The legacy beyond the spectacle


I’m here on behalf of a big idea. It’s an idea that has been tapping all of us on the shoulders, whispering in our ears and even has some of us tapping and dancing to its beat.

It is the idea …that a community can be co-creators, and that co-creative projects are transformational. It’s the idea that the ephemeral can shape change and leave a legacy.

I work with projection art as an artform.

It’s bold and beautiful, but it’s temporary.

If you look at the crowd-pleasing building projection at VIVID it might seem to offer little more than colourful animation and special effects, yet I have proven that building projection is capable of changing people and places, and of leaving a legacy. How have I proven this potential?

Projection is just a medium, like print, television and books. When books were first invented I am sure people were fascinated by the physical artefact itself, the paper, the covers – being awe inspired by its existence as a new thing. Just like we do when any new technology comes out.  But once we get over being awed by the medium, we settle down and focus on the contents. You don’t revere your books for the fact that they have pages – you tote them for their contents. The contents are so important that you stopped focusing on the book, and tote those contents on a tablet. The same applies to building projection – it is just a medium, but it has a message. Right now Sydney people are still in awe of there being projection on a building, but many are looking for more in their pudding, and asking why is there not more to it?

Since the late 90’s I’ve been exploring bringing responsiveness, narrative and meaning into large scale projection art. Meaningful content, and the process of content development within the projection has been my focus. One of the methods has been through working with groups and communities to enable them to express their story through projection. A big part of the exploration has been community engagement and participation.

It’s been really fascinating to look at how evolving communication technology has shaped the methods that the projects have taken over this time.

xCommunicate MarrickvilleFor example, in 2002 and 2004 I directed projection arts projects involving local artists as collaborators and participants – these were the first two illuminart projection projects in Marrickville, featuring local artists work projected onto Marrickville landmarks. At that time, about 30% of the artists needed technical support to translate their visual art into projectable format, which included helping them take digital photos of their artwork through to converting artwork into projection ready formats. Even with contributors at different skill levels, all were invited and included in participating in choices, such as sites where the projection would be presented, or being able to test their images to see how their work would need to be adapted to work through the medium of projection.

xCommunicate AlbanyCompare that to 2014 working with the artistic community of Albany, including local writers, artists, photographers, videographers and musicians. This remote Western Australia community were all very active and proficient in digital media, able to use dropbox, file transfer, and google docs. We didn’t have any need to run training sessions for these artists, they were all up to speed. We facilitated their process through remote online collaboration and projection tests, and included them as collaborators in the writing and concept development…. leading to a cohesive storyline assisted and owned by the local community.

In 2015 we will be working on a large scale cross regional project in South Australia connecting over ten regional coastal communities. The project is “Port to Port” – harking back to the old days when the mosquito fleet – a fleet of sailing ketches – plied the waters and delivered the mail and supplies for all those towns. And it also rings forward to our future present, where we’ll be connecting the artists through their computer port, to computer port. The challenge of this project will be involving people from skill levels of complete novice through to digital guru and assisting them to collaborate with each other and us to create the project, while supporting them to own their part of the project.

xCommunicate Albany 2Community as co-creators are powerful. Community as authors and writers and partners are strong and incredibly creative. Projects made with community co-creation are big with intention and potential.

By involving the community in these large projection projects, I have assisted them to represent their own story and own the process, ensuring that the outcomes of the project are original, locally relevant and much more than just a spectacle.

The model of involving others in the process of creating an event or an experience just comes so naturally when people from different lives can share and work together. So why shouldn’t that home spun process also apply to events, festivals and projects?

I found plenty of examples of it working well in South Australia, and Community participation for self expression is actually a big part of Regional Australia’s heritage.

You see, in South Australia, particularly in the bush, everyone has to be inventive, share resources and cooperative to help each to survive.

xCommunicate - every dish tells a storyA really good example from personal history is the old dinner dance. You couldn’t afford for a band to travel from the city, so local people would learn to play an instrument and get a band together. And the food wasn’t made by a caterer. Everyone would just bring a plate and the feast would be made of all the contributions. The annual pantomime involved half the town. Almost all of the entertainment was self made. That’s the environment I grew up in, and that’s the culture I went back to when I returned.

xCommunicatte RCCA more recent example is The Regional Centre for Culture program, supported by Country Arts SA, which selected one regional community to be the centre for regional arts activity for a whole year, in three regional communities over a six year period from 2008 and of course many regions applied to be the Centre. An injection of a million dollars into permanent infrastructure and a program of events in a small town is an absolutely incredible opportunity. But they didn’t approach it the way that a festival normally would work, that is by importing big name acts from elsewhere and expecting the locals to just be bottoms on seats.  To quote Jo Pike, executive producer of the RCC: “It isn’t to be just as if the circus came to town, putting on a big show and then rocking on out again afterwards.” It was essential that the local artists were to benefit, with as much funding as possible going towards permanent impact for the region, rather than being paid to external suppliers who would spend their earnings elsewhere. Thus the Regional Centre for Culture program supported and showcased the local talent, assisted them to develop and present work, and asked people to come from outside the town to share the experience, thus turning the usual methods of a festival inside out.

