Ian Cheney on “The City Dark”

Ian and crowd on SPWS rooftop

The image above suggests the relevance of Ian Cheney’s recent Guest Lecture at SPWS.

SPWS Guest Lectures invite artists to present work that responds to environmental phenomena. Presenters to date have included LoVid (Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus) and Douglas Repetto, who collaborate as Cross Current Resonance Transducer on projects that record and transform weather data, and Stephanie Rothenberg, who gave an Introduction to Basic Divination.

Ian Cheney, our third Guest Lecturer, is the co-creator of the recent documentaries King Corn and The Greening of Southie. and, together with Curt Ellis operates as Wicked Delicate Films.

At SPWS, Ian gave a preview of his new project, The City Dark, which poses questions about a phenomenon that pervades contemporary life yet receives little popular attention: light pollution.

Who needs the night sky? Do we understand the impact of artificial light on our lives and our environment? Is darkness a natural resource?

image of Red Hook, Brooklyn, courtesy of Ian Cheney

Starting with his immediate personal experience of the night sky – both in his longtime home in South Boston and in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he recently relocated – Ian presented an argument in chapters, investigating the impact that the rapidly dwindling proportion of natural darkness in our night sky has on astronomy, global security (!), birds, turtles, and possibly human health.

Things you might not know: one job some astronomers perform is detecting NEOs (Near Earth Objects) which threaten to crash into the Earth (presumably so the US government can intercept them with a Star Wars missile or a tractor beam emitted by some Nevada military base? Better, real information online here) Also: 100 million birds are killed every year in the US by crashing into buildings; in the film, scientists claim this may be due to the impact of artificial light on the night sky, which seems to be crucial to migratory navigation.

The film also looks at the sheer wastefulness of our culture’s attitude toward artificial light. We equate the lighting of outdoor spaces with functionality and safety, yet most of the lighting systems currently in use expend vast amounts of energy on upward-directed light and dispersed glare. That office buildings stand unoccupied and lit throughout the night is a matter of negligence, yet also an indication of cultural unwillingness to sacrifice a sign of urban progress to purported ecological goals. At what cost do the glare and sparkle of the New York skyline and the Las Vegas strip, like Rome’s marble monuments, signify power, wealth, and the triumph of our civilization? .

The work’s most compelling argument, though, seems to come not from a specific empirical fact about light pollution, but rather from its engagement with the sublime beauty and mystery of the night sky. That astronomers might save us from the next ice age is less the point than that the places where they can work are quickly disappearing. Cheney has a clear fascination with the extremes to which night-sky lovers will go to experience true darkness and peer into the depths of the universe.

image of Portal, AZ, courtesy of Ian Cheney

At Ian’s suggestion, we darkened the SPWS space as much as possible for the lecture (hence the lack of photos). People adapt to light pollution as to noise or any other fact of urban life, but once you attempt to create a truly dark space in an urban environment you start to notice the pervasiveness of ambient artificial light.

On the weather station roof following the presentation, Ian fielded questions while planetariums from Ian and (SPWS founder) Heidi Neilson’s personal collections were on display in an improvised “viewing tent.”

The simulacra came in handy: due to the dome of light over the metro area (and the condominiums towering nearby) fewer than 10 stars were visible in the actual night sky over Long Island City.

trippy tent o planetaria

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