The winter holiday season is also a celebration of lights, and many cities pride themselves on the beautiful light installations along their streets and on their buildings. One such type of light installation takes the form of the projection of images onto physical buildings. There are many examples of such light shows, which vary in quality as well as in their degree of architectural emphasis. Here is one recent example from the city of Lyon’s festival of lights:
Another example is the following:
Probably one of the most suitable examples for this discussion, however, is the now famous light projection presented last summer in Kharkov, Ukraine:
Such light projections raise questions regarding both the nature of their visual content as well as their interaction with the buildings onto which they are projected. What is the actual location of what is seen in them? What is the role of the physical building? What happens to it when it receives the projections? This post, therefore, addresses these questions from the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory.
Since light projections can change in time different segments of a projection may employ different types of images altogether. In this case, some segments present abstract patterns of light onto the building, some segments present pictorial images onto it, and some actually transform and redefine the building itself. The first two types use the building as merely a neutral screen on which to project light patterns that are essentially independent of the building, which could be easily replaced with another building without fundamentally altering the nature of the resulting light show. In such cases, therefore, the term ‘virtual’ applies only to the visual content seen in the pictorial segments of a projection, but not to the light projection itself.
The truly fascinating segments of such light shows, however, are those which directly relate to the architectural structure of the building itself. The visual content of such a light projection is an alternative version of that building – whether deforming, collapsing, or evolving – presented in the exact same physical location as the original physical building, while appearing to replace it. Additionally, the magic of the last example is in its seamless transitions between the different types of images, and their resulting in a single continuous presentation made for a specific physical location.
This type of light projection is probably best understood by comparing it to the ages-old art of ‘trompe l’oeil’ mural paintings. Made already in antiquity and reaching wide production during the Baroque period, these were interior paintings made on walls and ceilings so as to appear to extend the space of the rooms in which they were painted. In the book The Architecture of Virtual Space, I proposed that their key difference compared to regular pictorial paintings is that in addition to creating virtual places, trompe l’oeil mural paintings present their virtual places as if they were a direct extension of the physical location in which they were painted.
For example, Fra Angelico’s Madonna of the Shadows from 1439, with its painted columns and their shadows, gives its whole scene a sense of direct presence in the convent of San Marco where it was painted:
Contemporary uses of trompe l’oeil paintings probably tend be found more on outdoor surfaces, providing added interest to not-so-interesting locations. One example is the work of mural painter John Pugh:
Architectural light projections, therefore, combine the effect of outdoor trompe l’oeil paintings with the added dimension of time. The buildings they create are completely virtual and are located inside of virtual space, yet through their particular way of presentation they make us perceive them as if they were actually located inside of the physical world. This is achieved by two main means. First, the architecture of the created virtual building is designed in full accordance with that of the existing physical building onto which it is projected. Second, the context of the virtual building’s presentation in an already-physical location inevitably adjusts our perception such that we accept what we see as if it too were located in the physical world – right there along with the street, the trees, the wind, and our own physical selves.
In addition, when such a transformation is successful, then even the parts of the show that are regular pictorial projections of a non-architectural nature receive a rare added depth of their own. Normally, the effect of a pictorial image is to make us perceive a virtual place that is located somewhere else – that is, somewhere inside of virtual space. In this case, however, the successful integration of pictorial images with the virtual building makes them appear as if their visual content were actually located within the volume of the virtual building itself. And since the projection of the virtual building onto the physical building already makes the virtual building appear to be located in the physical world, then even the content of the pictorial images now seem to be part of the physical world just as well!
By the use of this cunning device, then, a virtual fish could be made to appear as if it were swimming behind and in front of the façade of a physical building in the physical world… or in other words – as it would seem – a virtual fish in physical space.