In Profile: Jason James, artist

Andrew Harper

Light art & live art

Artists are notorious for doing as much as they can, seizing opportunities to make new work whenever they arise. Opportunity is an elusive beast; it usually rears its head around festival times in Tasmania. Astute readers of the recent Dark MOFO program might have noticed a few names appearing in association with more than one event. Jason James is one such artist, managing to involve himself with a series of diverse projects while maintaining a distinct level of quality in all of them.

James has been known as a proficient and creative light and sound designer for many years, mostly as part of the teams that realise live theatre and performance in Tasmania for respected organisations such as Terrapin. But in recent times he has been making his own work, experimenting with new ideas and boldly trading under his own name.

Dark MOFO saw the public embrace in particular of Angry Electrons, a deceptively charming work situated at Hobart’s School of Art in what was, prior to installation, a barely used loading bay with an entrance onto the busy docks area. James filled the ceiling of this nondescript space with a thousand single light bulbs hanging in chandelier like clusters, taking up much of the roof space of the docking bay.

The lights have two levels of control. There is an overall amount of power which determines how bright and hot they may get—at high levels, the light is uncomfortably brilliant. The secondary level of control is more sophisticated, the flow of electricity to the bulbs triggered by very responsive movement sensors. The audience walking about causes the lights to brighten—effectively glowing above each head and appearing to move as visitors walk or run through the space. The visual effect is akin to watching a school of fish in a feeding frenzy, whirling and twisting above, the chaotic aspect increasing as more people enter and engage with the work. Crucially, the lights’ triggered response has the fluttering quality of a thing actually alive, even though we knew it was clever technology at work.

The sense of unconscious engagement in his audience is what is most fascinating about Jason James’ emerging body of work. It seems to be about light and is very clever and technically advanced, but it’s actually an investigation into ways to evoke complex emotions, creating a powerful sense of wonder in those who encounter his meticulous creations.

Installed globe by globe while making other works had proven quite a task for James, but Angry Electrons functioned perfectly in time for thousands to engage with it. The work represents something of a culmination of the Jason James’ practice: he’s been playing with light for a long time as he explains here:

In his own words

The first light artwork that I made was in the early 90s with an old theatre light and a mirror ball. I spent hours experimenting by placing different shapes in the way of the beam until the room was filled with love hearts. I’ve tried to recreate that a couple of times, and have not been able to.

My first solo exhibition was in 2010 with a light art work titled Bulb. It was an animation created with four shapes, projected by theatre lamps, onto the ground in Kelly’s Garden, an outdoor sculpture garden that’s part of the Salamanca Arts Centre. It made an eight by four metre sized light globe shape. The sequence was accompanied by a sound piece by Tasmanian artist Scot Cotterell. I gave Scot the sound of a dimmed light to use as the source material. He used his 'no-input' technique of manipulating sound with just a mixing desk. At that stage I was still very much working inside the collaboration model that I was comfortable with from my experience with performance-based artwork.

I have made a series of live art pieces titled Instill, participatory art works where I move people through a series of environments and get them to face uncomfortable choices, such as would they kill an innocent to save themselves. The last one of these started in an art centre, went to a courtroom and ended in a prison. I found that last work very challenging—directing the work without performing in it, which I didn’t like. As works get bigger it’s harder to be in them as a performer. Participation and interactivity run through all of my works.

I had a thing for putting up signs at my installations with impossible or meaningless instructions. For an audience giving their last respects to a dying robot that was looking mournfully at them the signs said things like “no crying” and “leave last respects.” I was pretty blunt with that one.

This year I have abandoned that to let people find their own ways to participate. Angry Electrons and Crevasse (part of Matt Warren’s envelop(e) show at CAT for Dark MOFO, see RT 128 for a review) look like they are simply light-art works, but to me they are a continuation of creating responsive environments for people to play with, rather than feel they are in a participatory art work.


Jason James is a Tasmanian based artist, lighting designer, video designer, curator, teacher, technician, production manager, rigger, musician, father, student, tinker, performer, improviser, stage manager, database developer, curator, network administrator (retired), vision systems operator, lighting operator, sound engineer, gamer and forum administrator. Recent artworks include Instill v1, v2, and v3 (Live Art at Light Box Gallery, Peacock Theatre, Old Hobart Penitentiary Chapel), Death of the Actroid (solo exhibition at Rat Palace Pop Up Gallery), Lego Head on Statue of David (Penny Contemporary Artists for Bushfire Relief), Bulb (with Scot Cotterell at Kelly’s Garden) and Kill Machine (group exhibition at Inflight for Touchy Feely). Recent lighting design credits include Shadow Dreams for Terrapin Puppet Theatre, The Shipwright and the Banshee for Joshua Santospirito and Chris Downes, The Barbarians for IHOS Opera, Hungry For You for Extended Play Projects (lighting and video design) and Sleeping Horses Lie for Terrapin Puppet Theatre (2014).

22 July 2015