Instructor derives sound from light in latest art project

Patrick Harkin, an instructor in the photography and film department, shows off his display of solar panels and hidden speakers that translate artificial light energy into sound. Photo by Andrew Ringle

Andrew Ringle, Managing Editor

When Patrick Harkin was at the state fair this year, he was distracted by the lights around him. Some flashed yellow, some red; some were on strings with several other tiny bulbs, and some were bigger, like the kind on top of lampposts. 

But Harkin, who teaches in the photography department at VCU, was fixed on something other than the lights’ colors and sizes. He was thinking about their sounds.

“The way that I walk around spaces and look at artificial lights now,” Harkin said. “I’m constantly wondering, ‘What does that sound like? What does that light sound like?’”

At his studio in Shockoe Bottom, Harkin uses solar panels and hidden speakers to translate artificial light energy into sound. Each lightbulb in his collection emits a different tone, allowing him to control a library of sounds in an improvised musical performance.

“My new favorite is this fire LED bulb,” Harkin said, pulling the light from his display. “I think that one sounds really cool.”

The setup is visually captivating — solar panels resting on two oil drums are strewn with lights, and hidden speakers within the drums play the ‘sounds’ of each bulb. The energy first passes through a receiver device that’s either hidden in the arrangement or in Harkin’s hand. 

The artist said he thought of the idea while making videos in which solar panels were used as props.

“I was also making sculptures that were being powered by solar panels and solar energy,” Harkin said. “Over a course of just playing in the studio, I had the idea to hook up a solar panel to a speaker.”

The solar panels and oil drums in his latest experiment reference ecology, climate change and the way humans affect the environment, Harkin said.

“The way that I walk around spaces and look at artificial lights now. I’m constantly wondering, ‘What does that sound like? What does that light sound like?’” —Patrick Harkin

“I’m oftentimes taking different materials that have perhaps different political or ideological weight to them and juxtaposing them against one another in the work,” Harkin said. “And then hopefully creating a conflict for a viewer or allowing a viewer to come to their own conclusions about how they feel about these materials and their broader implications.”

In his spare time, Harkin is a jazz drummer. He said learning to improvise music informs the work in his latest installations.

“It’s totally improv,” Harkin said. “I don’t really plan much of this ahead of time. I’m mostly just responding to the different kinds of sounds that are happening, different kinds of tones.”

Harkin’s studio is in a warehouse shared by a handful of other artists, and he said the 2,000-square-foot space is always busy with different projects.

“There’s a couple metal bands that play here, a knife forger, a woodshop, next door is a skate park,” Harkin said. “So it’s a little bit of everything. There’s a lot of energy in the space, and I think that helps us all bounce off of each other.”

After giving a short performance, Harkin pointed out his favorite lights in the display and explained their tones as if they were instruments.

“For instance, this light would give us a very high-pitched shrill kind of sound because it’s kind of a cold LED light,” he said holding a campground light with a white bulb. “Whereas maybe the fire bulb would give us a warmer kind of hum.”

Harkin said there’s a direct relationship to the tonal quality of the sound to what the light actually looks like, and that’s what he listens for while he’s performing.

“As abstract as it is, it’s visually kind of captivating,” Harkin said. “The elements of the work that are kind of entry points allows me a little bit of latitude to have people try to figure out what’s actually happening, and then hopefully the kind of conceptual nature of the work comes later.”

For more work from the artist, visit


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