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A Conversation with The Illuminator Art Collective

Illuminator project

In 2014 The Illuminator Art Collective, an activist projection group, hit the streets of Montreal to mark the two-year anniversary of the Quebec student protests by projecting videos around the city. I spoke with collective member Chris Rogy – a former WITNESS intern, who discussed how video projection can be used as part of protests and civic movements. Chris also shared practical tips and lessons-learned on how to set up and run a projector in various settings.

Sarah S. Kerr: What kinds of videos did you project to commemorate the Quebec student protests? How was it received and how did it contribute to the larger protest effort?

Chris Rogy: In 2014, we projected images of protesters throughout the city of Montreal in the areas that were significant to the Quebec student uprising, like the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), where thousands congregated in 2012. Most people were surprised and delighted to see it, as it brought back feelings of being in the space during the time of the demonstrations. Others outwardly spoke their criticisms on the issues, but having this conversation is the point of publicly projecting images. We need a critical dialogue, and the potential use of public space to be a meeting ground of art and politics is essential for me. Whether as a result of privatization, corporate ownership, media advertising or social media — this meeting ground is diminishing.

How was The Illuminator Art Collective formed? Why did you choose projection as a medium to share your message?

The Illuminator Art Collective is a group of like minded individuals – artists, activists, technologists, filmmakers and a biologist – who came together around the banner of Occupy Wall Street in New York City in February and March of 2012. The collective formed following the popular ‘bat signal’ projection onto the Verizon building seen by thousands of marchers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on the night of the three month anniversary of the encampment and simultaneous eviction of the occupiers in Zuccotti Park (the epicenter of the movement).

Projections in public are not something new, but in the past they were less widespread. For decades, artists like Krzysztof Wodiczko have been intervening in the public sphere with projections in deeply meaningful ways. For me, our guerilla projections circumvent a media infrastructure that has been failing to represent particular issues in the public interest. They provide an opportunity for us to reach audiences outside of our networks and engage on topics we care about. Following our projections we then harness social media to further disseminate our messages online.

What’s more is that in New York City, the legal boundaries on projections are not completely set. Members of our collective were recently arrested for “illegal posting of advertisements”after we protested against the Metropolitan Museum for accepting money from David Koch to build new fountains in front of the museum. However, “illegal posting of advertisements” is defined as permanently affixing materials to property that brings clear financial benefit to the offender. We neither permanently affixed nor commercially benefited from our action, so the case was thrown out just before we were made to appear in court. That said, the police did impound our equipment for months, which was difficult.

What do activists need to put together a projection set-up? Do have any you equipment recommendations?

To accomplish something like one of our recent projections with Adbusters at the American Economic Association Conference in Boston, requires a projector of about 12,000 to 15,000 lumens. Factors worth noting include surrounding ambient light, projection surface, throw (the distance and location you project from), lens and, of course, lumens (the amount of light emitted from a source). Site-specificity is another important design element. Depending on what the project is, you may be successful with all sorts of projectors that are much less powerful than these. It all depends on what you want and your target audience.

In order to power these projections we use either a deep cycle battery tethered to an inverter or the Honda eu2000i (2k watts) handheld generator. Always be sure the output corresponds to what you’re powering. On projectors with detachable lenses, like the one used in the Adbusters projection, you need to determine which lens works best. Typically you have a choice of standard, wide and long throw lenses with varying aspect ratios.

And then there’s the software. To create slides we use programs like Adobe Photoshop, After Effects and Final Cut, and to project our images we use programs like madmapper, modul8, VDMX or just run Quicktime! One of our members, Grayson Earle, occasionally writes his own software that we also use, which is available for free online.

What types of images or videos work well or don’t work well for projection?

The image that you want to read should always be white! Within that there are mid tones, but the higher the contrast, the better things will read. As a rule of thumb, the contrasting colors black and white read best, and the more intricate you want your image to be, the more advanced a projector it will require.

Do you have any general “Do’s and Don’ts” for activists interested in projection?

Please, absolutely DO NOT try to project before the sun has properly set, or if you’re NOT in a controlled dark space. You wouldn’t believe the requests we get for projecting during the daytime, and I’ve experienced other requests in bright warehouses too. If you plan to project as part of a demonstration, prepare to interact with the police. If you are in a country with limited speech, always consider your safety first and foremost. And always, always, always test your gear before you leave!

If other activists wanted to learn more about projection, where could they go? 

We are currently searching for a residency or grant that will enable us to focus our attentions and skills on several projects. One of the projects is to build a Projection Action Network that would be a meeting place to exchange ideas with other organizations we’ve gotten to know over the years. This project would help to centralize our resources, as well as help us share lessons and ideas from our experiences. If anyone reading this has questions they’d like answered, I encourage them to reach out to us at info@illuminator.org. We usually receive a lot of requests, but we do our best to answer them as promptly as possible!

Watch a video by The Illuminator Art Collective documenting their projection work in Montreal

Illuminating Protest: P-6 and the Québec Student Uprising from Chris Rogy on Vimeo.

Images courtesy of Kyle Depew and The Illuminator Art Collective. Originally published on http://blog.witness.org

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