ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE

By Barbara Robertson

March 25, 2024

Reading Time:
18 Minutes

Artists alter the perception of architecture with their video-mapped masterpieces but you rarely get to experience these visual stories in the US.

The entire illuminated surface of the massive parliament building in Bucharest swims with color, images flow across the front of the university building in Debrecen and changes our perception of the structure, vibrating lines projected onto a building in Lille mutate into changing circles, a sea creature snakes through illusory pillars that magically appear on the façade of a neo-baroque palace in Budapest. Artists using video mapping techniques have created this magic by projecting their artwork onto architectural surfaces.

Video mapping is not new, but in the hands of artists it has become a serious art genre. That’s especially true for the architectural video mapping seen primarily in Europe where light festivals draw huge crowds to city centers. During the curated light festivals, a select group of sponsored artists project their video maps onto historical and sometimes more modern buildings and compete for awards.

“I call it painting with light,” says Stefano Fake, founder of the Florence, Italy-based, The Fake Factory. 

The Glow Festival held in Eindhoven, Netherlands, for example, grew from 45,000 visitors in 2006, to 750,000 in 2019. Organizers of the Signal Festival in Prague claim that in 10 years, the event attracted more than 4.5 million visitors.      

The pandemic brought a hiatus to the festivals but many began coming alive again in 2022. In September, 2023 iMapp-Bucharest drew 35 projection artists and 50,000 visitors to its festival in Romania. And, this year, the 45-member International Light Festivals Organization (ILO), lists eight events scheduled in European countries. (The one US member, the Borealis in Seattle, had an inaugural event in 2018, but no future festivals appear on its calendar.)

Video Mapping Festival 2023, Region Hautes-de-France | Image courtesy Rencontres Audivosiuelles

One of the most important events for these visual artists, the ILO’s seventh Video Mapping Festival, expects 20 creations to be projected in Lille, France on April 4 to 7. The video mapping artworks will then travel to 30 cities throughout the Hautes-de-France region during the year. At the accompanying international video mapping conference IBSIC, 40 speakers will give talks and a jury will select the festival award winner.

To someone in the US, these numbers might seem remarkable. But in Europe, video projection mapping is an area in which 3D computer graphics artists can practice their art and create successful careers and profitable companies.

Inspiring and Training Artists

“Even during the pandemic, I was booked one year in advance,” says Lazlo Zsolt Bordos, an artist based in Budapest. “I have projects now for next year and into 2026. The first generation of architectural projectionists particularly are overbooked.”

Florence-based Stefano Fake, one of those first-generation artists, began his career using video projection for performances. “It was common to have a dance, a ballet, in a square and a projection on the buildings,” he says. “When we have a 3D model of a building, we know where we are projecting a design. The building can do anything we want. We can make it move, dance, fill it with information. That’s video mapping.”

In 2001, the artist founded The Fake Factory, a collective that now works with hundreds of new media artists. Among their ongoing projects is Florence’s Green Line Festival, which Fake initiated in 2012 as the Florence Light Festival. As the festival continued on, he asked other artists to develop content as well. Each year, during the Christmas festival, video projections illuminate Florence’s Renaissance buildings and dance across the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge.

“I’m like the grandfather of the new generation of young artists,” Fake says. With sponsorship from the Italian government, he brings works from these artists to other countries. “In Italy, we have almost 30 studios doing video mapping. We try to go around the world making video mapping, so these new artists can present themselves,” he says.

In 2021, Bordos initiated a class in light art at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME) in Budapest. And, Limelight studios, another artist collective, also encourages new talent. Until the pandemic hit, Limelight offered masterclasses to professional artists interested in working in this field, and as a means to increase diversity among the artists in the collective. Limelight’s Budapest-based artist Viktor Vicsek began producing immersive light art installations in the late 90’s, founded a VJ group in 2000, and then in 2006 joined with Istvàn Dàvid to co-found their award-winning company. Limelight’s first projections were static, but in 2009, Viesek developed a media server and mapping software, and began creating architectural projections the next year. The collective, which now produces light art installations world-wide, has offices in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, and Budapest. They held their first masterclass in 2018.

“It was the brainchild of Istvàn and David,” says Scott Hallock, managing partner for the Americas. “They wanted to give back to the creative community and realized there was a lack of diversity in the community.”

A festival in Australia signed on as a sponsor for a project that would launch the masterclass that year, and Limelight did an open call for artists with experience in motion design and 3D computer graphics.

