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ON ANY DAY and from any angle, the city of Sydney

presents a handsome profile, but on this night, it boasts

an entirely different dimension.


The Sydney Opera House has been transformed into

a canvas onto which light splashes to create various

forms—a morphing, multicolored mural, a black-andwhite

stick figure diving into the harbor, a psychedelic

work of aboriginal art. Façades of harborside buildings,

like giant Pantone piano keys, reflect intense and

constantly changing light onto the water. On the road

through the Argyle Cut in The Rocks, adults and children

lie on their backs and gawk at the tunnel roof

above them, mesmerized by close-ups of snakes’ skins,

leaves, flowers, and wildlife scenes. Even the Sydney

Harbor ferries slicing through the night are strung with

lights, pulsating with color and movement.

It’s all part of the annual Vivid Sydney, an 18-day

visual art event that takes place in June. The event

makes exquisite use of the video art form known as

projection mapping, where practitioners map video

elements onto preexisting surfaces (the process has

also been referred to as “video mapping” and “spatial

augmented reality”). Though Vivid Sydney proclaims

itself “the largest festival of light, music, and ideas in

the world,” with more than 80 light installations attracting

millions of people, such an event is not unique to

Sydney—or even to cityscapes.


Earlier this year, Jennifer Lopez famously became

a living screen onto which animated film scenes were

projected during her American Idol performance of the

song “Feel the Light.” Her custom-designed dress, complete

with a 20-foot diameter train, became the star of the

show. In a more intimate venue, the Adrien M/Claire B

dance company, based in Lyon, France, for 10 years has

proven expert at situating its dancers within enchantingly

conjured 3-D–seeming environments.


The effectof such pieces as Hakanaï—with its bendable grids,

evolving cubes, and black squares that seem to “rain”

upside down—is mystical and transporting.

And the list goes on: From Jerusalem’s Festival of

Light, where Jaffa Gate is adorned with a 25-meter-high

dome created and lit by an Italian lighting company

called Luminarie De Cagna, to Prague’s Signal Festival

where the rococo façade of the Kinsky Palace becomes a

playground for international light artists, this expressive

use of light is the new fireworks. Civic ceremonies, artistic

exhibitions, and corporate promotions have basked

in the spotlight of projections.


“The way that this works best is when you can really

create a believable illusion,” says Ryan Uzilevsky, creative

director of the Brooklyn-based Light Harvest Studio.

Uzilevsky and his team have created subtle projections

for the Temple of Grace, the sacred structure at

Burning Man where 60,000 people write messages to

loved ones they have lost.


“At the end of the festival the temple is burned to

ashes while everyone watches silently,” he says. “Max

Nova—the director—and I wanted to be sensitive to the

spiritual gravity of the structure. We didn’t want to

overwhelm the space, only to add a little flicker of magic

here and there to captivate the imagination.”

BACK IN RENAISSANCE TIMES, Uzilevsky says, commissions

from individuals and institutions at the highest

strata of society were about creating something

impressive, dramatic, and long-lasting, such as a new

building. “Obviously, there’s no longer that much space

in the world for building cathedrals and monuments,”

he says. “Instead, today we’re able to augment or transform

an architectural vision into something more modern,

or more communicative.”


And it fulfills the desire for a communal and dynamic

theatrical experience. “Architecture is a crystallization

of a time and a feeling,” he says. “It’s a kind of cultural

meme. So everything is sitting there, crystallized from

the time it was built, unchanging. It’s no longer a current

conversation. But with the speed at which our

culture is now flowing, I think there’s been a need for

architecture to talk and to communicate. We’re able to

do that now—to transform things based on a client’s

objective or an artistic statement.”

Artists must take into consideration architectural elements

such as pillars and pylons, balconies and balustrades.

Shadow comes into effect as does reflected light.

But rather than avoiding these features, today’s practitioners

utilize them.


“Each projection mapping job is different,” says Jason

French, creative director of SpinifexGroup Sydney, the

design house responsible for Vivid Sydney 2015’s popular

Customs House and Argyle Cut installations. “We

need to think first about surface, and, obviously, buildings

have windows and doors that you need to work

around. We couldn’t use part of the Customs House

lower floor, for instance, because it contains a restaurant

and the light would blind people sitting by the window.”

Much of the popular success of projection mapping

can be attributed to technology: the brightness of projectors

and speed of computer processors. As with televisions

and computer monitors, projectors have also

been increasing in resolution.


A more primitive aspect, according to Uzilevsky, is

that people respond so viscerally. His intention is to

take this medium “beyond digital fireworks” to insert

stories and mythology into each installation. Why stories

and mythology? “This stuff can be so intense and

overwhelming for people that there needs to be a common

point where they can connect,” he says.

Ken Wheatley is the sales director, Asia-Pacific, for

Christie Digital Systems, a multinational firm headquartered

in Cypress, Calif., that provides high-end

projectors for major events such as Vivid Sydney and

Shanghai Expo. “Back in Shakespeare’s time, theater

man agers were always experimenting with ways to provide

shows at night,” says Wheatley, who, in a previous

role, managed lighting design for theme parks. “They

used candles and reflectors and primitive forms of

stage lighting. As every technology advance has come

along—gas lighting, incandescent electric lights, quartz

electric lights, halogen—the industry has continued to

make improvements. And nowadays, of course, we have

projection. What is interesting is that projection and

lighting are now merging into one.”


Previously, lighting was about providing light and

atmosphere, while projection was to tell a story in moving

pictures. But greater technological sophistication

has brought about the blending that Wheatley speaks

of. So car manufacturers at model launches employ

projection mapping to create atmosphere and to tell

a story, ceremonies at major sports events switch off

floodlights and utilize projectors, and millions converge

on Sydney when art and light collide.


“Maybe the attraction comes from the fact that when

we are in the wild, we all gravitate toward the campfire

to sing songs together at night,” Wheatley says. “People

want to go out. They want to see something amazing and

be told a great story. These technologies have offered

media artists a totally new platform to tell these stories.”

Where will projected light lead next? Wheatley

believes the future might include smaller projectors and

personalized software to use inside one’s home. “You go

into your apartment and say, ‘I want to have a city view,’

or, ‘I want to have mountains and sunshine,’” he says.

But until then, the experience is big and shared—that

is, until the lights go out. Back at Vivid Sydney, like a

modern-day Cinderella story, the projections switch

off at midnight and the cityscape returns to its static

self. The buildings seem harder and less forgiving. The

magic is gone—until tomorrow night. 􀁺



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