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Towards Obsolescence

A familiar scene: you arrive at your show, the promoter mentions strobes will be used. But—they kindly add, in light of your rider—they’ll be turned off during your set. You sound check as fast as possible. The event page listed how many steps up into the venue, it’s fundraising for a grassroots project, and the door has a sliding scale entry fee. You spend the night outside til it’s time to perform, your name staring back at you from the event poster on the wall. Maybe, the strobes will be triggered anyway. You will throw your jacket over your head but it’s too far gone. The recovery will be long; weeks of low-contrast life—no screens, no driving at night—no going outside at night at all, really. Migraines, doctors, meds with a litany of side effects, setbacks in work. An anger that’s hard to know what to do with.

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Faceless people dance in a nightclub shaded in purple and blue linear brushstrokes. In the center of the painting is a silver disco ball reflecting lines of warm colours on the walls and people’s faces. The top of the painting includes more reflective lines on the ceiling of the nightclub.

Denzil Forrester, Night Strobe, 1985. Oil on canvas, 277 x 195.5cm (109 1/8 x 77in). Copyright Denzil Forrester. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. Rachofsky Collection. Photo by Stephen White & Co.

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The history of strobes is rooted in weapons development. In World War 2, the British military experimented with rapidly flickering bright lights to blind opponents. Stroboscopic lighting gained application in photography to document fleeting scenes like bullets flying and atomic explosions, aiding the Atomic Energy Commission’s development of nuclear weapons. In 1973 British police began testing strobes as a non-lethal crowd control weapon.

An image of a group of people dancing in a crowded room immersed in red lighting effects. Speakers hang from the ceiling and a DJ can be seen in the distance.
Miscellania nightclub. Photo: Sasha Logan[Image description: A photograph of a dance party dimly lit in red. People’s backs are in view at the base of the photograph chatting and watching a DJ in the background. The DJ is staged in front of a window and speakers flank the left and right of the image. Red tubular lights can be seen installed in the ceiling.]

Proto-strobes arrived in nightclubs not long after the disco ball in the 1940s, albeit muted and analogue as a wheel with cut-outs rotating over a single light beam. The 1990s onset of LED lights saw strobes becoming more commonplace than ever. A live performance arms race to shock and awe has seen strobing effects adopted wholesale by video and projection artists, such as near-ubiquitous music video transition effects. A growing disconnect has appeared between these multimedia trends and the necessary consciousness around access requirements needed in the arts. As overdue headway is made in wheelchair accessibility, parallel requirements for sensory processing seemingly lag.

Not everyone with epilepsy is triggered by strobes: photosensitivity sits in the minority (maybe small enough to not seem a utilitarian concern). But for anyone with epilepsy, they’re ‘on the nose’, as artist and epilepsy awareness activist Our Carlson puts it, as new triggers can reveal themselves anytime. “[Going to] doofs post diagnosis… I always wonder if this is gonna be the one that sends me tumbling,” says Carlson.

People with low vision, autism and sensory-processing disorder have long voiced their own concerns. Andrew Goddard, production coordinator at Next Wave and one half of lighting design studio Dual Flow, says they were motivated in part by their own sensory processing sensitivities to forego strobes professionally. “They create this massive dynamic range that happens really quickly, putting strain on your eyes as they continually adjust to maintain focus. This rapid change makes it difficult to process your environment and can feel overwhelming.”

Add to this the Bucha Effect, or flicker vertigo—a condition discrete from photosensitive epilepsy, with symptoms of nausea, loss of motor functions, and muscle rigidity. Studies show that an average of one in four people subjected to strobe lights suffer from it.

We find the responsibility sitting squarely on the affected individual, to reduce trigger exposure and take calculated risks as a creative to do what you otherwise love and depend on; what you can’t imagine yourself not doing. And, where necessary, to start conversations with our peers. Often they’re exhausting, repetitive, and sometimes, as Carlson puts it, you have already “fought enough battles that week.”

Strobes routinely appear unannounced. Thus their removal, requested last minute or under duress, can feel subtractive. Here, an element of an artist’s performance, or the audience’s experience of it, has to be taken away. “Parties are about good vibes, and you are the vibe killer,” as artist Genevieve Murray puts it. “Sometimes a whole show is held up by this one lighting effect, and now you’re asking for it to be cut. The first time I had a seizure was on stage with my own band, and I realised I was epileptic,” she recalls. “I tried to tell people to turn the strobes off and they wouldn’t so instead I just had to not play.” Calling for an end to, or wholesale ban on strobes, in this climate is unlikely to win those on the fence. “Prohibition has a shit-wreck of a history,” says Carlson.

An industrial type light fixture with a warm glowing orange fluorescent tube light leans against a wall next to a window with a faint reflection and view of exterior skyscraper buildings. The light box is next to a darkly lit pot plant.
Photo: Dual Flow[Image description: A warm orange tubular light in a case leans against a wall and is next to a window reflecting the lines of light and the view of buildings outside. The light case is also next to a pot plant dimly lit to the left.]

The use of warnings can empower us to make up our own minds. “My heart fills a little every time someone puts a strobe warning before a video,” says Carlson. Warnings are only as good as their depth though. If a warning flags a strobe—when? Where? And for how long? “Clear communication of access expectations is hugely important, for many things, and definitely for lighting,” says Goddard. “People are making an effort to come to an event, so be specific so that they can know what to expect. There may not be strobes, but are there lasers or bright or flashing lights? Will there be dimmer areas? Will navigational areas have adequate lighting?”

