Fluorescence Decoder
Daily Photo
Fluorescence Decoder

This is a Daily Photo, not a Thought. When I started this I was just going to stick a few photos of environments lit by fluorescent tubes here, because I've been collecting and appreciating them for a while, and was planning to try and create a certain Asian-Fluorescent look based on them in my Paris apartment. But then I started writing, and out came a big Theory of Everything. Typical me.

So now it's more like a Thought than a Photo. It's a whole portfolio of photos with a whole cascade of ideas attached. It sort of announces a new style, a style I don't yet have a name for. You could call it the 'Cities On The Move' style. Or 'White Cube, White Tube'. Or 'MiniDeco'. Or 'Ethnic Economic Migrant meets Indigenous Media Content Creator'. Or, most pompous of all, how about 'Post-Minimal Decorative Visual Culture Pan-Asian Fluorescent'? Lovely!

Here's the fluorescence decoded.

A Brief History of the 20th Century in Lighting

Since the beginning of the Modernist period there's been a tendency for personal, residential and leisure interiors to take their cue (eventually -- the trickledown can take decades) from industrial and commercial environments -- the now-familiar phenomena of loft living, 'live / work' space, repurposed warehouses and 'dead tech'.

The Bauhaus 'form follows function' aesthetic spread from factories to homes as people sought to escape the clutter of 19th century ornamentation and twee, flowery decoration. In the postmodern period, as shopping became the template for all cultural activities, it was inevitable that home decoration style would be influenced by the slicker, more fluid, more flexible lighting, display and shelving systems seen in shops. In the 60s, for instance, rails of spotlights began to appear in people's homes, making them resemble the swinging boutiques of the period, and illuminating with pinpoints of light personal possessions suddenly made to resemble prestige goods on sale.

By the late 80s, 'uplighters' and tiny recessed tungsten halogen spots (often with silvery reflectors glinting pink and green) had become the fashionable retail-influenced domestic lighting, the latter often strung like fairy lights across suspended steel strings of architectural cantilever wire.

Fashion shifted again in the 90s. The 'electrographic' architectural style Tom Wolfe and Robert Venturi had spoken about in the 60s in relation to Los Angeles became generalised as the 'Pacific Rim' came into view as an area, and the style of Japanese cities started to impact on the west. 'Electrographic architecture' was Wolfe's term for the billboards which made LA legible from the freeway, and made its built surfaces subservient to the graphics, logos and brand names they displayed. This evolved, in the postmodern 80s and 90s, into 'the Bladerunner scenario' -- the hybrid Pacific rim cityscape imagined by Ridley Scott's 1982 movie set in a Toyko-LA amalgam, with LA's freeways replaced by a much denser street panorama of vendors, information and signage derived from a 'Neuromantic' vision of Hong Kong and Toyko.

The rise, in the 90s, of the internet promoted the idea of 'electrographic' architecture even further, as western economies shifted with 'irrational exuberance' from 'bricks and mortar' to e-business.

Aside 1

(Can he seriously be intending to get through this whole Theory and History of Everything without mentioning Bruce Nauman or Dan Flavin?)

Space Plus Spice

As the far eastern economies boomed, Asian cultural tropes were also widely disseminated throughout the 90s-- in particular the cuisine and clothing styles of China, Japan and Indochina. This tendency was given intellectual credibility by epic global exhibitions like 'Cities on the Move'. The period also saw a big increase in the popularity of the visual arts (the British YBA phenomenon, for example), making the white cube another important template for personal space. These two styles, Asian Space and Artist Space, linked up in the phenomenon of 'artist-led real estate', whereby inner city areas populated by subcontinental or oriental Asians (London's Brick Lane, the Oberkampf area of Paris, and Manhattan's Chinatown) began to attract artists, musicians, designers, web workers and other 'media content creators', who in turn attracted white collar workers keen to consider themselves 'urban pioneers'.

These Asian-flavoured immigrant areas are often (as in London and New York) close to the financial districts of the cities, and show the hectic yet organised commercial activity (street markets, street cooking) characteristic of rapidly-developing eastern cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Temporariness itself -- celebrated in Rem Koolhaas' 'Cities on the Move' exhibition -- became a sought-after quality, seen in the half-finished aesthetic of trend-setting, 'chantier'-style art galleries like Kunstwerk in Berlin, PS1 in (formerly industrial) Queens, and the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Aside 2

(What fluorescent tubes mostly reduce, of course, is darkness.)


Now, in the early 21st century, we're seeing a style I think of as 'Minimalism plus Asian Decoration' -- cool white interiors which salute the Bauhaus style of Mies and Gropius, but, in the spirit of postmodernism and globalism, transgress against and complement their cool Modernist forms and surfaces with highly coloured objects, just as art galleries do. These objects tend to be interestingly-shaped, highly decorative artefacts. Not necessarily expensive, they're often ethnic or Asian in character; red Chinese lanterns hung in an otherwise minimalist advertising agency, for instance.

