John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
A team of "light painters" make jellyfish, birds and a whale appear in this dazzling video from Germany.
Painting with light has been around since the 1930s, when Man Ray used a beam and a long-exposure photograph to scrawl his signature into thin air. Picasso later fooled around with the technique for LIFE shutterbug Gjon Mili, outlining a bull and centaur (if you squint just right) inside a shadowed room.
But light painting has really come into its own with the advance of computer and optical technology. Among the throng of artists doing stunning work in this most-transient of mediums is Lichtfaktor, a photon-obsessed collective based in Cologne, Germany. Lictfaktor has used lights and long captures to produce a range of startling videos: In "Darkest Hour," a snaking beam of evil orange light stalks and kills pedestrians, while "Trauma / Face Your Fears" was inspired by PTSD caused by violence or childhood sexual abuse. Whoever thinks light-based art can't explore serious themes should watch these short films.
Then again, it doesn't have to be serious. The Lichtfaktor people delved into the lighter (hah!... eh) side of their craft with a recent collaboration with clothing company dENiZEN. The resulting video, "Shine a Light for Nature," imagines what would happen if a jailbreak occurred at a zoo for light-based lifeforms. Over four nights of work, the team blazed a menagerie of fauna over Cologne's frigid streets and parks, including a huge octopus wiggling its tentacles inside an automotive husk, a sea of jellyfish pulsing in the air and a snail whose "shell" is a discarded, cardboard box. The video won a 2012 German Web Video Award; watch it below.