In the moment

Colony of Light explores the digital and the physical on film

If you want to see Colony of Light, a collective of more than a dozen artists who gather once a year to create an ongoing body of experimental short films, you’ve got to do it in person. In a time when an online presence is almost required for even the most experimental artists, Colony of Light is firmly rooted in the physical.

“We don’t have a Facebook group, or a Twitter account, or anything in that realm,” said Peter Burr, a filmmaker and Colony member, in an email.

To watch a Colony of Light screening is to see something that remains digitally uncaptured. The group doesn’t have a blog or upload its films to YouTube. Their screenings, which incorporate 16mm film, music, and live performances, are ephemeral. Once the show is over, the moment vanishes. It’s a radical notion in a media landscape focused on social networks, live-tweeting, and otherwise documenting every moment.

“With Colony … there is a focus on physical presence,” Burr said.

Colony of Light is in Portsmouth this month for their annual residency. They’ll screen the results of this year’s work at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth in two parts. First up is “Our (Im)material Selves” on Wednesday, Aug. 19, followed by “Hive Vision” on Saturday, Aug. 22.

Colony of Light began in 2013, inspired by members Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s film “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness,” an experimental feature film that follows an unnamed character (played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe), through three phases of his life. The film’s themes of “utopia, collective living and dark optimism” helped form the basis of what Colony of Light would explore, Burr said. Members include Basma Alsharif, Bonnie Jones, Ted Kennedy, Xander Marro, Aily Nash, and Ruthy Somalo, among others.

Colony of Light “is a vehicle for self-expansion, an inquiry into utopian production, an unlikely but hopeful foray into self-annihilation.” — Peter Burr

Each member has his or her own artistic career outside the Colony. But, once a year for about a week, they live and work together, doing everything from shooting footage and making costumes to cooking for each other. The group’s guiding philosophies are “an amorphous concept,” Burr said, and each member has a different way of describing how the group operates. Their primary medium is 16mm film, which they process by hand, but they also use sound, video, text, dance, performances, “data, lasers, and so forth,” Burr said. The films they make are credited to the group as a whole.

Those are the basics. According to one member, Burr said, Colony of Light artists “share a particular affinity for time and luminance under the umbrella of collectivity.” The Colony “optimistically privileges the process of the group over the product of the self (and) approaches collaboration as an essentially generative and fundamentally long-term practice,” he said. Bringing together more than a dozen artists can pose some challenges, but Burr said in-person, intense collaboration has made the group’s body of work what it is.

The two screenings at 3S focus on the group’s usual artistic themes: how our physical selves interact with our digital selves and how an individual transforms in a group. As one group member puts it, Burr said, the Colony “is a vehicle for self-expansion, an inquiry into utopian production, an unlikely but hopeful foray into self-annihilation.”

Their work is also a sort of love-letter to film — a medium the groups looks at as a way to manipulate time and light to bring together disparate elements into a physical whole. Working with the film by hand, from shooting footage to developing and editing the final product, is an important aspect of the group’s work, Burr said.

“(Film is) pretty great for a few reasons,” Burr said. There’s a “weird social experiment/intimacy” that comes with hanging out in the dark with strangers during a film screening. Developing the film by hand reinforces the “spiritual connection between chemical transformation and personal transmutation,” and using film, rather than digital video, creates limits that are “helpful in many ways, especially in the face of the infinite nature of group dynamics.”

And, film is “almost always beautiful,” Burr added — the sort of beauty that exists only because it is physically real and utterly unique.

Colony of Light is in residency in Portsmouth through Aug. 26. “Our (Im)material Selves” screens Wednesday, Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. and “Hive Vision” screens Saturday, Aug. 22 at 8 p.m. at 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $5 at or 603-766-3330.