“They had a beautiful building with a 3D model already, and all the technology would be set up,” Hallock says. “The artists flew to the location to see where the crowd would be, where the 3D sweet spot was, and where the projectors would be. They spent a week in an intense workshop, and then we mentored them for another three months. The festival was blown away by the quality of the art. The students were all proficient artists. We showed them how to work with this format. Now we can go to them for our big projects.”

When the pandemic hit, Limelight’s light festival partners took big hits and the company moved from one or two masterclasses per year to none. They hope to revive the classes in the future. In 2022, they hired five artists from previous masterclasses to help with a record-breaking, 52-projector project in Las Vegas.

 

Light and Shadows

“Our most famous artwork, though, without question is “Interconnection,” our iMapp competition winner from 2016,” says Hallock.  “It won the jury and the people’s choice award and it still resonates with people.” Projected onto Budapest’s 23,000 square meter Palace of the Parliament, the piece aims, according to its description, “to reopen the dialogue between the internal and external through a cinematic journey from the state of separation to the state of eternal openness.”

"Interconnection" by Limelight | Image courtesy Limelight

“What we did differently then was to use the depth of the building to create visual artwork,” Hallock says. “We used 3D modeling to play with the light. The difference between ordinary projection mapping and something really spectacular is playing with that depth, playing with the shadows, really putting in that extra effort into transforming a physical object. I think it holds up to anything being produced today.”

During that same year, Limelight’s Viktor Vicsek was one of five video mapping artists included in a festival during Debrecen, Hungary’s Flower Carnival. In his work, “Awakening,” the wings of a Debrecen University building vibrate with light and shadows as the central part of the building disappears into black so that a single character can appear and dance. Lazlo Zsolt Bordos organized the event and did so again in 2018 during which five artists mapped their artwork onto the same building, the Reformed Great Church built between 1805 and 1824. The result is a fascinating look at how different artists, including Bordos, use the medium to create new perceptions of an existing building.        

Bordos began his career, as did many of the first-generation artists, by projecting still art onto buildings, and then became a “VJ” doing moving video projections in clubs. Once he started doing architectural video projections, a French company, VLS (Video Lumiere Sonorisation) snapped him up and he created artwork for commercial projects, rock concerts, and other shows with them until 2015.

“I was leading a double life,” he says. “I was involved in very large-scale projects at work and that supported my art and projects for friends. But I was always frustrated that the time I wasn’t spending on art would never come back.”        

 

Sculpting with Light, Painting with Light

Inspired by Hungarian-born artist, educator and art theorist György Kepes, who founded and then taught at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, and Hungarian-born Bauhaus artist László Moholy-Nagy, Bordos left his job in 2015 and became an independent artist. He was immediately successful and was invited to prestigious light festivals.

"Sacra" by László Zsolt Bordos for the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne | Image courtesy László Zsolt Bordos

“It was a beautiful year,” he says. The success continued with numerous projects, and now, he’s on advisory boards and juries. He takes this genre of art seriously. Two of his most recent projects, Ondes~Waves, an installation for the April 2023 ILO festival in Lille; and Sacra, a September installation that same year for the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, show the range of his work. Ondes~Waves is an exploration of vibrations with sound and light. Sacra, commissioned by Now or Never, memorializes the men and women of Australia who served in armed conflicts and peacekeeping operations. Bordos drapes sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce light across the monument. As the light traces the surface, hiding and then revealing details, the structure seems to weep, collapse, and then become strong again. Until a shadow slides across.

“Umbra Triplicata” by László Zsolt Bordos | Photo by Felix Grünschloss

One of Bordos’ 3D mapping projects, “Umbra Triplicata,” became part of the permanent collection in the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany in 2019. In this exhibit, Bordos uses 3D video mapping to play with how museum visitors see the simple metal frame of a cube attached to a white wall. In the exhibition notes, he writes that the projection derails the viewer’s customary schemes of perception and urges them to create new processes of interpretation. “One of my biggest aims is to show that video mapping, 3D mapping, is a powerful tool for creating the kind of art which Kepes and the old generation were somehow mentioning, dreaming about, speaking about,” he says. “How light and shadows can modulate space, the way we perceive space. This is about sculpting.”

Recently, frustrated by his observation that light art festivals had begun focusing more on entertainment than art and his hope that would change, he delivered a “Light Art Manifesto'" at the Lux Helsinki Symposium on January 4, 2024. “I studied art history, and of course know about manifestos in the history of art,” he says, “so I wanted to create a document that puts into context what my generation is doing. It isn’t meant to change the world, but artists have signed on and I’ve learned that many festivals’ directors and organizers have read it at least.”

