This proceeding text based on the presentation in the CARPA8 colloquium reflects on the nature of VR artwork, a five-minute long video viewed in a head mounted device (HMD). The hybrid and iterative collaboration of three lighting designers lead them to take a closer look at the mechanisms of experiencing in a virtual environment. Through repeated viewings and discussions, the work became the catalyst to explore and analyse immersive, spatial VR experience. One of the key observations, that of feeling of being on a balcony, surrounded by vast space and random light phenomena, resulted in a theoretical link to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s metaphorical article The Disappearance of Fireflies (1975) and its later interpretation by historian Georges Didi-Huberman. With these theoretical inputs, the working group reflected their observations on virtual experience in the VR work and made notions on the spectator’s viewing mechanisms, the fringes of the dark and the visible, the distraction of attention, human embodiment, and immaterial embodiment. Analogue working process behind the VR work, usually considered digital, invited the writers to reflect the nature of algorithms and quality of the immediate choices made by the lighting designer.


Our presentation in the CARPA8 seminar as well as this proceeding text presents the collaborative research we have conducted in a group of three lighting designers, Meri Ekola, Tomi Humalisto and Nanni Vapaavuori, during a period of one year. We embarked on a journey without a set goal on which the process has informed the next steps to take. Collaboration started in August 2022 by the initiation of Ekola when she invited Vapaavuori and Humalisto to meet and reflect on virtual reality as a technology to host artistic experience. During the first encounter she presented her artistic experiment, a visually immersive video for head mounted display (HMD), and asked the question, whether the virtual experience without physically shared space could be considered light art? This video became the central element of the collaborative research along with written reflections and documentation in audio, video and text gathered during the process.

Hybrid working with repeated viewings

Our work was based on a hybrid form. In our sessions we were present both online and live in-person as we were spread in different countries. Our working got soon characterised by two meta-aspects we found recurring and by the circumstances of the chosen medium.

First aspect was a kind of “metaspeech” that occurred as a tool to both watch and experience actively, to share private perceptions, observations and associations in the very same moment they happen. As the viewing sessions were done together, the presence of colleagues created a “two-way lane” situation where the VR work could be experienced both directly and through witnessing a colleague’s experience. Two parallel perspectives were revealed; the creative process of the artist and the audience’s experience. In the process it became clear that we share similar professional practices and roles linked to lighting design. This made it easy for us to navigate freely between different perception modes: the point of views of the creator-artist, (artisan)-technician, the spectator, and the light enthusiast. The working changed between making observations and reflecting and analysing those observations. Typically, in meeting sessions the VR work was watched with a free flow of metaspeech, the viewing was recorded, and observations discussed. Repeating the viewing experience was a conscious decision rooted in a belief that recurring viewings would allow us to dig deeper compared to the first experience.

Screen capture from the recording of the first viewing session on 7th of October 2022 happening simultaneously in Brussels and in Helsinki.

Second meta-aspect we call “a meta-hassle”, which seems to be non-avoidable whenever even a simple technological tool is involved. Very often the hassle was about operating the VR headset, whether it was on, charged, file properly loaded or device updated. Sometimes the video file wasn’t playing or the internet connection crashed. Because the beginning of the video is dark and the first visual events do not appear immediately the impatience to see something became prominent. However, this was recognised as a part of the experience. The very essence of it was waiting for something to happen and not being sure if the device is working properly or not.

Technical framework and the visual form of the VR work

The artwork under examination during this research was a 05:33 minutes long video file recorded in 1920 × 1080 pixel resolution and later mapped in 2160 × 1080 resolution and in 360 degrees. It was a try-out version of a work exhibited in fall 2023 as a part of a group exhibition Hillitön Valo in Hyvinkää Art Museum. The work is intended to be watched with a head mounted display (HMD). It does not have sound.

A screen capture of the 360 degree video file we used as the research material.

In one of the working assignments Meri Ekola has described her video’s visual events in following manner:

The images in the video are subtle light shifts varying in the broad scale of lightness and darkness, kind of a light play in constant motion. The material includes complete darkness, where the visual field is totally black, and very highly exposed parts, where the visual field is partly completely white. The full scale in brightness and in lightness between the two extremes are in use when different size soft edged light areas, reminding blobs, lumps, and clods are formed in front of our eyes. Organic movement of these appearing forms is aleatory. It is circular but still without a distinctive direction or pattern, seemingly sweeping, turning and winding around itself. The fluid boundaries of light and dark stretch the space in between, in turns narrowing down and widening up.


Observations on bodily boundaries and spatial limits

The experience of the VR work and describing it turned out to be important in the group’s collaboration. Nanni Vapaavuori and Tomi Humalisto, who at first had a pristine experience, described their experience in spatial, visual and embodied perspectives. The sessions and discussions were recorded to recall accurate expressions.

