A lighthouse lens at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

When developing our light-based concepts + materials for LIGHT KEEPER, we were fascinated by the possibility of creating large-scale projections using analog technology. For many years, we’ve been fascinated with the spectral possibilities of fresnel lenses, first through overhead projection lenses, and then through the large-scale glass lenses found in lighthouses. While we were considering the relationship between Aiken Place Park (a green space on the edge of Lake Ontario) and light, we drew a correlation between lighthouses, water, warnings, and celestial events.

As part of our research for this project, we visited lighthouses in Canada and Australia, as well as the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, famous for their collection of lenses.

The lighthouse on Toronto Island

According to UNESCO World Heritage Organization, lighthouses were first used to direct Grecian ships and other naval vessels as early as the 1st Century A.D. The closest lighthouse to Aitken Place Park is on Toronto Island at Gibraltar Point. We visited the lighthouse as a matter of reference, wanting to fully understand the relationship between beacons and Lake Ontario. Built in the early 1800s, Gibraltar Point Lighthouse shed insight into the former wildness of Lake Ontario, in the era before Toronto became a booming metropolis.

The lighthouse itself is rumoured to be haunted. Even the Parks employee who let us into the building refused to enter with us, citing previous paranormal experiences.

The people charged with caring for lighthouses, maintaining the constant rotation of the lights, and polishing the giant fresnel lenses (which were initially lit with kerosene and quickly became dirty), were called “light keepers.” This is the origin of our artwork’s name.

Lighthouse on Rottnest Island, Australia

Many lighthouses are situated in remote and dangerous places. Before automation, labours of a light keeper were often lonely and isolated, requiring constant vigilance to maintain the kerosene lamps and cleanliness of the lenses. Most light keepers worked in a small group, tending to their lighthouse 24 hours a day, especially during stormy conditions. There is a great mystery surrounding the disappearance of a group of light keepers on Christmas day in 1900, often referenced by conspiracy theorists and lighthouse lovers alike.

The lighthouse lenses themselves are beautiful objects, constructed from a series of curved glass prisms – an embodiment of simple physics intended to focus and project light into the distance. Depending on the distance their flash needs to reach, lighthouse lenses can measure up to 12 feet high and weigh 1800 lbs.

Exploring the lens collection at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

Light is used as a medium for sending messages across vast dark spaces, guiding naval vessels, and signalling danger or change ahead. The length, colour, and number of flashes from a lighthouse created a wayfinding device, serving the dual purpose of warding vessels away from rocky shores and indicating their location on the map. Similarly, patterns painted on the exterior of each lighthouse conveyed a specific geographic location to ships during daylight hours.

Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh, Scotland

Because fresnel lenses magnify light, larger lighthouse lenses must constantly spin during daytime hours to avoid focusing sunlight and causing fires. Early lenses spun via elaborate, clock-like mechanisms, with the lenses themselves floating on shallow pools of mercury.

Peering into a lighthouse lens at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses

An unintended byproduct of the prisms used to build fresnel lenses is rainbow light, projected into the shadows surrounding the lenses. This is the effect we’re most interested in capturing with the analog components of LIGHT KEEPER, referencing the wayfinding characteristics of lighthouses and tying them back to the phenomenology of water-bodies, of weather, and of natural spaces.