The Lightswitch Object

A work of art requires affirmation from an audience. Without reception, and the means for reception, there is a very ‘tree falling in the woods’ situation. In considering the artwork as a network of effect, the light switch is a vital element. Formalist theorists prefer to think of the artwork as an independent unit expressing specific autonomy with no reliance on the beholder. The 1970s saw the dawn of conceptual art and with it, the proclamation that a communicated idea was of more value than a self-sufficient art object. An artwork is a fluid and changeable entity made up of many components in an active network. The artwork, and indeed the object, is an event in which there are many counterparts. The value of an ordinary object, a light switch within the gallery, will be considered to argue this.  

“Phone Voice: I wanna play a game.
Casey Becker: [crying] No.
Phone Voice: Then he dies right now!
Casey Becker: [screaming and crying] NO!! No!
Phone Voice: Which is it? [serious tone] Which is it?
Casey Becker: [crying] Well… what kind of a game?
Phone Voice: Turn off the light. You’ll see what kind of game. Just do it! [Casey walks to the light switch.]
Steve Orth: [muffled] No, Casey! No! No! [Casey switch off the lights.] NO! CASEY!!!”

It is common in the horror movie genre for the light switch to be a pinnacle object. To turn on the lights ensures safety in illumination, whereas the darkness of lights off signifies uncertainty and danger.[1] Scream, 1996, is a self-referential horror movie utilising, and making aware of, many conventional tactics of the genre. The characters in Scream are themselves fans of horror movies. When Casey Becker turns off the lights at the request of the phone villain, dubbed Ghostface, Steve Orth knows she will perish.

More recently, the viral internet film Lights Out, features this eventuality of darkness, brought on by the switching off of a light switch. The short film shows the protagonist switching the lights off and on repeatedly to reveal and conceal a mysterious figure. In fear, the protagonist duck-tapes the light switch on, to ensure safety and allow her to sleep comfortably. However, the duck-tape is heard being pealed off and when the light switch is no longer forced on, the figure can be heard roaming, The figure, or demon, is shown at the end, in the protagonist’s bedroom, in true eyes-rolling, hair-matted, horror depiction.[2] The comments section of this video on social media are focused on the light switch as opposed to the figure directly. Responsibility of terror is given to the light switch when it is exclaimed ‘I’m never turning my light off again’. Like Steve Orth, it is known that when a light switch is turned off in this genre, danger will ensue. This shows an unexpected ability of the material object to exist as an exterior environment that habituates and prompts human behaviour.

Objects condition human actors and allow people to become socialized as social beings. In Materiality: An Introduction, Daniel Miller outlines this and refuses to reduce materialism to a quantity of commodity objects.[3] He details a theory of things, with reference to Goffman’s Frame Theory[4], injecting objects with an energetic importance. Frames set up by location, through objects, determine the context of human activity and cue expectations of behaviour. When frame is appropriate it is seamless; objects are more powerful when made less aware of, claims Miller. It is argued that everything that constitutes given society is grounded in objects.

Just as lights off indicate danger in a horror movie and provoke a reaction of fear in the audience, lights on in the gallery doctrines learned behaviour. The white cube is a significant factor in the creation of art. The gallery’s assignation of value and exclusivity to an object renders it worthy of focused attention. The aesthetics of the white cube encourage this through an abundance of isolated space. Rules and regulations imposed on the public too infuse the objects with value. One cannot touch the art and therefore cannot discover the full function of it as a useful object. The white cube invokes physical boundaries.

Rules imposed within the boundaries of the white space negate handiness. Therefore, without use, objects take on new purpose. In a review of the artist Ceal Floyer’s work it is asked, ‘What is it?’. The answer follows, ‘Nothing. So it must be art then.’The purpose of an art object is to be contemplated as art. The white cube is stripped bare of useable objects. In a space devoted to displaying the aesthetic, where a fire-hose might accidentally be contemplated for decorative mystique, there is a constant risk of ‘artifying’. No clocks, calendars, or unnecessary fixtures remain in the white cube. The light switch does though. This particular object is necessary for the white cube to achieve the suspension of tactility and maintain a bleached out platform. The context artwork is placed in aids the status of the piece. Polished floors, painted walls, bright lights and light switches allow the white cube to function.