First of all, Vapaavuori and Humalisto were paying attention to the nature of spatiality when viewing the video work with a HMD. Navigating in 360 degree video felt different compared to visits in 3D virtual spaces with many paths and interactive functions. The space felt more like something “where you just settle in”[2].

The visual quality of the video felt pixelated but instead of being interpreted simply as decreased resolution, it was “like looking at embers”[3]. At the edges of the more luminous areas, the pixelated material gained constantly alive quality and created a luminous effect.

The feeling of being in the middle of immersive and vast space repeated itself in many of the observations. The spectators may feel they were on a “flying carpet”[4] or they were witnessing “northern lights”[5] and there seemed to be a “strong presence of spatial up and down poles” which invited the spectator to reach out[6]. Even if the flying carpet refers to the moving position of the audience, many of the notions recognised the feeling of static position of the observer, which was often described as “watching from a balcony”[7]. The feeling of being on a balcony felt stronger when spectators were standing but it was valid even when sitting on a chair with headset. However, the fixed position of the observer did not feel restrictive, as viewers could still make a choice, they could reach out and turn around to choose which direction to look[8].

In viewing the video when sitting there was an interesting bodily observation. Humalisto was experiencing his legs transparent as he could feel them against the chair and yet he looked light phenomena downwards through them in the distant abyss. He described that bodily experience was so awkward and dominant that it distracted him partly from visual experience[9]. The experience of the balcony and the active looking for luminous embers seemed central and led later in the project to a theoretical connection with Pasolini and Didi-Huberman.

Reflecting the VR experience with Pasolini and Didi-Huberman

The bodily and visual experience of Ekola’s work evoked moments when it felt like standing on a balcony, watching light formations in a vast universe. At times, however, the field of vision on that balcony seemed to be nothing but darkness. The experience required the spectator to have faith in the continuity of the world of the VR-piece, to wait and look around for possible light events. In those moments, this friction of uncertainty, even discomfort, quickly made one aware of the thin line between giving up and keeping on.

Once there’s a lack of visible activity, even briefly, it is natural to question whether the event is ongoing or has already come to an end. How long can one hold on, and believe that the event has not been interrupted, even if nothing happens in their field of vision for a moment? What kind of reinforcement does one need as a spectator, in order to remain attached to the event of the work even then, so as not to be disconnected from the continuity of the experience?

In fact, even the slightest glimpse or hint, or just the noise of the pixels seemed to be enough to keep the desire to see alive, and to sustain the confidence that something was still going on – somewhere in the realm of experience.

In a concise book Survival of the fireflies (Didi-Huberman 2018), one can find observations on such a demarcation at the boundaries of attention and vision. One attractive aspect of that text on resistance and desire is the use of metaphors through the most direct and concrete laws of perception. In this book, published in 2009, French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman takes up the figure of firefly, outlined three decades earlier by Italian intellectual and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. This metaphorical essay from 1975, the Disappearance of the fireflies, dealt with the disappearance of traditional cultural values in Italy as a result of their nationalisation and politicisation.

Pasolini claimed the irremediable disappearance of fireflies. And this, Didi-Huberman disagrees. He responds to Pasolini’s pessimistic metaphor by pointing out that fireflies had not disappeared then – and still they haven’t. Didi-Huberman argues that it is rather Pasolini’s own faith that had disappeared. He suggests that it wasn’t the fireflies that were destroyed, but rather something central in Pasolini’s desire to see – in his desire in general, and thus in his political hope. The appearance of the fireflies is about the spectator’s desire to see, it’s about the desire not to give up, and it’s about the desire to extend the gaze beyond one’s own field of sight. So perhaps this disappearance is not so much about the fireflies as it is about the viewer. Pasolini himself had given up his ability, his own power to move and see.

With this ability Didi-Huberman returns to this figure of firefly, which, in the end, “disappears from our view, leaving us for a place where perhaps someone else will see it, somewhere else where its survival can still be seen” (Didi-Huberman 2018, 63). And he compares this disappearance to the decline of the sun, ”which disappears from our view yet does not cease to exist elsewhere, on the other side of the earth, below our feet, with the possibility, the ‘resource’, that it may reappear from the other side, in the east” (Ibid., 65).

And it is this “resource”, the ability to move and see, an ability bound to desire, that Didi-Huberman grasps. His book, Survival of the Fireflies sets us off towards the fireflies, not knowing from which direction they may appear, but knowing that just because we do not meet them in our sight, it does not mean that their flicker does not continue elsewhere, in another direction, just outside our immediate field of vision. In a 360 degree space of immersion that a HMD provides, as in Ekola’s VR work, we are by nature faced with this challenge. The question arises as to how the viewer can be supported in maintaining this resource, to sustain their desire. In this unsettling instability between appearance and disappearance, turning lights towards the fireflies does not help the spectator to see their glimmer.