Such ornamentation was abhorrent to purist Modernists -- Adolf Loos declared it a 'crime' in his famous essay of 1908. But our current revival of Modernism (part of a post 9/11 reassessment of the whole project of western Enlightenment, as well as a post-millenial reassessment of the legacy of the 20th century), influenced by globalism and the desire to celebrate the contribution of an influx of developing-world immigrants to the cities of the west, finds it perfectly logical to combine the protestant, functionalist, rationalist Bauhaus aesthetic with a messy, exciting orientalism: the tight commercial clutter of souks and chinatowns, environments far from the western landscape (wide, sedate and sedated avenues of highways, malls and supermarkets) and redolent instead of oriental or arabic cities with their high-density, unregulated chaos of bicycles, people and alleys, their mazes of walls and stalls, their use of temporary, functional, recycled materials (corrugated iron, plastic), their refusal to separate personal from commercial space (the family lives in the shop), nor religious space from economic (there's a shrine right behind the till).

Immigrant areas like London's Brick Lane and New York's Chinatown have become the preferred location for new art galleries (Kunst on Canal Street, Modern Art just off Brick Lane), and this has aided the 'bastardisation' of Modernist Minimalist style with ethnic tat. Just as an art gallery has no problem with boxing within its lucid, rational white walls a chaotic, colourful clutter of decoration (unfamiliar shapes, totems and objects), so this new style happily combines Minimalism and Decoration. This gives us the best of both worlds, both the organising power of techno-rationality and the vibrant humanity of commercial chaos.

In the new gestalt, western rationality becomes 'ground' (and of course the neutral, normative colour white is said to contain all colours) and the displaced ethnic object becomes 'figure'. This is a style for people who love cities and constant stimulation, who appreciate both techno-rationality and -- despite some recent reversions to xenophobia and fear -- the 'other' and the 'exotic', people who agree that the pungent, spicy smell of a Bangladeshi grocery adds a lot to an area which might otherwise reek only of vinegar and chips.

Aside 3

(Do you like middle eastern sweets? I do. Sometimes they look like sculptures by Anish Kapoor.)

Sweet and Spicy

Charles Saatchi once characterised Young British Art as 'minimalism plus punky attitude'. MiniPunk! This thing I'm talking about is minimalism plus ethnic decoration. MiniDeco!

To picture a typical MiniDeco environment, picture a moveable feast: something temporary, like an exhibition space. Picture colour-crucial fluorescent strips illuminating light plywood or fake wood, bubblewrap, cardboard, polythene and other repurposed packing, wrapping and shipping materials, exotic silks or silk substitutes, lurid non-authentic ethnic artefacts, third world vegetables and canned goods in a stark functional display system -- refrigerator units, catering cabinets in brutal white metal under harsh cool colour lighting, taped, plain generic photos of fruits, meats, spiky vegetables, fish, lychees, okra...

Picture information-dense projection, fluidity, semi-transparency, fluorescent lighting, irreverent neon signage, 'electrographic architecture', surfaces seen as a mere pretext for a rapidly-changing flow of information plumbed in from the internet by high speed cable or through the air, and the combination of the techno-rationality with colour, ritual, religion, custom, all that's redolent of the distant and the religious and 'otherness'. Remember that first generation immigrants often preserve a somewhat conservative, outdated, rigid, even kitschy picture of their culture of origin, a picture almost as sentimental and unrealistic as the one projected by western orientalists, and ultimately rather compatible with it.

Picture all this, or simply go to Sweet and Spicy at 40 Brick Lane, order one of their delicious curries, and sit down to eat it at one of the molded table-and-chair units under the brilliant, functional fluorescent lights, admiring the ornate clocks, lurid prayer posters, and curly picture frames on the white walls. Chicken biryani is 4. Afterwards, buy a big spiky jack fruit at the Bangladeshi grocery across the road. When you get it home, either eat it immediately or put it in the middle of a white room, under a bunch of strip lights.

Aside 4

(Could the 'displaced ethnic object' be a naked girl?)

Fluorescence: A Technical Note

Fluorescent lamps are the ideal lighting method for MiniDeco, because their technical properties make them the choice of both artists and asian merchants. They are not only cheap, but their colour characteristics make them ideal for displaying both goods and art.

The colour appearance of a lamp is defined in terms of its Correlated Colour Temperature (CCT) in degress Kelvin. The higher the CCT, the whiter (cooler) the colour appearance and conversely, the lower the CCT the more yellow/pink (warmer) the appearance. The conventional wisdom is that in social and leisure interiors such as hotels, restaurants and homes you should use 'warm' appearance lamps in the range of 2700K to 3000K. Ordinary tungsten filament lamps used in the home have a CCT of 2700K.

Lamps with a Correlated Colour Temperature of 6500K have the best colour rendering properties, though. These lamps are used for lighting visual tasks in which colour assessment and comparison is critical, like the colour printing and textile industries. Deluxe multiband fluorescent lighting is the best for these applications.

Aside 5

(Wow, he got through that whole Illustrated History and Catalogue of Everything without once mentioning Bruce Nauman or Dan Flavin!)

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