Real and Sensual Objects
The object has a certain amount of agency therefore. This agency is questioned, however, when common sense points to the fact that a human and an intending finger has instigated the light switch effect. Theories of materialism often view materials as a blank slate activated by human inscription.[5] In relying purely on human intentions and context to define objects, material properties vanish into the objects of their resulting arrangement and are thus unseen. This is why it becomes necessary, when trying to determine the light switch object itself as agentic, the presence of networks within, and the light switch as part of larger active networks, to look at more post-humanist theories, such as Jane Bennett and Bruno Latour.[6]

Ceal Floyer’s Light Switch provides insight into the representation of material components in the appearance of an object. The work of art shows the projection of a light switch on the wall of the white cube. The projection mimics dimensions of an average light switch and depicts generic attributes.A heavy looking projector, situated not far from the image, allows and demonstrates the process of image. Means of production is given more physical space in the gallery, in this piece, that the consumable image. Tim Ingold complains that ‘we see the building and not the plaster of its walls’, but in Light Switch, Floyer shows all. Both materialism and materials are apparent in a limited and dualistic composition.[7]

Light Switch 1992-9 by Ceal Floyer born 1968

Provoking another point of interest, Light Switch allows us to determine the difference between the real and sensual object. In the same way This is Not a Pipe, Floyer’s Light Switch is a separate object to a real light switch. Graham Harman claims that it is common practice in Speculative Realism to grant the status of object to many things that are mere images. He disagrees with this and would argue that the image of the light switch, although made object by the projector, is not directly corresponding to what it intends to represent.

The image of a light switch is a sensual object and provokes the qualities of a light switch. Because it is a sensual object, it does not stand for the real object, which is outside the human realm of understanding. This is what is termed Hardcore Realism, which takes real objects so seriously that it holds them to be irreplaceable by any conceptual model.

The object of a light switch cannot possibly show all facets at once. If a light switch was experienced by what Harman cites ‘experiences contents’, we would experience hundreds of qualities on a democratic plane. The experience of a light switch is therefore preferred as an ‘object-giving act’ The object is not fully realized by a list of possible qualities it might display at one time, or functions intended by humans. A light switch, and Light Switch, are separate things in themselves and are present as such from the start, with the ability to show multiple facets at different times. Objects are not considered fixed attributes of matter but systems of process based and changeable properties.[8] The light switch is a real object, displaying and yet remaining distinct from sensual qualities of intention.

Light Switch demonstrates the distance of objects to the viewer, by its binded dysfunctional thingness. Heideggerian notions claim that both hearts and hammers don’t appear present at hand if they are functioning efficiently. This is in tune with Miller’s theories of the unconscious shaping of behaviour by objects. It can be argued that an art object is a broken hammer then. Repurposed and not able for functioning use, the objects of Light Switch are all present at hand. Harman disregards this somewhat; the hammer is always distant, it is claimed. Objects are not in the realm of human understanding and so a hammer, a light switch and the work of art Light Switch, are all always distant to us. We can only experience them as sensual objects, or artworks.

The fluidity of the sensual object – the object of our experience – and its ability to show multiple facets, progresses the argument that an object is more than a fixed substance. It has been determined that materials offer more than the purpose of human intention. The light switch is an agentic object in the genre of horror movies. The light switch can be considered as both a real object, independent of human inscription and a sensual and changeable object that can be affected and affecting in a larger network.


[1] The Babadook is an example of such. The demon in this film lingers in darkness. When the main character is attempting to fight off the thing, she makes a point of turning on every light in the house.
[2] Watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmqPdXOczrw
[3] Throughout Miller’s introduction the monument is used to show effects of the overmining of objects. For example, the pyramids of Egypt were created by human beings and yet would loom over the subjects and embody a higher power through the ancient Egyptian investment in immateriality. The tendency towards immateriality and life after death is interestingly shown in regards to material objects such as the pyramids or mummification
[4] Goffman (1975) argued that much of our behaviour is cued by expectations which are determined by the frames which constitute the context of action.
[5] In Materials against Materiality Tim Ingold writes that in 2003 there was a Conference at the McDonald Institute.; Rethinking Materiality. The engagement of mind with the material world. The pretext for this came from reaction against excessive polarization of mind and matter that has led a generation of theorists to suppose that
[6] Post-human approaches propose a different ontology of people and things and thus precipitate a re-definition of their properties” – Martin Holbraad in reference to Latour.(17)
[7] In Can We Get Our Materialism Back Please? Latour uses Damien Ortega’s Cosmic Thing to demonstrate he material qualities of the object unpacked. Cosmic Thing is an exploded view of a Volkswagon Beetle. However, here it is only the separate materials that are shown; the car-thing is lost. The piece shows the materials in a deconstructed way, rendering the car useless. ‘Thingness’, what Harman would call the real qualities of the object, is lost. It is a grandiose gesture, similar to Ortega’s aforementioned Controller of the Universe, yet is not as sophisticated or successful as Floyer (19)
[8] Graham Harman maintains a distinction between human and non-human objects, but approaches both with a respectful disposition. It is reasoned that objects in themselves are not directly accessible to human knowledge.(8) This is not perceived as human failure, but a limitation of relationality in general. The philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger is used to outline Object Oriented Ontological terminology. Husserl holds the idealistic view that objects are observable before the mind and articulates the puzzling attribute that the individual object can be rendered with multiple facets.


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