This brings up the question of intensity of light. In a firefly, there is not much to see. According to Didi-Huberman, five thousand fireflies equal the light of a single candle. And yet, in terms of intensity, the low luminosity is not necessarily the key issue for detecting these faintest flashes. Here the more relevant question is how to determine this intensity. The firefly emits its light at full intensity, but its luminosity is yet low and intermittent. Instead, it requires persistence on the part of the nocturnal observer to perceive its slight glimmer.

Thus, in discussing light at the boundaries of attention, it is not only about the intensity of the emitted light, but equally about the sensitivity of the viewer, the receiver. Perceiving fireflies is a balancing act between disappearing and appearing – not only at the edges of the luminosity, but also at the edges of the field of vision or, as Didi-Huberman pointed out, sometimes completely outside it. The ability to perceive fireflies is not only a matter of calibration and scale of the transmitter, the light source, but also the calibration of the attention of the receiver.

So, facing a sudden black view of Ekola’s VR work, is there anything to see then? If we are following the fireflies, the appearance of slightest flickers depends on the place and attention of the observer. It depends on the desire of the receiver, on the spectator’s desire to resist, to see and to move.

Calibrating the scale of virtual

The act of calibration extracted from the thinking of Didi-Huberman is about bringing the receiver in the broader wavelength in the scale of sensitivity. Besides, this notion can be applied in this case to the definition of virtual reality and what the viewer expects it to be.

The philosopher and scholar of digital technology Grant Tavinor has described virtual reality as the presentation of visual scenes as if you were occupying a place within them. For a more technical definition he continues: “PlayStation VR and other commercial virtual reality systems comprise three key elements: the deception of a sensory environment; a means of tracking and depicting the user’s apparent position within this environment; and, finally, a means of providing for user interaction within this virtually depicted space.” (Tavinor 2022, 2)

None of these definitions really apply to Ekola’s VR work. There were no game parameters, no 3D world to navigate in, no realistic representation of anything at all. In short, the work in question did not offer an easy entry with engaging interactions.

Although not meeting the technical definition, one can interpret from the comments of Vapaavuori and Humalisto quoted earlier in the chapter “Observations on bodily boundaries and spatial limits”, that Ekola’s work offered the viewer an experience that stimulates the bodily and spatial perception. Even though the work is abstract, bodily static and two-dimensional, it builds an experience of a clear visual and bodily world with blur aesthetics.

Thinking about the possibility of human algorithmisation

The way in which Meri Ekola’s work was carried out revealed a surprising perspective for thinking about the foundations of algorithmics. The virtual experience of Ekola’s work and her digital and analog working processes made the working group reflect on the differences of human and computer ways of working from the algorithmic perspective. Crucial features in the human working process seemed to be related to feelings, errors and enthusiasm. Although VR technology with its HMD headsets creates an assumption of computer-based digitality, Ekola’s work was created in a very analogue way as a craft, as she explains:

The motion of the pools of light is created with a spotlight bouncing from a rotating mirror foil. With one hand I am holding the small narrow-beam 4W LED spotlight at the end of a grip arm while with the other I am reshaping the semi-rigid plastic foil by pressing. The changing reflections of light hit a two-dimensional surface, a matte white plastic screen that is hanging as a backdrop. A camera is filming from a distance of 1.5m from the screen and capturing the process as a video file. The room is dark with some light spilling through the covered window.

Technical tools for producing the image content for the video. In the picture a 4W LED spot and reflective foil.

The analogue way Ekola created her video of abstract light events leads to a question: how can one translate their work into instructions? That follows, are those instructions similar to algorithmic parameters? May we think of them as such? If Ekola were to redo the work, or instruct someone else to redo the work, or even program the implementation on a computer, what kind of instructions or rules would that be based on? What is the role of the human feelings discussed in such work executed by a computer? Ekola retraces the process of creating the light events in the video as follows:

I navigate based on my memories and mental images as I allow the reflections to hit the canvas and move within it. I want to create an impression of swirling light, an organic movement without mechanical speed, rhythm, or direction. In previous experiments, I found something appealing and captivating, or perhaps it would be better to say liberating, which I now aim to achieve again. In the interplay of light and darkness during the experiments, a sense of unfolding, recognition, presence, and empathy arise in my mind … I improvise by adjusting the wrinkling of the reflective plastic, the distance and angle of the light source relative to the reflector, and the tilt of the reflector relative to the background canvas. The parameters are approximate, and although I can influence them, I cannot fully control them. However, through practice, I have learned to manipulate these tools somewhat deliberately, so my improvisation is not entirely random.


