Amsterdam Light Festival #7: The Medium is the Message

🌹r00sj3🌹 @r00sj3
· January 2019 · 12 min read · Netherlands · #art


Action>Reaction 2.0

Yesterday was the closing of already the 7th edition of the The Amsterdam Light Festival. Personally, this festival is a bit of a highlight of winters in Amsterdam as the light-art pieces are placed throughout the Amsterdam city centre from the end of November until close to the end of January. Often, when I have time and friends that want to join, I try to book an evening canal cruise to watch the art from the water. And that is what I did last week. But since it was cold, they closed the boat and there was not a good way to take photographs of all the awesomeness. And therefore I decided to also go on a bit of a hike through the city.

The organisation is pretty clever about this. They placed the 30 light artworks on 3 walking routes that connect flawlessly. If you have plenty of time (and can deal with the cold), you can walk the whole thing, which is 8.5 kilometres long. This is totally free and very enjoyable. But like I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of canal cruise companies offering special (heated) Light Festival cruises in these months, for a little extra you can enjoy a warm glühwein while watching the art.

The Medium is the Message

The theme of this year was "The Medium is the Message" after the famous phrase by Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan understood "medium" in a broad sense. He identified the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of "the medium is the message". A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that "a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence. source

So for this edition of the Light Festival, I started wondering... What is the true medium here? And what is the message? Is my beautiful city Amsterdam the medium? Or is that the message? Is the art the medium? Or are the light bulbs used for that art the medium and is the art itself the message? I was confused. But I think the answer is different for every art piece that I encountered.

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The map of the art pieces in Amsterdam (Source)

The easiest way to start was to walk to near Dam Square, right in the middle of the city centre. Here you could find the "Virtual Fairground" piece by Femke Schaap. It is basically a simulation of a fairground by the projection on basic geometric shapes. The artist meant to pay attention to the changing times of a digital and virtual world, but also paid attention to the upcoming hunger for experiences. The combination of the virtual projected world that can still be experienced by walking around and touching the objects made this pretty powerful... if you know that Amsterdam has been struggling with the huge amount of tourists the last few years.


Virtual Fairground

From here we would walk to Central Station and go counter-clockwise. On my previous canal cruise, our boat took a bit of a short cut so I missed a few pieces and I wanted to make sure that I was going to see them this time! I was happy to see a red glow in the distance when we walked towards the water. We are approaching some massive red lips!

They are called "Desire" and the artists squeezed as much symbolism into them as possible. Lips (or your mouth) plays an important role in communications. If you don't use them for words, you could speak by kissing... The 1500 lights represent the 10.000 nerve endings that you have in your lips that send signals to your brain when touched. By the looks of these lips, you can imagine how much information is sent to your brain by just a tiny touch of your lips!

What I didn't see when I walked around it was that from the side, the image of the lips changes into a heartbeat. And that makes sense... because desire, lust and sensuality will make your heart beat faster! Apparently, the colour red used isn't just to symbolize the sexiness of the lips, but it is also a warning signal that giving in to your desires could potentially be dangerous...

Interestingly, I didn't hear anyone about the placement of this art piece (I do wonder if anyone thought of that). But this area behind the Central Station used to be a very famous pickup zone for junkie prostitutes in the past century. So yeah, you could say that red lips could mean danger... especially around here...



Next up? "Transmission", a nice looking wavey light artwork with a pretty straightforward meaning. They represent the transmission of our massive amount of digital communications. If you stand underneath it, a wave of light is moving through the pieces and this is intended to be some sort of slower model of the fast light that travels through fibre optic cables to get the message across. Pieces like this don't need an explanation to be beautiful and I can totally see this stay in the city. Unfortunately, it is all gone again.



A bit further, we walked into "O.T. 976", a piece that I expect the neighbours not minding that it was removed after 2 months. This piece without clear title (OT = Ohne Titel = Without Title) is inspired by string theory. Unfortunately, I am not very knowledgable about string theory (particles, and therefore objects, are composed of vibrating strings and membranes of energy), but my interpretation would be that the frames and the cables represent the (mem)branes and strings that sort of form a universe. So we would be looking at three semi-parallel universes that are somehow connected. The projector gives an interesting edge to it that I hope is some sort of reference to the holographic principle: a description of a space can be encoded as a lower dimensional space. And the neighbouring boats and houses clearly have a visual representation of the 3 parallel universes on their walls... Or that is just a side effect without any meaning. I didn't ask the artist.


O.T. 976

While walking to an art piece that I knew would be at the corner of the next canal, we ran into a container with a big audience. I didn't memorise the map, so I was pretty surprised to see what was going on. Here the "Action>Reaction 2.0" was hidden. Kids were going mental for the lights here... No clue about the meaning, they would run back and forth to touch the lights to see the colours change. Very entertaining, but hard to capture if your exposure is slightly longer 😉.