Warnings can, also, invoke the same subtractive imperative—this time not of components of an artwork, but people forced to make themselves scarce. It makes for off-putting vibes too. So does being asked what the threshold is: how much strobing is too much? How bad is your epilepsy? How hard can I get away with pushing you before you fall over? That’s how it feels. Each threshold is individual, impacted by stress, medication, seizure history, or sound and other environmental factors. How much is too much? Is it when someone has to leave? Is it when someone gets hurt?

While a one-size-fits-all sensory access document may be impossible, a guideline of parameters and considerations is overdue. DJ, promoter, and RISING: Melbourne community engagement manager Raag Bhatia began work on a prototype last year “after searching for hours, and couldn’t find one that already existed.” The document was developed with colleague Tom Middleditch, festival access and inclusion coordinator, and lighting designer Kayzar. Lived experience of autism and sensory-processing issues shaped the document, giving advice on refresh rates, contrast rates, and video patterns. Bhatia would like to see the document grow in consultation across a broad range of perception access. “This stuff is a lot more common than I realised,” they say. “It’s not just people who have diagnosed conditions, people who are neurotypical can be affected by it.” Standardisation of these parameters could lead, suggests Carlson, to the creation and use of a badge or logo signposting strobe-free environments.

Guidelines streamline these considerations being introduced at the start of a project. “At RISING, we had the rare opportunity to get in before lighting designers were briefed, and set the expectation that if you’re working with this festival, this is how it is,” says Bhatia. Meanwhile, at Next Wave, an access checklist is sent out to artists when contracted. Goddard says “that way, access requirements are discussed from the outset and are not an afterthought or last minute consideration.”

Cultivating a practice of “lighting that is accessible and slaps” should be the priority, says Carlson. Consider it not a restriction, but an invitation to, as Goddard says, “play with light in a more interesting way.” A richer visual palette is possible in dimmer light: “when your eyes are given a chance to adjust to a lower-light environment they become more sensitive, your peripheral vision gets more interesting and colours can look different.”

The value of lighting in live music environments is frequently unarticulated: an integral part of any show, but often worked in as an afterthought. So too are the ‘visuals’ that accompany a musical spectacle. Few pathways exist to learn event lighting design, a school distinct from the rich disciplines of theatrical, photographic, and architectural lighting, for which formal education does exist, but rarely overlaps. And so we see how the technically-armed but creatively ill-equipped festival lighting designer succumbs to the urge to shock and awe. “I often don’t understand why a strobe is the go-to at certain points, it can just feel like a band-aid without much consideration,” says Goddard. “There’s so many other things you can pair with a change in the music: a change in colour, a beam of light, a shift in movement. Techniques of theatre and film lighting [teach us to value] how subtle combinations of light can be used to really heighten the drama of an image. Ways of diffusing, reflecting or refracting light can also be used to obscure the harshness of a light source and help make the light in the space easier to process visually.”

Festivals like RISING taking up the issue signpost a slowly-shifting consciousness; so too is massively popular Naarrm (Melbourne) venue Miscellania that has maintained a hard no-strobe policy since opening its doors one year ago. “There’s momentum,” says Bhatia. “It’s likely that strobes will barely be around in a couple of years in Australia. But it’ll take more big entities coming on board, and more public conversation. When we were having parallel conversations around gender representation in club music it was all over the media, and talked about between promoters.”

Promoters, venues, and independent artists seeking to contribute can join the conversation, and make time to play with accessible lighting and moving image designs. Include an access rider or policy for strobe-free environments, and support collaborators accordingly. Anyone wishing to contribute to the fledgling sensory access document, please reach out. And if you’re on the bill with someone who’s fought enough battles that week, suss a lighting design for them that slaps.

<center>Guidelines for Epilepsy & Sensory Processing Disorder friendly Lighting & Visuals</center>

Photosensitive Epilepsy is a condition characterised by seizures that are triggered by flashing or flickering lights, or by certain geometric shapes or patterns. This is a type of reflex epilepsy is seen in up to 5% of people with epilepsy. To greatly reduce the risk of seizures,

Avoid the following known triggers for photosensitive epilepsy across all lighting and visual programming:

  • Strobing, flashing or flickering at a refresh rate 5Hz or higher (flashes per second)
  • Rapidly alternating between blue and red
  • Rapid chases of bright light across fixtures, especially when other lights are dim/off
  • Striped patterns, especially when moving, scrolling or rotating in unison
  • Repeating or tessellating patterns, especially when moving, scrolling or rotating in unison

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information (stimuli). Sensory information includes things you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. People with SPD are often overly sensitive to stimuli that other people are not, and when exposed to certain triggers- especially repeatedly or for extended periods- can easily become overstimulated and experience debilitating physical and psychological effects. To avoid overstimulating people with SPD, consider how stimulating or potentially overwhelming your programming is and

Reduce or avoid the following known triggers for SPD across all lighting and visual programming:

  • Rapid, dramatic changes in overall room, screen, or stage brightness.
  • Flashing or flickering. Consider pulsing lights/effects instead.
  • Lasers firing into the crowd, even with ND filters. Laser fixtures should be positioned out of sight-lines where possible.
  • Fixtures focusing light into the crowd's eyes (especially crowd blinders). Consider using washes or soft fixtures to light the crowd
  • Erratic, rapid, extended, and/or repeated movements and patterns when using moving fixtures. Consider slower moves and/or periods of stillness
  • Smoke/fog/heavy fog in the crowd. Use water-based haze to create a constant atmosphere, as opposed to occasionally filling the room with fog.