Bentley Meeker dropped out of Hunter college and took a $5-an-hour job working for a lighting company but he eventually leveraged that job into creating what is still one of the most successful lighting design companies in the country. He became the go-to lighting designer for A-list celebrity parties and big-budget commercial events. It wasn’t enough. In 2011, he decided to step back from the day-to-day running of the company and become an artist working in the medium of light. “I tell people, I stopped looking at the lights and started looking at the light.” So far his work has included public installations such as “The H in Harlem”, which was suspended under the 125th Street and 12th Avenue viaduct as well as a sculpture commissioned by Michelle Obama for the Nordic dinner at the White House.
You’re one of these lucky people—and it’s rare—to have found something that you really do love doing. That wasn’t initially the case though was it?
Initially I started doing what I was doing to make a living. Honestly I had to make rent—I was working for five bucks an hour for a lighting company. I got kicked out of college, rehab and my parents’ house all on the same day. I needed a job.
What was it you didn’t like about college?
Structure. Learning you have to do something. If I have to do something—pay me. I needed that kind of incentive. It took me a long time to understand the process of steps, that you do this in order to do that … but I was really unhappy in school. I felt like they were making my brain smaller.
And once you were out of school, did you feel like you were happier in the real world, so to speak?
I just felt like I was in the game somehow. I’d never been in a game before. I’d moved so many different places in so few years when I was younger that I really didn’t have a sense of grounding, a sense of purpose, a sense of anything. I was a lost soul for a long time.
But you must have had some ambition, right?
Once I started understanding what was possible in the world of lighting, then I would say not only did I have ambition, but I had purpose, I had a mission. The ambition originally started off as a financial one, to have a nice place to live, to have money to go out, to drive a nice car … but that started to make me unhappy too, because that wasn’t the purpose either.
So what was it you wanted?
I have an expression that I tell people: I stopped looking at the lights and I started looking at the light. It’s been really fascinating to try to understand what light means to humanity, what light means to the spirit and to the world and how light maybe, might be what makes us alive instead of inanimate. At the subatomic level this piece of glass, and my finger are exactly the same molecular make-up. Why am I animate? I believe that light is the determining differential there. I believe that light is a determining life force.
I’ve interviewed you before, in the late ’90s and you hadn’t started making any art that I knew of. Were you making anything at that time?
It probably took me ten years from then. I’ve had some incredibly deep, rich, predictive spiritual moments with light that took me out of doing lighting and took me into working with light. I realized that there’s a narrative that we can have with light that we don’t have—and that we should have. We need to understand what it is and how it affects us at the physiological level and at the spiritual level. That changed my mission from working to make ladies look beautiful and to make parties look gorgeous. My mission became to inform humanity about light in some way and I am becoming informed about light. And that, I felt, was only achievable through art. And I really labored hard. It was like: do I make movies? Do I write books? Do I stand on soapboxes and give speeches? And then I was like, dude, the only thing left from ancient civilizations is their art.
And now that you’ve started to make work, what do you find you want to say about light?
What I’m trying to say is that art doesn’t give answers. Science gives answers. Art asks questions. I want people to ask, “Is this the way we want our relationship to light to be?” You’re in service of your art and in service of your medium—and if you are really in service of your medium, then you have to take the farthest back seat on the bus.
Painters and other kinds of artists have always been obsessed with light—but the thing about your medium, you’ve now got this technology to work with in the way that other artists in the past had no access to. It is something that enables artists like James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson to work in this medium that didn’t really exist before—I would think for you that must be very exciting. You can harness this medium now.
Technology makes achieving things easier but it’s a really slippery slope for an artist because I think that a lot of technology sometimes surpasses its artistic viability in terms of how it impacts people and the way that I want to impact people. I believe it impacts humans and spirits and souls and technology can stop doing good … you have diminishing returns. It can actually have a negative impact. I believe that the proliferation of fluorescent compact D lights is largely responsible for health issues in later life.
Tell us more about that.
This is not scientific so if you’re going to use this, please say that this is my own understanding. Here’s what I think: you’ve got light from the beginning of time up until 1901 when they invented fluorescent lights. Light was created by something burning. So think about that for second—the sun, fire. With incandescent light bulbs, that filament is glowing because electricity is heating it up to a point it creates light through a burning effect. There are also spectral qualities. Those sources of light have many millions of colors that contribute to making that light what it is. When you start getting into fluorescent light, you’re not burning anything anymore. The genesis of your light source is something different and you have a lot less of the spectrum in that light. LEDs are very similar. You have all of the visibility but none of the connectivity. It’s not using the spectrum that we’ve always had historically. What does your body do? What does your mind or your psyche do? How does this impact you as a human being and as a soul?
But even the advent of electricity has changed us, hasn’t it? It’s changed the way we sleep and use the hours of the day and the night, right? The way we’ve manipulated light has already affected us.
To a degree.
But they’re still selling incandescent light bulbs aren’t they?
There are probably hundreds of millions of those light bulbs still in circulation. I literally have a house up in Newburgh filled with them.
I had these alabaster light fixtures and I put these fluorescent light bulbs in them and I hated it! I hated being in my own apartment.
Yeah, so what are you going to do? You’re going to get the fuck out of there. And when you do, what are you going to do? You’re going to consume things you don’t need; you’re going to eat stuff that you don’t need to be eating and so on.
Is that your argument against the eco-people who advocate against incandescent light bulbs?
There’s eco and then there’s eco. Okay, let’s talk about global eco. I’ve had conversations with people who tell me all about how they’ve been driving their Prius and putting LEDs in their homes and then they jump on their G 550 [jet] and fly to Europe. I did the math. You fly that plane to Europe and you can drive that Prius for 30 years, 12 000 miles a year. For one round trip to Europe! I’m not having that conversation with you about LEDs in your house. That shit’s fucked up.
We were thrilled when we saw that you don’t like LEDs and fluorescent light bulbs.
But halogen is great. I love halogen. The first thing I wanted to do with one sculpture, which is called “Flame to Now” and it is a representation of every kind of light that we have had in a domestic setting since the beginning of electricity. It goes from a replica of an Edison tungsten light to standard incandescent … there’s your halogen and then your compact fluorescent and the last one is your LED.
Yes, about as welcoming as a bus station bathroom. So cheerless.
That’s a great adjective.
You rarely go to a party that doesn’t have good lighting—can you explain what it is that people do wrong when it comes to lighting.
There’s so many different ways to get it wrong! I almost always find that people put lights on too brightly.
Why do people do that?
They want to show the people that the lights are on!
Do you think that’s what distinguished you from other lighting designers?
A hundred percent! Everything for me is considered. We fight for it.
But people want the “wow” effect don’t they?
If you’re talking about the “wow” effect then it has to contribute to the narrative of the event. And we can absolutely do it—we’ll blow your friggin socks off. Another great lighting designer told me … “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
Right there, I thought, that is what makes a successful light project and an unsuccessful lighting project.
I think just a lot of people don’t know how to light somewhere.
People don’t know but you know when you don’t feel good. It’s not even a skill! Play with the dimmers in your house! Just do it. But people don’t think to do it. They flick the light switch on. The light comes on and that should be enough. And therein is the problem that I see with people’s relationship to light. The relationship to light is fundamental in two ways. Energy efficiency and visibility—period. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the population’s relationship to light centers around those two things. I would like everybody to start asking the question: Is that the way we want our relationship to light to be? If I can get that question out into the general public discourse, I did my job and I’ll probably get hit by a bus the next day. I’ll be done. I will have come here and done what I set out to do.