What Light Does: The Architecture & Film of Barbara Kasten

“I am not photographing light; I am photographing what light does.”
Barbara Kasten

What Light Does: The Architecture & Film of Barbara Kasten

An issue by Stephanie Cristello from the book "BARBARA KASTEN Architecture & Film (2015–2020)"

In the work of artist Barbara Kasten (b. 1936, Chicago), the camera figured into her early practice insofar as it could document ephemeral abstractions of light and shadow cast upon the walls of her studio. They are photographs that capture images in space through the means of recording. Once the light was cut, the work too ceased to exist, yet the translation of the experience remained in circulation. Then as now, the structures conceived within Kasten’s studio did not function as only stages or props, but rather as sites for living—the photograph merely a record of that life. 

To understand Kasten’s singular and innovative contributions to the nature of abstraction as a conceptual artist, we must see beyond the record.

To photograph light is to elevate one instance of experience beyond all others, to make static what is never still, to halt time and break how phenomena relate to one another. Paradoxically, to make an image of what light does, to show how it behaves, is to acknowledge its inherent and necessary dynamism. The material of Kasten’s work, light itself, unfolds against our everyday awareness of its movement; as keeper of time, an ever-changing process of illumination, an act of “obliscence.”

Barbara Kasten
Barbara Kasten, stills from Sideways (2015/2020). Courtesy of the artist.
Barbara Kasten, stills from Sideways (2015/2020). Courtesy of the artist.

This term, a moment that refers to a theory of memory by which a being experiences experience, defines the beginning of a sequence that progresses from involvement, remembrance, and ultimately, to forgetting. Across her work, it is the latter she suspends.

Kasten’s experiments of light in space—through measured construction, manipulation, and control—inflect what we already know of this source whose cycles constitute the basis of life. In the studio as much as in any environment, the question of what light does is a matter of perception. 

It asks how we see through a manifestation of the conditions that create an image or experience. Light informs our understanding of the world and our place within it. For over five decades, this formulation of light-as-material permeates Kasten’s work, which has spanned the traditional genres of photography, painting, sculpture, installation, textile, theater, and performance, in service of her phenomenological project. 

Across her conceptual output, her recent investigations into architecture and film provide a fertile return to the ethos of her artistic approach—one that is rooted in placing us as an active participant in an environment that shapes and is shaped by us.


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