This description explains how a set of rules, preconceived ideas and wishes, but also immediate responses and improvisation were used in the creation. The work constantly revealed itself at the moment of its creation and thus created the need to react to it. For Ekola as an artist it was a mode of spending time with light as the expressive medium, in a conversational mood despite no words being used. The artist is in immediate interaction with the world around us that is not translated into words, as arts-based education scholar Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones, proposes. According to him, “words are not the heart of the work but, rather, the feelings (bodily/emotional/sensory/intuitive/aesthetic) that lead me, feelings that are non-verbal and yet have form” (Blumenfeld-Jones 2016, 323).

A similar understanding becomes apparent in Ekola’s approach to the moment of creation. She states: “For me as a human it was crucial to experience feelings of excitement, surprise, wonder and error”[12]. These reflections brought up an intriguing question for further research, how would the use of emotional feedback crucial for a human artist be translated to a computing operation.

Some afterthoughts on friction and persistence

Through repeated viewings and discussions, the short five-minute VR work expanded not only into a spatial and embodied experience but also into a reflection on the marginal events on the boundaries of the dark and the visible, the distraction of attention, the qualities and scales of virtual, and the immediate responsive actions made by the lighting designer in the moment of creation.

The VR work provided an opportunity to reflect on the general level of the parameters of working with abstract material such as light. We recognized the diverse roles that a lighting designer can play. Technical adjustments and disruptions, the ´meta-hassle´, as it got labelled, was inherent but also a fruitful part of the working process and experience.

One key element of VR experience was “friction”, the material quality that resisted a smooth spectator experience, compared to “easier” and interactive type of VR works. This led to the question how could spectators be supported that they recognise friction as a part of the experience? When staying on the borderline of seeing and not seeing the audience needs desire and commitment to keep on trying to look for “the fireflies”.

What remains to our working group is clear potential to continue research on expressive possibilities of the “virtual” in the context of light art. An important question remains to what the spectator’s attention is directed to when the suggestive power of immersive images is used. It’s radical to be persistent and chase for faint flickers out of sight in the era of spectacle.


1 Meri Ekola, note, November 25, 2022.

2 Vapaavuori, recording, January 11, 2023.

3 Vapaavuori, recording, January 19, 2023.

4 Vapaavuori, recording, October 7, 2022.

5 Humalisto, recording, October 7, 2022.

6 Humalisto, recording, January 19, 2023.

7 Humalisto, recording, January 11, 2023.

8 Humalisto, recording, June 26, 2023.

9 Humalisto, recording, January 19, 2023.

10 Ekola, note, January 30, 2023.

11 Ekola, note, January 30, 2023.

12 Ekola, note, November 25, 2023.


Blumenfeld-Jones, Donald S. 2016. “The Artistic Process and Arts-Based Research: A Phenomenological Account of the Practice.” Qualitative inquiry 22(5): 322–333. doi.org/10.1177/1077800415620.

Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2018. Survival of the Fireflies. Translated by Lia Swope Mitchell. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. 2014. “Disappearance of the fireflies.” In Diagonal Thoughts, translated by Christopher Mott. Accessed December 14, 2023. www.diagonalthoughts.com/?p=2107.
Originally published as “Il vuoto del potere in Italia” (The Power Void in Italy) in Corriere della sera, February 1, 1975, also republished the same year as “L’articulo delle lucciole”, (The firefly article), in Scritti corsari, Milan: Garzanti, 1975.

Tavinor, Gant. 2022. The aesthetics of virtual reality. New York, NY: Routledge.


Tomi Humalisto

Tomi Humalisto (D. Arts) is Professor in Lighting Design at the University of the Arts Helsinki, Theatre Academy. He has extensive experience in performance design and production responsibilities for various art projects. His current research interests include, in addition to the aesthetics and dramaturgy of lighting design, the artistic and pedagogical possibilities of digital media and digitalisation and issues of ecological sustainability in performance design.

Meri Ekola

Meri Ekola uses light as her main medium of expression. She is creating installations as well as working in the wide field of performing arts as a lighting designer. She holds a M.A. degree in lighting design from the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. Currently she follows emerging media studies where her main interest is to explore digital technologies as a new modality for artistic expression. In the performance context her collaborators come from experimental performance art, music and dance.

Nanni Vapaavuori

Nanni Vapaavuori is a lighting designer and artist-researcher whose practice often relates to the surrounding space and location. Her approach to lighting design is both concrete and tactile, working in direct hands-on collaboration with the materials. She’s interested in questions of attention and intention, and the practices and possibilities of lighting design at the edges of the visual register. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the Performing Arts Research Centre (Tutke) at the Uniarts Helsinki.