with urban modernity. Since its introduction in the 1880s, it contributed to a profound change of working and living conditions, e.g., by enabling the night-time production of goods or tighter control of nocturnal street life. Large cities like the "electropolis" Berlin were not only spaces of extensive artificial illumination; they were also deliberately framed as such (e.g., festivals of lights). As a means of (political as well as personal) representation and orchestration and as an instrument of power, artificial light both changed the use and perception of open public spaces and the valuation of urban and rural nightscapes. The tendency to associate darkness and night with (rural) backwardness, poverty, danger and gloom was fortified, for example, as brightly lighted urban nights became the rule.
These polar images of darkness and light, however, were (and are) neither universal nor uncontested. From early on, the negative impacts of artificial light on the health of humans and animals, the aesthetic qualities of town- and landscapes and the ecological aftermath of energy consumption were also discussed. Advocates of nature and cultural heritage protection, for example, criticised the nightly illumination of buildings and technical artefacts (especially flood-lighting and luminous advertising) and demanded a reduction of "light pollution". Historical research so far has mostly marginalised these opponents of artificial light, concentrating on its significance as an emblem of urban modernity instead. For a more differentiated story of artificial light, however, the genesis, continuity and change of its symbolic values as well as the interests and institutions connected with it in different special contexts have to be taken into consideration.
Projects in this field of research:
The research of the IRS focusses on "Artificial light and nocturnal landscapes in Berlin and Brandenburg since the 19th century".