Projection Art, Video Art and Blinc

I made a special trip to see BLINC at Adelaide Festival in early March 2015. Seeing the Festival Centre and Parliament House illuminated by moving image is rare enough to justify dropping everything. Seems like quite a few others did too as afterwards I was asked by friends and peers for my opinion about it. Most of them seemed to be a little unsure about whether it was good, and why it hadn’t perhaps excited them as much as they had expected. It prompted me to write this explanation to help clarify understanding and generate appreciation for what was being presented.

Appreciating the difference between moving image / video art, and projection art (putting Blinc at Adelaide Festival into perspective)

Projection Art is a distinct artform from Moving Image (aka Video Art), but occasionally there will be an overlap that offers us an opportunity to appreciate the difference and value of both of these artforms. I’m prompted to clarify this because right now in Adelaide the closing nights of BLINC, a curated multi-site moving image and illumination program, has seemed to confuse its audiences with what it’s trying to be.

So before we talk about BLINC and the response to it, let me outline the differences between Projection Art and Moving Image as simply as possible.

Projection Art is an artform that uses the technology of data or light projectors to illuminate sites or structures with image. Because the image is created by illuminating the structure, the site itself provides powerful concerns for the artist, and artworks must be carefully constructed for each specific site. When successful, strong illusions and a powerful sense of place and form is developed. Because Projection Art is accomplished primarily through illumination, the quality of the artwork has to composite with the quality of the surface it is projecting onto, and the success of colours, contrast, movement and texture is dictated by the environment. The Projection Artist is therefore concerned with choices about form, colour, movement, site specific issues such as audience viewpoint, and the communication of their ideas through this unique, site specific “canvas”. The professional Projection Artist also maintains a strong relationship with the technical side of the artform (known as Projection Design), and managing the team who install projectors or manage the environmental lighting and sound to ensure that the entire environment works for the best perceptions of the work.

In contrast, Moving Image / Video Art is an artform that uses the technology of video processing, graphics and screen – typically a monitor or cinema screen of a rectangular format, or multi-screen formats. Moving Image can be as broad as an interactive application through to an experimental film, but it is most commonly designed for a black box gallery environment or a moving image venue. The success of moving image is often accomplished through the ability to immerse the viewer, especially in a black box gallery that reduces any extraneous light pollution and offering a high quality immersive space, and the contemporary Moving Image / Video Artist might therefore be focused on subtleties such as abstraction, scale, texture, movement and interactivity and are less concerned with site and environmental issues.

Why are these questions important?

Audiences in Adelaide have experienced high quality projection art already (Northern Lights 2008, 2010; Harts Mill Inhabited 2009; Port Inhabited 2011) and have access to the full internet’s viral catalogue of buildings falling down, growing with vines, glowing and transforming in magical ways whether through a festival or a viral campaign. All these illusions and transformations come with a level of excitement, about what impossible things can be accomplished, and what beauty in form may be unveiled through this magical use of the augmented structure. However, if these audiences come with the expectation of projection art, and experience work that not site specific and is not designed for environmental projection – they may be underwhelmed.  Moving Image /  Video art tends not engage with the site or with the audiences viewing perspectives, and although it may be high quality work within its own genre, it will often work at odds to unusual projection surfaces thus appearing less brilliant than it might have. So, should we be appreciating Blinc as Video Art, or Projection Art?

Although there are plenty of examples of cross over – Video Artists who use projectors, and Projection Artists who create work for black box gallery environments – we can pretty much clarify what you are looking at by asking these questions:

  • Is it using projectors and is it site specific – eg was it designed specifically for this site? If yes, probably projection art. If no, probably video art.
  • Is it a 16:9 rectangular format, presented on a wall, screen, monitor etc? If yes, probably video art. If no, probably projection art.
  • Are the surfaces being projected onto, being responded to in a strong way that enhances their form, or are we meant to ignore those surfaces and just look at the content? If it’s the first, probably projection art. If it’s the second, probably video art.
  • Could you take this work and adapt it for another site easily (eg would it look the same or similar if projected at another site or onto another building)? If yes, its probably video art.

Let’s apply these questions to the installations at BLINC to determine what you are looking at.

Investigating whether something is site specific, you can consider these elements – whether the objects or forms being projected onto have been formally and clearly considered and responded to and considered? Are these spaces being used as an opportunity to work with form and structure and light in a strong way? Or are they simply being used to project something onto it.

