Amsterdam Light Festival is an annual event in Amsterdam that brights up the urban landscape and illuminates its streets with creative light sculptures.
This year 7th edition was inspired by Canadian professor, philosopher and intellectual Marshall McLuhan, who is particularly known for his studies of the media.
I have studied media, and read McLuhan’s most popular work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), therefore I was particularly attracted to the theme.
After visiting Amsterdam Light Festival by boat and admiring the wonderful light-sculptures from artists all around the world, I would like to share my reflection on the illuminating experience.

”The Medium Is The Message”

What did McLuhan mean?

McLuhan’s most famous statement ”The medium is the message” was the inspiration behind this year’s sculptures. But what did the famous scientist want to explain with this statement?

When analysing media we often tend to restrict their meaning to the message they are portraying. Whether it is the symbolic meaning of a newspaper article, news or podcast, we tend to focus only on its story-line, while forgetting that our perception of the story is enormously influenced by the medium itself.

The medium, in this means, is the form through which we receive the message – it can be video, television, newspaper, a sound recording, etc.
The appearance of the message is as important as the message itself! Why?

Think about how you perceive messages from different mediums. For example – would a scary story have the same effect on you if you read it or watch it in a form of horror movie?
Would an article without pictures have the same effect as the one with them?
One of my favourite songs is Just a Gigolo by David Lee Ruth. If you listen to the song, it has a happy, uplifting rhythm. Although, if you only read its lyrics, you might find the song sad, especially the part where he sings:

“I ain’t got nobody
Nobody cares for me
Nobody cares for me
I’m so sad and lonely
Sad and lonely, sad and lonely
Won’t some sweet mama come and take a chance with me?
‘Cause I…”

This song is just an example of how the medium can affect our perception and the meaning of the message.

The medium and public opinion

The choice of the medium to pass a message is the ultimate plan on how to shape public opinion. We all know that media shapes the public opinion and is a powerful tool, used to direct what people will believe in, and how they see the world. When watching the news we often get so drawn into the story itself, that we forget about how the whole format of the news is directed in advance, how the words,  images and videos which are displayed are carefully chosen and edited.
We see what is happening in our country, in our world, through watching the daily news, and at the same time we see only what the news programme wants to show us…

In his theory McLuhan explains how blindly affected are people by the media and by the medium, how we connect the fragments of what is happening to a complete picture, and extends his philosophical views even to the value and importance of the technology.

The choice of the medium affects our perception of the message. Ultimately the medium affects our perception of reality.

The Connection

Remarkably, McLuhan has compared the medium to the light bulb when he tried to explain the difference between the medium and the message.

His words were:
The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no ‘content’. And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all.
For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralised. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.

A simplified explanation of the connection between the light installations and McLuhan’s theory is that the lights installations are the message, while Amsterdam is the medium.

My Experience

I visited Amsterdam Light Festival by boat. I would recommend this experience because the boat tour includes the explanation of each sculpture and a short introduction of the artist who made it. The downside of this experience is the lack of possibility to make good photos, because the boat does not stop at all, and if it is raining (as in Amsterdam usually is), you might have a hard time capturing them through the window.

This is why next year I would like to combine the boat tour with the walking one.

Have you ever been to Amsterdam Light Festival?
Share your experience in the comments!


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