Searchlights have been around for well over 100 years. The use of tightly collimated beams was typical of the first World Exhibitions where they were used to visualize the new energy that gave birth to modernity: electricity. Illuminating engineers were in high demand at the beginning of the 20th century, as described by Daniel Canogar, among others. Not only were they used for highlighting emblematic buildings but also to direct aeroplanes into landing trajectories. The use of collimated searchlights in Albert Speer’s Nazi spectacles produced intimidating architectures of monologic power where, as Canogar points out, people were props in the fascist spectacle. During the war, searchlights were used as a tracking devices for anti-aircraft surveillance, a function that was later replaced by the invention of the computer mouse, as Axel Roch shows.
At the end of the Second World War, searchlights were used in Victory parades and since then have been associated with celebration. Today, searchlights are used mostly by corporate or public events that try to recreate a festive environment that we associate with a Hollywood film premiere, using repetitive light sequences.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer first produced a remote controlled searchlight project in 1999 for the Zócalo Square in Mexico City. Since then he has created installations in dozens of cities around the world where the public controls the searchlights using the internet, mobile phones, megaphones or heart rate sensors. The idea is always to allow public control of the spectacular lighting possible with searchlights, which normally follows a pre-programmed sequence of movements. There are a large number of precedents for this type of work. A very thorough compilation of annotated links of historical precedents was compiled by Lozano-Hemmer’s team at www.amodal.net/precedents.html