Colored Light

James Turrell is a hero of mine. Our children will speak of his Roden Crater project in the same sentence as Machu Picchu. I have no doubt about it.

Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of getting to know Mr. Turrell, and he often speaks of “colored light” as his material and craft. The internet appears to agree:


Yet Mr. Turrell is being (endearingly) humble in these moments, when he reduces his artwork to “colored light.” The intention is much more profound, as he explains:

It’s about perception. For me, it’s using light as a material to influence or affect the medium of perception. I feel that I want to use light as this wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin—and I mean, we are literally light-eaters—to then affect the way that we see. We live within this reality we create, and we’re quite unaware of how we create the reality.

How does this manifest in the art? A visitor to a Turrell piece in Naoshima, Japan, recounted their experience:

The guard confiscates all phones on entry. Two at a time he leads you through a corridor so dark your eyes feel closed. The walls are cold against your hands. Teishi. There is a bench beneath you. Suwaru. You sit. Inside Tadao Ando’s minimalist architecture your eyes adjust to James Turrell’s Backside of the Moon. Like all of Turrell’s works, Backside of the Moon is an “exploration into light and space that speaks to the viewer without words”. As you sit in silent darkness all perception dissipates, a luminescent mark appears. Like you it lingers, moving faintly across the black space. As you step towards it, an unseen space opens out before you and the mark vanishes. Both accessible and profound, Backside of the Moon is to be experienced, not seen.

In essence, Mr. Turrell’s message is quite simple. Light reveals the world around us and, as a consequence, our perception of it. Shape light and you shape reality.

If you think about it, modern software is simply colored light. Patterns of colored light that illuminate from a screen to dictate our day-to-day lives. In fact, this colored light of software increasingly influences our perception of reality too.

The first time I met Mr. Turrell he explained that humans are like crustaceans. We inhabit shells – cars, homes, offices, restaurants – and mindlessly move between them, rarely thinking about or questioning the shells themselves.

In protest, Mr. Turrell’s artwork challenges us to notice our shells. To demand that we feel something as we inhabit them. Maybe even reimagine the shells altogether, if we could be so bold.

In this day and age, we spend countless waking hours within shells made out of software. Drab, rectangular boxes, projected as light from our screens. When you open your web browser you feel nothing.

Instead, what might our software shells look like if they were Turrellian? How might they make us feel?


I have seen strangers cry tears of joy, and laugh with amazement, when experiencing sunset at Roden Crater for the first time. Simply, “colored light,” as James Turrell describes it.

Every once in a while, I remind myself that software is just colored light too. A “wonderful and magical elixir,” beaming with potential to change our perception of the world around us – and maybe even remake it.