Art and Light – Reinventing Public Space


There is something taking place in Brisbane at night, bridges, parks and public buildings are becoming regular canvases for light projections. The popularity of digital work and projection installations inhabiting public spaces is evident in the growth of light-based festivals throughout Australia and around the globe. Indeed, art and light are reinventing public spaces around Brisbane. Queensland digital artist and poet Alinta Krauth recently created a projection work for Brisbane’s 2015 U.R{BNE} Festival; projection artist Ian de Gruchy’s work has now become a recurrent light show on the William Jolly Bridge; and over the G20 Leaders Summit, the Brisbane City Council ran the Colour Me Brisbane program that saw artists illuminate buildings and landmarks around the city.

We may well ask why projections and light-based art installations seem to have come of age. In Australia alone we now see Vivid in Sydney, White Night in Melbourne and projection art being included in major arts festivals and biennales. One reason is that digital projection-mapping software is now readily available and has reached a level of sophistication that allows artists to use complex building facades as a temporary canvas. Matthew Clark (Day 2012), co-founder of the London-based collective United Visual Artists, said that what excites him the most about video mapping technology is that it allows him to move beyond the flat rectangle associated with film. Clark goes on to state, “It’s quite liberating… suddenly anything can be your canvas” (Day 2012).

Furthermore, displaying temporary art in public spaces is part of the contemporary aspiration to communicate rapidly with an audience, echoing the pace of social media and the notion that the public are co-generators of conversations and meaning. Technology is driving this movement, although projections in public spaces are not new in themselves. As early as the 1980s, Polish born projection artist and social activist Krzysztof Wodiczko was working in public spaces in the United States to reveal architecture’s ability to both mirror and create cultural values (Ascher 2010). The value of such light projections can be seen in their ability to renew urban environments by connecting local communities with public spaces and create new local narratives.

Brisbane’s U.R{BNE} Collective are among a growing movement of tactical urbanists that are utilising public spaces to create temporary changes to the built environment. For the past four years, the U.R{BNE} Collective have held the U.R{BNE} Festival, which aims to re-activate Brisbane’s forgotten spaces through public interaction. The broad aim of tactical urbanism is to improve dialogue with the community and provide temporary solutions to local planning issues. The U.R{BNE} Collective worked with the Brisbane City Council to encourage participation in the Council’s public consultation process for the renewal of the Spring Hill area. They did so by activating parks within the Spring Hill area via a range of festival activities such as art installations, tours and workshops.

Produced by Brisbane creative agency Engage Arts, Krauth’s work for the U.R{BNE} Festival, Wind blisters those who try to run, was a site-specific light projection at The Old Windmill. The Old Windmill is a heritage-listed building and Queensland’s oldest convict built structure located at Wickham Park, Spring Hill. Krauth projected Wind blisters those who try to run live on site using two projectors to illuminate both sides of windmill. Krauth used layered images, text and animated drawings to expose aspects of the Windmill’s chequered history. The Old Windmill has a dour past, as a site of convict torture and execution. However, it has significance as a place of technological advancement: it was used as a signal tower, weather observatory, and was the site of Queensland’s first television broadcast. A visitor to the U.R{BNE} Festival described Krauth’s projection as, “an x-ray of history which analysed deep Queensland bones and health”(Krauth 2015).

In Art, Space and the City, Malcolm Miles reviews the notion of using public space as a way of imagining possible futures (Miles 1997). Krauth’s work, Wind blisters those who try to run, can be seen as a catalyst for conversations around history and also as a generator of new meanings. Suzanne Lacy describes this type of work as ‘new genre public art’ (Lacy cited in Miles 1997). Artists such as Krauth and her interactive, digital and video art contemporaries are working at the intersection of technology, art, culture and public participation to create new narratives for city spaces. Likewise, Melbourne-based artist Yandall Walton’s work Absent Presence (2014), commissioned by the Townsville City Council for Luxlumen Festival, was an interactive piece about the traces we leave as humans and explored the history embedded in architecture (Walton 2015). Established artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko and Australian artist Craig Walsh are known for their site-specific projects that include large scale projections onto monuments and trees respectively. These works explore history and social issues while recontextalising the meanings of public space. It is apparent that such temporary public art installations can indeed generate new ways of imagining the futures for architecture, public space and the social fabric of those spaces.

The exhibition of interactive, digital, video and projection works is an important part of fostering creative communities and building innovative uses of technology. As digital works may not always be suited to traditional galleries, the emergence of festivals, biennales and publicly funded projects is important. Such events support the development of new works and can generate clusters of digital expertise. Melbourne is a pertinent example of this, it has developed a robust digital culture supported by events like the Gertrude Street Projection Festival, White Night, and Experimenta the International Biennial of Media Art. By developing future capacity for new genre public art to be staged, Brisbane can develop its own unique digital culture that will provide opportunities for artists to develop, collaborate, build and exhibit work that will drive conversations with the community on public space, history and technology.

By Kerry Turnbull

Image: Alinta Krauth, Wind blisters those who try to run (detail), 2015, installation view.

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