These kids are a perfect display of what this piece is about. It's all about buttons that you push to get a reward. If these kids would do it more organised they would be able to actually create a fun pattern or even a drawing on the wall with 1000 lights/buttons. But that just highlights the difference between grown-ups and kids... the little ones are easier to satisfy.


Action>Reaction 2.0

We now entered the Herengracht. The canal where most of the art can be found. It is a perfect location to build structures like the next one. "Light a Wish" is a great example of a light artwork that is built over the canal, which is awesome when you do the canal cruise. I have seen amazing structures in the past where it almost felt that you were inside the art when you were on the boat.

Light a Wish is a bunch of (20) giant dandelion seeds that carry the wish it was given when the fluff was blown off the flower. They are still flying in the air carried by the wind (cabled in this case). My friend said they looked like giant tampons and now I can't unsee...


Light a Wish


Strangers in the Light

We could see the next piece already in the distance. This is one where I find the name intriguing. "Strangers in the Light" is a double piece of giant pedestrian traffic light figures (one red and one green).

Have you ever thought about it this way? Within the black box of the traffic light, these 2 creatures have never seen each other and are therefore complete strangers. Whenever one appears, the other disappears and that is kinda sad, because they could be a great couple. Now that they are removed from their light, they can finally see and meet each other. Kinda romantic if they just wouldn't have put a giant container between the two...

Frank Sinatra would have loved this piece.

Our boat tour guide told the tourists on board that everybody in Amsterdam ignores these lights anyway (like it was no big deal). That may be the truth among the youth, but it kind of angered me that she was so relaxed about that.


Now we get to my field of expertise. "A.N.N.", which stands for ‘artificial neural network’. This bright red over canal piece uses blue moving lights to visualise a process that is similar to brain activity. Brain scans often show highlighted spots to show the areas of the brain that have been activated. But that is just artificial for the purpose of visualisation.

That is my bridge to artificial neural networks, which is a way of machine learning. Like in a brain, ANN algorithms handle receiving, processing and transmitting of information. So this representation of the brain would also be a perfect picture for the data transmission going on within ANN. I just love how AI looks so gorgeous this way!



Do you recognise the items hanging over the canal in the below photo? I didn't! But "Midnight Summer Dream" is a big collection of washing machine drums lit up in 4 different colours. I didn't really understand how it fits into the theme of this Light Festival. But the artist behind it just wanted to show that you can create amazing things with ordinary recycled objects... Gorgeous... but I would love a better explanation of the name and the link with the theme...


Midnight Summer Dream


Another one of my favourites came up next. Sponsored by the Van Gogh Museum is the "Starry Night" piece, inspired by the famous painting by van Gogh with the same name. I love how they used tiny light tubes in the same way as van Gogh used brush strokes to paint that sky. But as you notice, it only shows the sky of that painting and not the village on the hill. And this is the interesting bit about this piece. Where once, van Gogh was able to see the stars from a town, and captured it perfectly for everyone else to see... we now need his painting to see stars in a city like Amsterdam.

Through this light artwork, the people in Amsterdam are able to see the sky like we are supposed to see it. If only there wasn't this much light pollution!


Starry Night

We were almost at our destination, some 5 kilometres into the walk. Our fingers were freezing and it was time to meet our friends waiting in a bar nearby. But not before we saw the giant spider on the bridge! "SPIDER on the bridge" is a massive spider that is build of 80 smaller led based spiders. No need to be afraid of these spiders though. They aren't real!

One small spider is about 2 meters in diameter, which makes this a huge structure. It's amazing to see when you walk underneath it on the bridge. And scary surprise... with some light effects (they programmed the light) it almost looks like the smaller spiders are crawling around!! But is the medium the message here? I don't know...


SPIDER on the Bridge


Absorbed by Light

Last but not least, near the Hermitage you will find "Absorbed by Light" which most of you will be able to identify with. Three human figures are sitting on a bench while holding their phones and staring at their screens. I love how the only light used in this piece is coming from the screens, making it painfully obvious what the message is about.

You can take a seat in between them, and they will not notice. Ironically, busloads of people did sit between them to quickly snap a selfie to post on one of the many social media platforms they are addicted to. We need to think in what way we depend on our lives being light up by things that happen in the digital world. When is the turning point where we get more excited about a like (or an upvote) than an actual nice face-to-face conversation with a friend in a pub over a beer?

I know I am past that turning point... I don't like beer so all I got are your comments and upvotes 😘.



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