Light Matters: 3D Video Mapping, Making Architecture The Screen for Our Urban Stories

Powerful video projectors at an affordable price have opened the path for a young, impressive art form: 3D video mapping, a means of projection that uses the architecture itself as the screen. Artists and researchers initiated the movement, developing a new visual language to interpret architecture. Later, marketing adopted this technique for branding, with large-scale projections on skyscrapers; political activists have also initiated dialogues, turning ephemeral light interventions into eye-catching ways to point out and address urban design issues. 

More on the ways artists and groups develop this visual language for urban storytelling, after the break…

3D video mapping has emerged as a relatively new artistic form.Special software allows users to plan animations and send them to one or several powerful video projectors, covering and transforming the whole facade of a building. This dynamic imagery creates a 3D virtual environment from real architecture and initiates a new interpretation of the site. 

In this way artists introduce an imagery (from generally abstract videos up to sophisticated modulated videos) that interplays with the texture of the façade and the history of the building. In comparison to media façades, which are permanent installations where the dynamic images represent an integral and original part of the building, the temporary video mapping installations induce a new identity. 

For Thorsten Bauer, head of the German design studio Urbanscreen, this difference is essential: “The temporary installation surprises with a new interpretation of the old. [...] the old is the dramaturgical starting point of the production… The façade with a permanent installation is under the pressure that it has no real identity to which it can contrast with.” 

The first 3d video mapping installations in an urban context emerged around 2005. This was the time when the first video projectors with a high light output of 10.000 Ansi-Lumen became more affordable, costing around 20.000 Euro. Contemporary video projectors provide 15-30.000 Ansi-Lumen and major installations can require up to 20 projectors on the site. The artists of the early projects – like Antivj, easyweb.fr and Urbanscreen -  encountered various technical challenges. 

Today 3D scanners allow designers to document their architecture quickly and precisely, and state-of-the-art media servers enable real-time adjustments and the implementation of interactive content. The basis for the imagery is formed by common software programs for images and video editing. The architecture as image medium should offer a matte-finished surface with high reflectance for a good visibility of the projected images. For this reason, glass façades, with their mirroring effect, as well as black surfaces, with their low reflectance, are very impractical. 

The new temporary building interventions have fascinated the event art scene and curators have started to include video mapping installations in festivals like “Genius Loci” in Weimar, the “Mapping Festival” in Genève, the “Vivid Sydney” or the prominent light festival “Fête des Lumières“ in Lyon. With the increasing number of video installations and the creative application for impressive images, marketing agencies have also adapted it for branding and launching products. These animations are organized as big events, supported by social media, and strive for attention with surprising moments that culminate in the product display. 

For the artist Thomas Vaquié, from the Belgian studio Antivj, however, video mapping is more than a gimmick. For Vaquié, projection requires a noteworthy transformation of the existing environment: ”Mapping on architecture has to go further than a simple projection of content matching the size of the structure. It is about capturing the space, the architecture, the acoustic and whatever else emerges from it before any treatment. It is also about using existing movements and force points within the architecture.“ 

With their project ”0 (Omicron)” in the Centennial Hall of Wroclaw in Poland, Antivj gained wide recognition due to the colossal size of the building and the science­fiction aesthetic. AntiVJ confronted the audience with visions of a future via references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the utopian projects of Archigram. 

Romain Tardy from Antivj regarded his animation as a technical drawing process derived from the architecture itself: ”About the choice of a minimal aesthetic, it comes both from the sci-fi world, contemporary artists that we love like Sol LeWitt, but also from technical drawings, schemes, this kind of drawings that are not usually considered as a piece of art. What’s projected onto the dome could also be seen as some kind of technical drawing in process, maybe drawn by the building itself.“

The “Box” by Bot & Dolly similarly linked state of the art with large scale robotics, projection mapping and software engineering for an artistic demonstration. They demonstrated a vision of a new expression to transform theatrical presentation. 

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The German group Urbanscreen relies on the architecture as well, but their projects often involve a human touch through the use of actors. Their projects can be divided into two kinds: remix installations and site-specific virtual theatre. The remix installations reveal a refined discourse with the form, texture, and function of the architecture. They are tightly connected with a specific site, such as their Sydney Opera House installations were. The famous shell construction was transformed into dynamic sails and the projected performers reflected the artistic mission of the building. 

However, in Urbanscreen’s second approach, of site-specific virtual theatre, actors take on the leading role, creating surrealistic situations for urban storytelling. In their “What is up?” performance in the city of Eindhoven, the audience receives insight into the protagonist as they accompany him through surrealistic situations. The façade projection becomes a playful interface between inside and outside – similar to human clothing.

In another project, “Searchlight,” Urbanscreen searched for the way in which moving light cones could be used for interactive storytelling, whilst keeping the content linked to the specific room configuration. Here, a fascinating combination of real performers and virtual people come into view; the story only reveals itself bit by bit, but is continued in the mind of the viewer – a thrilling visionary path between real architecture and virtual stories.

In comparison to these predefined animations by Antivj and Urbanscreen, which demonstrate a tight link to a specific architecture and are often performed for several days, other video projection types exist that have an even more ephemeral character and which are mobile. For example, the project “Minneapolis Art on Wheels” by Ali Momeni, currently an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, used large-scale sound and video projections to engage with the community and, through the use of bike-mobilized media disseminators, explored public space for artists, students, and residents. Momeni focuses on live participatory performances; with his portable projections systems he can flexibly and quickly ride to different sites, start his interactive light events and never leave a physical mark. 

In contrast to Momeni´s artistic performances, the mission of “The Illuminator” is mainly politically driven. It’s designed to keep the conversation of the Occupy Wall Street movement alive, “To smash the myths of the information industry and allow people to find out for themselves what the 99% movement is fighting for.“ The New York Illuminator van, equipped with a video projector and audio system, joins demonstrations or appears in a random, guerrilla- like intervention to induce a political dialogue in public space, like the event at Zucotti Park in Manhattan in 2012. 

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The notable advantage for political groups, who use the video technique on buildings for communicating their guerrilla message and socio-cultural mission, is that the projections do not touch or damage a building, but, nevertheless, leave a notable afterimage. For these often rapid interventions, video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have become very important for preserving and distributing the fleeting images and their message.

With modern equipment artists and activists do not face a technical challenge anymore;, rather, the challenge will be to inspire the audience with convincing concepts. For urban design developments, video mapping, with its large scale presence in the nocturnal city, offers the chance to raise greater social awareness for overlooked problems. For artists, like Urbanscreen’s Thorsten Bauer, the goal will be: “to create a strong dialogue between media art and architecture. Architecture must take responsibility for the permanent medialisation of its buildings.” 

Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural , works for the company ERCO, has published numerous articles and co-authored the book „Light Perspectives“. For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces

Cite: Thomas Schielke. "Light Matters: 3D Video Mapping, Making Architecture The Screen for Our Urban Stories" 01 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=432355>