You probably noticed a couple of pieces projected on to the facets of the Festival Centre that contained some references to the edges of those facets. (sorry, I won’t call them sails, the Festie centre is a singing crystal not a yacht). These borders and edges appeared subtly in the work by Ryoichi Kurokawa and very strongly by Casa Magica. The other artists worked simply to use the facets as odd shaped canvases for portions of their work and did not respond to the site in any other way. So overall the impression is that the artists have only engaged with the site in a minimal way, and we are not looking at work that is truly site specific.

Much of the work presented was abstract and graphically strong, but the colours and forms selected would have been better suited to a black box gallery environment; this particularly applies to the Ryoichi Kurokawa who used a plain white background with thin dark lines, a choice of colours that invariably fail to work well in outdoor projection but can be very dramatic on screen.

The work by Casa Magica was very strong in form and process, but the compressed tonal range of the blues and golds made the work illegible from a distance. This again, shows that the artists have tended to work with their colours of preference, rather than engaging with what will work most strongly at this site and with this audience.

I have similar observations about Parliament House, where any one of the works would have worked better on a cinema screen in an experimental video art festival, than on the Parliament House building. The scale of the works and the speed of their moving image invariably caused discomfort to the audience with many people moving on quickly, and the level of abstraction without any reference to site or form disappointed many of the audience. The works in themselves were graphically strong, but simply did not work well as architectural projection in the format they were in. It would have definitely been a much stronger experience at this site if all of the artists had been guided to work with the architecture, instead of pretending it was not there.

However a clever use of occasional synchronicity between the Festival Centre and Parliament House was a lovely experience for those who stumbled on it, this appeared twice during the loop, within the works by László Zsolt Bordos and Hartung and Trenz. This aspect of multi-site referencing could have really been used better, creating a sense of immersion, but it was thwarted by the projector placement – something I can talk about later.

As this isn’t a review, but more an explanation to assist with appreciating the differences between Video Art and Projection Art, I won’t mention any of the other works in Blinc expect two: The influence machine by Tony Ousler, and River Creatures by Cecilia Westerburg.

The influence machine (2000) was projected on to trees and surfaces on the north shore of the Torrens River using smaller scale projectors, unfortunately suffering from ambient light pollution. All of the photos of the original work online show it projected dramatically large through layers of mist and fog, rather than comparitively postage stamp sized presentations onto trees. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t able to be experienced at the scale it might have been intended for, and certainly it lost the dreamlike quality it might have otherwise had if the projection had have been able to project through mist. A lot of Adelaidians have seen the poetic and artful work by projection artist Craig Walsh, who carefully selects specific suitable trees for a mystical transformation into a moving face. The care with which he selects the trees is balanced with the clever hiding of the projector technology, so that people discover in unexpected surprise the illusion that the tree is alive and watching them. Simply projecting on to a random tree will not have the same magic and I felt that the choice of site for Tony Ousler’s work was not ideal. Although it has clearly been projected onto trees in the past, trees in this site were not necessarily the right site for the installation.

River Creatures was far more successful and for me one of the mini-highlights of the festival. The waterfall at the end of the new Torrens Bridge was a delightful waterscreen that allowed the image to pass through and then be recaptured in an abstracted way by the Torrens Fountain. It was able to be seen from so many vantage points up close, up river and even from the bridge. The strong graphic white images against a black background were really successful for water projection, and my only criticism was related to my personal/subjective dislike of the rectangular format.

Projection Art is my personal artistic specialisation, both technically and creatively. Certainly I draw on a background knowledge of screen media and video art techniques to design and create, but projection art requires certain procedures and approaches to sit well in the context for which it is designed. This encompasses everything from the concept, creative decisions, technical design, right through to the management of the environmental lighting conditions.

My expectations accordingly are very high, when it comes to use of projectors for architectural projection. Whilst I don’t mind if a building doesn’t fall down (even though the audience will flock to see that), nor do I expect there to be narrative (but I admit I do love it when there is), I will always be asking: WHY is this being presented as an architectural projection / site specific projection art? What is specific enough about THIS work to require or desire it to be presented in this way? Will it actually work as an illumination? If there is no significance to the site, will it actually work as a piece of projection art? Quite often, the answer is no, it would be preferable to create an original work that engages with the space and the audience at that site.