Another independent video mapping artist, the multiple award-winning experimental filmmaker Robert Seidel has had his projections, installations and experimental films shown in numerous international festivals, as well as at such galleries and museums as the Palais des Beaux-Arts Lille, ZKM Karlsruhe, Art Center Nabi Seoul, Young Projects Los Angeles, Museum of Image and Sound São Paulo, MOCA Taipei, and others. The Berlin-based artist’s films have received the KunstFilm Biennale Honorary Award and the Visual Music Award.

“I always try to explore ways in which the aesthetic of my film work extends into real space,” he says. “These mapping projects are a good way to do that. Often the events are free for the public, so it works quite well to present my abstract and conceptual work to a wide audience.”

In his first video mapping project for a natural history museum in eastern Germany, he aimed to extend the museum's architecture to reveal what’s inside, as he has since done for other museums. But he also wants to play with people’s perceptions.

“If you have a building, you always look in a specific direction,” he says. “The audience has a preconceived memory of the building. And then you add movement and color and you can redirect the way we perceive buildings. You can focus light on specific parts that are maybe not interesting in the usual exploration and it can become a new point of interest. This work is about perception and how we construct our world, and I try to break it for a moment.”

His video mapping projects have been included in the ILO Video Mapping Festival in Lille. And, in 2023, he gave an artist talk at the accompanying IBSIC conference about an innovative, immersive video mapping project called “petrichor.” Seidel created petrichor for Hong Kong’s Art Park, West Kowloon Cultural District. A year in the making, the experience debuted in February and continued through March 2023.

"petrichor" by Robert Seidel at Art Park, Hong Kong | Image courtesy Robert Seidel

With petrichor, Seidel combined video images mapped from six projectors, a soundscape, and choreographed artificial fog and light to create what he calls “a semi-holographic light field of spectral, organic patterns.” The abstract video images appear in and on the mist, on trees, and on structures in the park.

“It was crazy beautiful because you don’t expect a projection in a park,” he says. “Usually, video mapping is done on architecture. People walk by a building. But when the projections are coming from several directions in a park with fog, it changes all the time. Kids were hiding in the clouds. Sometimes it felt like you were walking above the clouds. Architecture is brutal and precise. Projecting onto nature, on water, trees, fog, is more interesting. The wind redistributes things in new ways.”

Although the Hong Kong project was a year in development, most projects are two to three-month efforts, allowing Seidel to work on one to three in a year. “I have friends who do one every two weeks,” he says. “But they are really stressed out, rarely sleeping, and always complaining. This is not an easy thing to do in a constant fashion. There are lots of layers that are not part of the artistic process. But if you have a good crew, know people, and have a good relationship with festivals and institutions, it gets easier. I have done some when I’ve just sent files and wasn’t on location, but I knew the technicians that would make it work.”                                       

Creating the Image

Commercial computer graphics software programs are the primary tools that Seidel uses to create images, utilizing a variety of possibilities to layer, change, and add things together. He also films ink drawings and paper sculptures and then reworks the result in the computer. And he writes software himself.

To create a projected image, he will sometimes work from a 3D scan of a building and architectural plans, but notes that he isn’t too interested in precision. “When I’m doing a fluid simulation, it might be important to keep windows and columns,” he says. “So I would need to outline those, but we are so used to looking at architecture and seeing the lines, I like to break and dissolve them.”

petrichor concept drawing showing the interaction of light, fog and vegetation | Image courtesy Robert Seidel

He typically uses one to six projectors for his video mapping projects. “It’s always a mixture between budget, the size of the building, the distance, and also the light in the street,” he says. “If you’re working in a public space, sometimes they allow you to shut down traffic or street lights, but if they don’t, you’re always working against the street lights. They eat away at the details and change the color of the projections. The projections never actually fit the building. If a tree is in front of a projector, you have to fill in the gaps, the shadows of the tree, with images from another projector.”

Rarely does a project use only one projector. Instead, one video is split into smaller images that are distributed to the projectors. Specialized software handles that task, composes one image from many pieces, blends the edges, and matches color and brightness for that one final image.

“There are several software programs available, and some could handle 80 or 100 projectors at once,” Seidel says, “but that gets very expensive. However, if you have the budget, there’s no limit.”

Artists rely on a crew to set up these big video mapping projects. A technical specialist might work on the fitting and blending, and bespoke companies build projector towers, secure the equipment, add rain protection, and balance the projections. The crew can be small: “It could be just me, two technical guys, one sound guy, someone to give us access to a building across the street, and some security people,” Seidel says. “But if you’re working on a big festival [or commercial] project, it will be much larger.”

