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Light culture

Light is about much more than being able to see. In Denmark, it is also about relaxing, feeling at home and being part of a community. In other places such as Jordan, light plays a completely different role.
Light in a Jordanian room
Living room in Jordan. Photo: Mikkel Bille.

You enter a cool, dark basement room and press the switch. The light flashes and crackles once, before it turns on completely and illuminates the brown cardboard boxes that stand completely silent side by side.

Or you take an evening stroll trip to Israel's Plads, where street lamps and lights from the apartments around the square intermix. It feels a little homely, but also alien at the same time.

Perhaps you know the feeling. But are there words that can describe such feelings? Not many, but a researcher and associate professor at RUC, Mikkel Bille, is in the process of changing that. He is an anthropologist and is interested in the relationship between people and things. How do people experience and use things? And how does light help to shape our experience and relationship with the world around us?

Light in Denmark and Jordan

His past research has shown that there are major differences in how people use light, depending on their cultural context. In Jordan, for example, lighting is about making rooms appear as large as possible.

"In Jordan, they think that the cold light from a fluorescent lamp or low energy light bulb is the best light in the world. The incandescent light bulb produces a slightly tired, yellowish and unpleasant light, in their opinion" says Mikkel Bille.

"The premise for what a room should be able to do is very different from Denmark. It's not about cosiness, but about formality, showing that you have a large home, that you are hospitable, honourable and generous" explains Mikkel Bille, who has been on field studies in Jordan for more than two years.

In Denmark, however, light should be dimmed, diffuse and yellow, and many Danes stockpiled incandescent light bulbs when they were banned. At the same time, we are big consumers of candles, even though they are very bad for the indoor climate. Each year we use 5.8 kg candles per inhabitant.

Mikkel Bille’s point is that light is embedded in cultural ways of seeing and acting and is about much more than what is good reading light, for example, or the most energy efficient:

"We illuminate the world so that it appears in a certain way. We decide whether it should be completely white, or have this cosy lighting that we talk about in Denmark. In this way, I am trying to change the way we talk about using light, from being a technological solution, i.e. a question of energy efficiency and the ideal reading light, to being a question of everyday practice and atmosphere, which plays an important but often unconscious role in people's lives.”


New research into light in the Nordic region

In his new research project, “'Living with Nordic Lighting”, which has just received a grant of DKK 5.8 million from the Velux Foundation, Mikkel Bille will collaborate with a number of other researchers to develop theories and methods for mapping and formulating how urban spaces are experienced. In the project, the researchers will specifically investigate the connection between light, atmosphere and everyday practice in the three Scandinavian capitals of Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm.

Urban planners and designers increasingly use light design to shape a city's space. The idea is that spotlights, placing and colours from new light technologies can increase security, mobility and energy efficiency.

“How does a white LED light or an old lamp pole affect the atmosphere in an urban open space? And what does this mean for us as people? The city is not just a stage that people passively enter into. It is a living space, with social communities, histories and changing atmospheres, which is negotiated by different users at different times and it is important that we investigate this phenomenon if we want to understand the role that technologies play in human life and the development of cities that are good to live in" says Mikkel Bille.

One aim of the project is to find ways to describe different atmospheres:

"For example, there is a very special atmosphere when you are on your way home from the city on a summer morning. The sun is rising and the city is deserted, yet not completely empty. Or places that feel unpleasant, without us knowing exactly why, but where the lighting plays a role. How can we describe what these atmospheres are? And how can we understand the city, not just as streets, lamps and infrastructure, but as atmospheric spaces for people, created through illumination of better or worse" says Mikkel Bille.