Case in point: The first year of VIVID festival saw the projection of Brian Eno’s work onto the Sydney Opera House. Brian had been working with light for years and his strong visual style and use of colour work very well in projection. In addition he worked closely with the Australian projection company to adapt the work to the new artform. Compare to the following year of VIVID, where one of my heroes, performance and video artist Laurie Anderson, was the selected artist to feature on the Opera House. Laurie Anderson’s work is dark, moody, and is designed for the backlit screen, not for illumination. She was not involved in the adaption of the work to architectural projection, and the resulting Opera House Projections were best described as dark, illegible and underwhelming. This is important to help full appreciation that Projection Art is a distinct artform and that just because something is a piece of existent digital media, does not automatically qualify it to be a success to translate into projection onto a building or structure.

A few final points in relation to Projection Art, especially in the context of architectural projection, which involves the discipline of Projection Design. This is concerned with the position of projectors, the methods with which projections are wrapped seamlessly onto structures, the management of environmental concerns such as ambient lighting, and all of this in relation to the audience movement and enjoyment of the work.

Projectors need to be placed so that they do not obstruct the primary audience viewpoints of the work. Existing lighting should be dimmed down so that the glare of the lights don’t overpower the audience viewing of the work. General lighting should be designed to harmoniously and safely support the event, rather than causing audience pupils to pop open and closed moving between different areas. There was unfortunately a lack of good projection design around the Adelaide Festival Centre precinct, which meant glare in eyes (reducing the impact of projection) and scaffolding towers in the way at the best viewing points. Unfortunately most of the major companies that hire out Projection equipment do not necessarily curate or advise for the best outcomes of the Projection Artform and without a caring curatorially supportive Projection Designer the results can be less impactful than they should be. But these are minor points compared to the major challenge. The Adelaide Festival facets face away from projectors at every angle, meaning that the audience only get the full brightness of the projection at close to perpendicular to the facets. From a distance and at an angle the projections will be less powerful than they would be if the building was flat. Another challenge, not insurmountable, for the Projection Artist. But for Video Art, it will probably be lesser than it might otherwise be, as flat colours and tones will invariably appear washed out under these circumstances.

So let’s talk about the Video Art at BLINC. Dots for Adelaide, by Hartung and Trenz. Its hard to go wrong with a bold graphic design, but it didn’t offer me anything other than a sense of enjoyment to see one of my favourite buildings with colourful chicken pox. Wendy Dawson’s swarm stirred me to consider the global plight of bees, but I desired the mapping of the honeycomb to properly match the building so it truly became a giant hive. Ryoichi Kurokawa, one of my favourite video artists, chose a white background for his spectacular crystalline construction and consequently washed out the beautiful fine dark linework so it was almost invisible unless up close. A good projection designer would have advised him to invert the colours or work with thicker lines. Casa Magica successfully wooed me with luscious golds, tawny graduations and cyan forms with an insight into how the organic flows would play against the hard geometric forms of the Festival Centre. Bravo. László Zsolt Bordos tangled me in rope that hid the architecture from me for way too long. The crowds gravitated to Topla Design’s elephant, and Squidsoup’s fantastic immersive points of light in the Rotunda, which both offered something more personal and recognizable to them than the large scale abstract projections.

Although I have heard comments from audience members that Blinc was underwhelming and not as exciting as they’d hoped, it was interesting exhibition of works, despite its lack of engagement with the sites and local audience. As an exhibition space for these video artists, I felt the Art was perhaps not placed where or as well as it might be but nevertheless beautiful and significant to be appreciated at large scale. Abstract moving image perhaps to many isn’t as exciting and engaging as a Son et Lumiere or site specific work, but of course its powerful to see these local landmarks illuminated.

Appreciate the work in Blinc as Video Art using the sites as a canvas, rather than as Projection Art for these specific sites, and you’ll have a better understanding of what these artists were aiming to accomplish.  However I have a word of caution to curators, and the audience response noted above will back me up. If you are planning to invest in projection on to architecture, you definitely should aim for the projection art to engage with the site and the architecture, not just use it as a gallery wall, giant screen or canvas for existing artwork. Do not be fooled by technicians into thinking that high-end technology means high engagement. Your audience has seen the best of the best architectural projection online.  You, and the artists involved, need to match those audience expectations and engage with the site as more than just a canvas.

Useful Links:

BLINC at Adelaide Festival 2015

BLINC map

Channel nine video story

ABC News “Adelaide Festival kicks off with massive light and sound display, Blinc, at Elder Park”

Paula McManus documentation

Advertiser article “Blinc and you won’t miss Adelaide Festivals 2015 digital light display”