Commercial Projections

In 2021, Limelight created a world record-breaking installation to help Garena celebrate the 4th anniversary of its popular Free Fire mobile game. The video artwork illuminated the Club Tower of the Tropicana of Las Vegas using over 1.6 million lumens produced by 52 Barco 30k+ lumen projectors. In addition to the Free Fire artwork, Limelight couldn’t resist creating their own visual celebration to note their emergence after the long break due to COVID. It acted as a remembrance of the painful time, and as an acknowledgement of an ongoing health crisis. They write, “We are still here, together, standing, and with the help of art, we can share how we feel. It doesn’t get better than this.”

Another large Limelight project called “Sparty,” which they created in 2023 for a late-night spa party at the iconic Széchenyi Bath in Budapest, brings Limelight’s work full circle: It leapfrogged their 20th century VJing in underground clubs into the 21st century. While people partied in the Budapest pools, electronic dance music accompanied mind-blowing visuals, sea creatures swam behind illusory columns, schools of fish flowed past, flames erupted, and the building dissolved and re-formed.

Trends

Will we be likely to see more light festivals in the US with the magnitude and artistic content seen in Europe? Sadly, maybe not. Europe has the luxury of cities arranged in patterns that make them perfect venues for the light shows. “In towns in Europe you can find yourself in a beautiful square with a beautiful church and buildings around,” Fake says. “The US has many streets, but no squares. It’s all lines.”

Bordos tells a story about an ill-fated light festival he was involved with in New York City. The police shut it down because people were moving off the curb, into the street, and interfering with traffic.

Installations in the US also cost more. A lot more. “Something that costs $1,000 in Europe costs $10,000 in the US,” Fake says wryly. And Hallock confirms that projects in the US are significantly more expensive in terms of “labor, equipment, rental, permits, insurance. It’s definitely less expensive in Europe.”

"Lightforms" by László Zsolt Bordos at the Museum Ritter Waldenbuch | Photo by Andreas Sporn

As for artistic trends. Both Seidel and Bordos are interested in doing more projections on nature. Bordos, in fact, has developed a system for projecting onto clouds. And both like projecting onto small objects, like sculptures. Seidel has projected his abstract, colorful video artwork onto Greek sculptures in the Lindenau-Museum (Altenburg, Germany) to create new forms of meaning, and onto his own sculptural laser-cut tissues to create an installation titled “Grapheme.” Four projectors illuminate Grapheme against a mirrored wall in Museum Wiesbaden’s (Germany) permanent installation.

Another trend has more projections moving indoors to create immersive experiences.

“We’re known for architectural projection mapping,” Hallock says. “But our biggest growth is indoor experiences. Most of our new opportunities are requests for immersive experiences and permanent installations. People are trying to do immersive rooms in tech offices and universities. And, we get a ton of requests from restaurants and hotels that want indoor immersive experiences. But, it’s too expensive for most of them right now.”

Fake is especially invested in immersive installations, those that tell stories about painters, like the Van Gogh experience that traveled in the US. But not like that experience.

“If you were to see what we’re doing, you would change your mind about immersive art,” he says. “It’s more like a theater piece. It’s storytelling. We start with his paintings in the countryside, so the colors are dark and brown. Then, he goes to Paris and starts to know impressionists and uses color. And you understand him. It isn’t a documentary, but we are very correct in the way we develop the story. We used music from 19th century France. People want to be in a place with energy, where they feel that they’re inside a story and understand why he painted like he did.”

Permanent architectural installations could happen outdoors, as well, as prices come down. “Cities are investing in permanent outdoor installations,” Hallock says. “You can preserve the architectural integrity of a building while still communicating something pretty with light. This is especially important in Europe where buildings have historical interest.”

Hallock has been talking to a tourist beach town in the US, though, about a million-dollar installation system. “The projectors are getting smaller, require lower maintenance, have less power draw, and the enclosures are getting better,” he says.

Fake, too, believes that we will see more permanent architectural installations in the future. “Many places already have towers all year long — churches in France, for example,” he says. “That’s the future. There will be many places with a projector already in place and you can make your own map to put in it.”

If Bordos has his way, that map would be artistic rather than commercial. Until then, people can experience this art largely at the festivals. Limelight studios, the Fake Factory, Bordos, and Seidel are only the tip of the artistic iceberg, a small representation of the numerous artists and studios who have fostered this field, create magnificent art with light, and change our perception of the world through their video projections in public spaces and at light festivals. Although sadly rarely happening in the US, light festivals occur in many other countries. It’s something everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime.