Jan Hofer’s lamps.

At the end of the eighteenth century, or in 1780 to be more exact, a new kind of lamp was invented by Aimé Argand. The lamp was a kind of contemporary jet engine: it had a hollow wick and a cylindrical glass body that produced a smooth, steady stream of air. It burned without smoke and produced – as Thomas Jefferson noted – a light equivalent to six to eight candles. Argand was no mere tinkerer.

A chemist from Geneva, he had already made a small fortune improving techniques for distilling brandy. Mass production techniques for the lamp were slowly devel- oped, in England, and drew the support of James Watt, the inventor of the modern steam engine. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes, in his classic history of light, Disenchanted Night, the theoretical prerequisite for the discovery of the lamp was Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of the theory of combustion in 1770. The same Lavoisier who died at the guillotine, itself a splendid, rational instrument introduced at around the same time as the lamp. The Argand lamp, then, is both a feature of modernity, the earliest phase of industrialisation, it is also a product of modernism, of that ideology of progress that verges on a cosmology. It is both a light, and a product of the enlightenment. It did not, however, increase the sum sapience of the planet: the most popular fuel for the lamp was whale oil.

Some decades later, our fossil fuel addiction already raging, the basic design of the Argand lamp was modified to make it suitable for mining. In a precursor to the Faraday cage, the lamp was wrapped in a metal mesh, through which it became less likely that the flame might ignite the various kinds of explosive gas (firedamp, whitedamp, afterdamp) that were found in the earth. The paternity of the lamp was fought over by inventors and scientists, by this historical juncture, now distinct professions. Where the Argand lamp confidently extends day into night, the miner’s safety lamp allows humans to worm their way through the belly of the earth. Like the Argand lamp, it is both a technical device, and a mythic object, but for a world that is not so much enlightened, as Schivelbusch saw, disenchanted.

Jan Hofer proposes digging tunnels by the light of these lamps. Tunnels, in Switzer- land, are one of the few kinds of collectively accepted monuments, playing the role that skyscrapers and bridges have in other lands – inverted monuments, without the overt hubris, but monuments nonetheless. But Hofer’s tunnel plans do not seem so much monumental, as escape routes: routes leading out of hidden basements, out of the contemporary malaise, anywhere, so long as it’s away, but not out there. Not outside. Not to that boundless marketplace where Diogenes had strode around, his own lamp burning in the middle of the day, looking in vain for an honest mensch. Hofer doesn’t want to reach the surface until he finds a place where it is safe to do so, where the air is unsullied.

He’ll be digging for a long time. He will need volunteers. The lamps are here so
that you can take one up, and join him.

written by Adam Jasper

Fotos by Jerlyn Heinzen