And that’s really inspiring. Firstly that the creative community would step up and own participation, and secondly that it was supported and facilitated by all the arts organisations, and local and state government.

You might be wondering why I am talking so much about regional South Australia. Straight up, I’m from regional SA, in the Flinders Ranges. But I have a very strong connection to Sydney, as I moved here when I was 26 to take my interest in technology and art to a new level. I worked in new media, animation and education, increasingly becoming a producer and artist in my own right in the late 90s. Round the time of the Olympics the rent skyrocketed and it became impossible to be a full time artist. I struggled to to expand my arts practice, and like many people dealing with increasing rents, I had to balance what was effectively my full time arts career with an also full time job for someone else, feeling that both were being compromised. I was desperate to make large work but didn’t have access to space to make it…. and I wanted to tap into the audience, and to be responsive to real issues and stories but my day job involved making the beautiful safe and pleasing images that adorn buildings at Christmas time. It all changed in 2006 I decided to move back to regional South Australia to be with my parents for a while.


Finally I had access to working space and access to communities who wanted to co-create. I was able to really focus and invent an inclusive process for large scale projection.  And in that smith, illuminart’s Architectural Storytelling process was forged, it grew and has expanded to working in many places around Australia.

Back in the beginning days of illuminart – 2007 and 2008, a year or so before VIVID began, I led three regional projects involving community members in collaborative video projects. xCommunicate HMIThese projects provided confidence to presenters, and In 2009 I was invited to be an artist in residence in Port Adelaide to develop a large scale, fully animated mapped projection for Harts Mill, involving community members in developing the storyline and content. This is before the term projection mapping had been thought of – it was a mapping technique, but ahead of its time so it didn’t have a name.

The concept development process involved advertising and holding meetings with the local residents of the area, and people from outside of the area who had a connection to Harts Mill, a historic building with a very contentious future as it was earmarked as a future precinct of towering apartment blocks.

People cared about the heritage of the area, loved that old building, so many responded to the call out for participants. About 50 passionate residents got involved in the creative journey, leading to a script for how the building’s story should be represented and what would be included in the show, which I then animated over a two month period. It was presented over three nights during Port Festival 2009 to a rapt audience.

xCommuniicate HMRIt was Australia’s first fully mapped narrative building projection, and featured a twenty minute animation depicting the building’s history unfolding and questioning its possible futures. Six years on people still talk about it, not as a technological innovation, but because it had something important to say and because it spoke to and from the hearts of local residents. It was beautiful, it acknowledged the architecture, and it empowered the community.

Projection is an artform that is about engaging with the physical aspects of a site – its form, its position and structure, its surface and environment. Illuminart’s Architectural Storytelling takes the engagement beyond the site, to involve community members within, or even to form a community around the project.

xCommunicate SITLThe process of working out what is there to be expressed and explored by the participating community is an exciting part of the process. The process is as much about finding the voices who need to be empowered to participate, as it is about being able to listen and interpret.  It’s also terrific to empower a community to form around a project, to begin something new using the project as a catalyst. It injects so much enthusiasm and originality into the work.

Since 2009 I have directed more than a dozen illuminart Architectural Storytelling projects. One of my favourites is Port Inhabited, involving projection on to a number of buildings on both sides of the street. The video of this award winning show explains the process.

Each of the stories communicated in illuminart’s Architectural Storytelling projects is connected to the building, the community and a significance idea for the region. Local people create and own the ideas – literally – and the illuminart team guide, interpret and assist those ideas to be communicated through the unique medium of Architectural Projection.

The Albany project is about to be archived into the State Library of WA and Public Library of Albany in recognition of its unique legacy and its representation of the local voices and vernacular. And the comments we hear at the events and through testimonials show that we been meaningfully connecting with audience and community, and reaching a level of excellence in this artform. Audiences for the shows are blown away, not by the fact that it’s a big projection on a building (well, partly by that) but primarily by the fact that they are taken on a journey.

xCommunicate IlluminartAudiences seeing projection at VIVID say “ooh that’s pretty” and compare which buildings they like best. I would be disappointed if that was all we accomplished with illuminart’s Architectural Storytelling.

I want people to get to know their community, to go beyond their usual comfort zones, to participate in sharing their stories and to experience local heritage illuminating their mind.

Presented at the Cross Communicate Symposium – 5th June 2015 at the UNSW Paddington Campus.


Through inviting and engaging with passionate community members the seed to new collaborations and multi-disciplinary solutions are formed. I am a passionate advocate of community engagement and inclusive practice as a method of developing authentic narratives for projection. By embracing enthusiasm and authentic inclusion, illuminart are “inventing extraordinary”.

This is the presentation I gave at the Cross Communicate Symposium – 5th June 2015 at the UNSW Paddington Campus, where I was able to provide evidence of the significance and impact of a co-creative process.