Art Spaces Should be More Mindful About Their Use of Strobe Lights

Assuming that critics and curators are not part of the population sensitive to strobe lights leads to a lack of accommodation that reinforces ableism and exclusion within the art world.

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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