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Wonderland: Julia Scher, Esther Schipper, Berlin, 2018 (photo by Andrea Rossetti)

Imagine arriving at an art exhibition to find that strobing lights fill the entire space. For me, these trigger migraines. If I look at them for more than a minute, I will get vertigo, vomit, and I might temporarily lose my vision. Many others, of course, have full-on seizures. There are generally small plaques at such shows that warn of the strobe lights. But often, I encounter them after I’ve traveled to see the show, after the strobing light has hit my eyes. While these small signs do technically warn, they typically seem like afterthoughts, where accessibility gestures like strobe warning signs were added on post-hoc rather than incorporated into the fabric of the exhibition design.

Take the exhibition Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018, currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The strobing effect of a projected work located at the center of the group show was visible across half of the other works, meaning that I couldn’t see them. Showing this piece on a monitor or in an enclosed space could have resolved this issue. The same can be said of Jenny Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao (1997) at the Guggenheim Bilbao, which scrolls and flickers and is piercingly bright; installed in the museum’s lobby, it’s impossible to avoid it. For Julia Scher’s Wonderland at Esther Schipper, a bright strobe light fills the central room. It’s on a timer but there is no warning as to when it will start, and no other way to enter the rest of the exhibition. Similarly, a strobing work during the exhibition Crash at Gropius Bau was installed in an unenclosed staircase. In each case, there was no advance indication that people affected by strobes should not bother making the trip, and no warning about the strobing until its effects were visible.

Jenny Holzer, “Protect Me from What I Want,” Times Square (1986) (photo by John Marchael)

I can’t help but wonder if these decisions were founded on two unfortunate misconceptions. The first is that people impacted by strobe lights are rare, and are part of the “general public,” rather than the critics and curators of the art world. This lack of accommodation reinforces ableism within the art world in a manner similar to neglecting to provide closed captions for videos, or failing to note if an exhibition or event is wheelchair accessible on a website.

Wrap-around glasses (image courtesy of Emily Watlington)

The second assumption is that strobing effects do not cause significant harm. For myself and others, even the imperceptible flicker of fluorescents has triggered many a migraine. This form of gaslighting is all too familiar: fluorescents were impossible for me to avoid in graduate school, for instance, so I often donned wrap-around glasses. (It was at MIT, so I could pass as casually rocking a VR headset.) Over time I developed a bad habit of internalizing this gaslighting, telling myself that it’s not that bad, and that I am “being sensitive,” as I was often told by colleagues upon asking if I could turn off the fluorescents and plug in a desk lamp I had purchased to compensate for the inconvenience I caused. But I have grown to be more firm: on a recent journey home, I blindly and dizzily vomited into the u-bahn tracks, only to be grabbed by a stranger who saved me from an oncoming train I could not see. I’ve since decided that I don’t care about exhibitions that don’t care about me.

If you’re wondering: Yes, there are medications; different ones work for different bodies. Since I am prone to vomiting my medication, my options are one that costs 50 dollars per dose or one whose side effects can include permanent facial paralysis. I usually prefer to wait it out.

James Turrell, “Dissolve (Curved Wide Glass)” (2017), collection of Hudson C. Lee (© James Turrell, photo by Florian Holzherr)

So to artists, galleries, and museums: if you use a strobe, please use it thoughtfully. This is actually quite simple to do. Take James Turrell’s Into the Light exhibition at Mass MoCA. The sole work that contains flashing lights is situated in an enclosed room, and an especially kind and knowledgeable attendant verbally warns everyone in line for this timed entry installation of its flashing lights. If an unenclosed strobe is truly “necessary” to a piece (I am not convinced that excluding a population for the sake of art would ever be “necessary,” but if), then a simple warning on the website would be immensely appreciated. In addition, offering wrap-around sunglasses for visitors to pass through an installation like Holzer’s in Bilbao would be a simple and courteous gesture. But a small plaque placed within the reach of the strobe’s effect is clearly not enough. Better solutions are easy and require little effort or expense if only curators, artists, and exhibition designers recognize that strobes do affect people, and that these affected people matter.

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Emily Watlington

Emily Watlington is a 2018–2019 Fulbright Scholar based in Berlin and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Previously, she was the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. In 2018, she received the Vera List Writing Prize for...

8 replies on “Art Spaces Should be More Mindful About Their Use of Strobe Lights”

  1. Or perhaps the writer is promoting an elitist attitude toward proletarian constructivism? Contemporary art is informed by technology in contemporary life, not by polite Victorian quietist mannerism.

  2. Thank u for letting us know of your experience, AND OF COURSE warnings should be placed in all those ways & places you suggest. It does seem to expose a very narrow view of “others” and what their needs might be in the elitist intelligentsia of the art world, which seems to still be stuck in the 1960s in many ways. Enough strobes, already! We got it.

  3. I really appreciate you writing about this topic. As an artist who has the same sensitivities to flickering lights, it was so refreshing to read. I, too, have had to avoid fluorescent lights. As a working graduate student, I’ve luckily been able to request accessibility accommodations to have light fixtures switched out with LED lights in both my studio and my work office, but often get somewhat judgmental remarks about doing so.

    I recently had an episode in which a peer’s video piece triggered a pretty debilitating migraine that put me “down for the count” for the rest of the critiques that day and left me foggy into the next. I felt awful, but I knew there was nothing I could do to control it. I think many people hear “migraine” and just think we’re talking about headaches. They don’t understand the intense physical impact it has for us.

    I have felt for a long time the art world isn’t doing enough to be inclusive. The Yayoi Kusama mirror rooms are a good example. Since they were originally created in the 70s, they weren’t subject to ADA compliance laws to be wheelchair accessible, but Kusama could have modified them slightly–making the door and ramps just a few inches wider. As an artist myself, I understand the importance of upholding the artists’ intent with the piece, but there should be greater consideration of those with differences.

  4. I am not personally affected by strobe lights,etc. but I know a few people who are and most of those reading this article know somebody who is affected by them. I am sorry that most museums and some artists are not more sympathetic to these individuals. Thank you for writting your article.

  5. What do we say to people with hearing sensitivity at a heavy metal concert? Oh, we’ll turn down the volume for you? Watlington gives a needed and graphic account of how strobes affect her health. I just think better warning labels should be placed on strobe exhibits and as Watlington points out – do a better job “insulating” them from the rest of the gallery. But I don’t think there should ever be a movement to ban such work. That is still censorship.

    1. That’s not a fair comparison. Going to a heavy metal concert you know what to expect. I had a similar issue when I saw a work made of grinded hazelnut. As someone with a severe allergy, I freaked out (because it can be deadly), and there were no signs to suggest it was safe for those of us with allergies. It was simply sitting in the middle of the gallery. Thankfully later I discovered it was safe, but it could’ve been very serious. I think the suggestion is audiences have to know what to expect. I don’t think it would be fair to expect that no gallery goer would have a nut allergy.

    2. Did I miss the part where a ban on such artwork was suggested? I’m one of those who is affected by strobe lights (I was discharged from the Navy because of it) but I wouldn’t be in favor of banning art that uses strobe effects. Just let me know about it before it catches me unaware, as the article says.

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