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

“Open Air” is inspired by Sol LeWitt’s “art of instructions” as well as László Moholy-Nagy’s paintings by telephone in 1922. Another early precedent was the teleoperation of the Lindbergh searchlight in Los Angeles in 1928, activated when President Coolidge pressed a telegraph key at his desk at the White House.

Spotlights on the Eiffel tower, Paris Universal Exposition, 1889.
Postcard of Philadelphia City Hall, 1908. "Colour Picture" Publication, Boston, Mass. sold by Central News Co., Philadelphia, PA.

Historical Precedents

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell exhibited his telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

William Rau

Peace Jubilee Court of Honor, Philadelphia, 1898. The Peace Jubilee celebrated the victory of the Spanish–American War in 1898; a grand arch of the Court of Honor was illuminated along with City Hall, The Union League, and adjacent buildings on Broad Street.

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

“Telephone Pictures”, 1922 Moholy-Nagy ordered five paintings from a factory; the images that were to appear in the paintings were dictated over the phone.

Author unknown

"Illumination Effects" at the Sesqui-centennial International Exposition, Philadelphia, PA, 1926. The Sesquicentennial Exposition commemorated one hundred and fifty years of American independence and boasted elaborate lighting effects, including a mammoth eighty-foot Liberty Bell illuminated with thousands of lights.

Marta Minujín

"Minuphone", 1967, Patrons could enter a telephone booth, dial a number, and be surprised by colors projecting from the glass panels, sounds, and seeing themselves on a television screen in the floor.

John Giorno

"Dial-A-Poem", 1969 A telephone service created in the late 1960s by John Giorno. Fifteen phone lines were set up to play back a random poem from a selection of live recordings.

E.A.T. - Experiments in Art and Technology

"Telex: Q&A", New York, Stockholm, Ahmededabad, Tokyo, 1971. Four telex terminals were set-up in New York, Stockholm, Ahmedabad, and Tokyo. The public in each of the four countries submitted questions and the corresponding answers to participants in the other cities.

Sol LeWitt

"Cube Structures Based on Five Modules", 1971-1974 Sol LeWitt works with modules and systems that are simple and impersonal, to explore repetition and seriality. His works perfected the concept of "instructions" as a form of Art.

Otto Piene

"Olympic Rainbow", XX Olympic Games Munich, Germany, 1972 One of Piene's "Sky Art" projects was the 1,600 foot "Olympic Rainbow" for the closing ceremony of the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.

Rockne Krebs

"Sky-Pi", 1973. Two argon laser beams and mirrors, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. Commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a three-week period, two laser beams emerged from the interior of the Museum, reflected off mirrors positioned on the Museum’s terrace, and travelled more than a mile along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to City Hall. Patrick Radebaugh, photographer.

Kit Galloway, Sherrie Rabinowitz

"Satellite Arts Project ‘77", 1975-1977 This project, the first example of telecollaborative arts, allowed artists who were geographically separated to perform together through the use of video transmissions.

Venturi and Rauch

"Plan for Benjamin Franklin Parkway Bicentennial Celebration" designed in 1973 for the American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976.

Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown

"Fairmount Park Study,1980 (unrealized). A proposal for Penn’s Light, a light column symbolic of Quaker “inner light,” for the 300th Anniversary of Philadelphia in 1982. An installation of 14 Crouse-Hinds searchlights in a 100' diameter circular position directed vertically into the sky at Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park, on axis with the Parkway and City Hall.

Toyo Ito

"Tower of Winds", Yokohama, 1986 Toyo Ito’s interactive architecture, such as his 1986 Tower of Winds in Yokohama, transforms on environmental changes such as noises and the speed and direction of the wind.

Eduardo Kac and Ed Bennett

"Ornitorrinco" 1989 Ornitorrinco the telerobot was a first contact with the prolific field of artistic teleoperation.


"Winke, Winke: A message transmission", Austria, 1993 Winke, Winke allows participants to send messages via access terminals and Internet connection to a robot that translates these messages into signals of the International Semaphor System.

Louis Phillippe Demers and Bill Vorn

"Espace Vectoriel", Montréal 1993 An installation where the presence of the public triggered motion patterns and sounds from robotic light assemblies.

Christian Möller and Joachim Sauter

"Networked Skin", Linz 1994 A project for the Ars Electronica Center, designed to transform the building with a global interface.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Will Bauer

"The Trace", Madrid 1995 An installation where two remote participants shared the same telematic space constructed with intersecting light beams

ETV Hackers, Delft U of T

"The World's Largest Tetris Game", Faculty Building of Electrical Engineering, Delft U of T, Netherlands, 1995 People all over the world could play the game Tetris by using a simple telnet session and all the West of Holland could watch what they were doing on the building. At the same time the Telecom Student Club of ETV used a GSM telephone and a laptop to put every 10 seconds a picture on the Web.

Knowbotic Research

"Anonymous Muttering" 1996-97 An installation featuring real time intersection of net data with sound and light transformation.

Masaki Fujihata

"Light on the Net" Project, 1996 A piece that allows turning individual lightbulbs on a display in Tokyo.

Ken Goldberg

"Dislocation of Intimacy" 1998 A telepresence piece which allows participants on the web to turn lights on and off and watch the shadows produced by an offscreen installation.

Hans Muller and Zwarts / Jansma Architecten

Leidschenveen Tunnel installation, 1998 A piece that allows people to send messages over the net, which are then presented in an electronic display in public space.


"Clickspace" Linz, 1998 A three module project that allowed light, sounds and messages to be displayed in various buildings in Linz, Austria.

Association Creation

"Bump", Linz, 1999 A catwalk - 1.5 by 20 meters - is installed in the public space of each city involved. When a person steps onto the catwalk their weight triggers an impulse that is transferred into the other city by means of a data-line. There, a pneumatic piston raises the corresponding board by a few centimetres.

Germaine Koh

"Prayer", Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 1999 A computer captures keystrokes and converts them into Morse-encoded puffs of smoke that are released through a vent in the building.