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Probing Light: Projection Mapping, Architectural Surface, and the Politics of Luminous Abstraction

  • Katerina Korola

…plus d’informations

  • Katerina Korola
    University of Chicago

Couverture de projeter,                Numéro 24-25, automne 2014, printemps 2015, Intermédialités

Corps de l’article

Real spatial experiences rest in the simultaneous interpenetration of inside and outside, above and beneath, on the in and out flowing of space relationships, on the often invisible play of forces present in the materials.

– László Moholy-Nagy, The New Vision [1]

The nascent art of 3D projection mapping has given new lease to Siegfried Kracauer’s account of cinema as that which “clings to the surface of things,” [2] by allowing moving images to quite literally cling to the surfaces of urban space. Over the past fifteen years, such work has flourished around the world under the auspices of corporate publicity firms, arts organizations, and urban-branding initiatives. Amongst practitioners and in the popular press, this work has often been hailed as fulfilling at once the ambitions of expanded cinema (to free the moving image from the screen) and those of performative architecture (to liberate architecture from stasis). However, the emphasis on the freedom of the moving image, on the one hand, and on movement itself, on the other, has sometimes distracted from the way in which such projections interact with their architectural supports. This critical neglect also, at times, corresponds to neglect in the work itself. A quick survey of projects over the past decade demonstrates that, in its still-short history, projection mapping has developed favoured idioms, whose repetition across the globe draws into question the site-specificity of such work. Whereas unabashedly commercial projects have tended toward figurative motifs such as crumbling buildings, explosions of flora, and monumental product placement (featuring everything from movie stars to automobiles and purses), projections aspiring to the artistic have more frequently favoured the language of abstraction. It is the latter group that is the concern of this article, in which I investigate the potential and limitations of such luminous abstractions in engendering new forms of spatial experience. Do these high-tech projections encourage the spectator to engage with architecture in a new way, or do they instead efface their architectural setting beneath an ornamental visual spectacle?

In order to address this question, a brief excursion into the history of light architecture is in order. In this respect, I am indebted to the work of Dietrich Neumann and Janet Ward, whose insights and archival research will be brought to bear on contemporary light-architectural practice. Like early light architecture, contemporary projection mapping constantly negotiates between the imperatives of advertising and artistic integrity, between ornament and structure, and between the local site of projection and the projection of an international urban identity. Thus, although projection technologies and techniques have changed a great deal since the early twentieth century, the rich theoretical debates surrounding architectural illumination during the first half of the century remain particularly relevant to the politics of contemporary son-et-lumière spectacles and, indeed, provide a framework through which this practice might be theorized going forward. Nonetheless, it should be noted at the outset that a technological history of projected light is outside the scope of this essay. Rather, I juxtapose two distinct historical moments in order to better understand the stakes of luminous abstraction in today’s light spectacles and, more importantly, to suggest some strategies through which such projections might function as critical and site-specific interventions in urban space. Thus, the reader will notice something of a jump along the historical timeline, as I move from the applied and theoretical debates of early light architecture to a formal and contextual analysis of three twenty-first-century projects (Augmented Structures v1.0, 1000 Platitudes, 555 Kubik), each of which deploys distinct strategies of luminous abstraction to engage and animate an architectural surface. Through a close analysis of these examples, I hope to demonstrate that although such projections have often served as advertisements (whether of products or cities), 3D projection mapping has the potential to transcend this function by foregrounding the façade itself as the plane on which a public renegotiation of the built environment becomes possible.

Long before digital mapping software made it possible to treat three-dimensional space as a two-dimensional screen, the Bauhaus artist and theorist László Moholy-Nagy could already predict a future in which “light frescoes will animate vast architectural units, such as buildings, parts of buildings, or single walls.” [3] Although the electrification of urban centres was common across Europe and North America from the 1910s to the 1930s, the architectural potential of light was nowhere investigated as extensively as in Weimar Germany. Driven by the convergence of commercial interests, avant-garde ambitions, and the will of a young republic to project a new international identity, “light architecture” exploded onto the Weimar streets. [4] Even as new technologies of illumination presented Moholy-Nagy and other members of the avant-garde with an as-yet-unexplored tool for the construction of space, they also offered urban businesses a means of extending hours of operation and new methods of advertising. In a fascinating confluence of art and commerce, this period saw electricity companies, department stores, and various other commercial entities financially back architects such as Moholy-Nagy, Erich Mendelsohn, the Luckhardts, and Hans Scharoun, whose design proposals complemented the diurnal sobriety of New Objectivity with enthusiastic plans for nocturnal illumination. [5]

At the same time, urban electrification became intimately bound up in the effort to launch Weimar Berlin as a world city, culminating in the 1928 Berlin im Licht festival. [6] The extent to which such efforts were implicated in a nationalist discourse is revealed in the careful effort in trade publications to distinguish German electrification from efforts across the Atlantic. In opposition to the “blinding” chaos of electric light in American metropolises, [7] Weimar planners and officials both advocated and legislated the careful integration of electric advertising into the design of new façades, so as to transform the nocturnal city into a “luminous work of abstract art.” [8] Sketches of nocturnal views soon became a necessary component of architectural proposals, which were expected to incorporate electric advertisements and lighting effects “discretely and artistically” into the façade. [9] To this end, the illumination of window displays, floodlighting of planar surfaces, and articulation of streamlined cornices were favoured as a more sophisticated approach to light advertising. The abstraction resulting from these strategies was considered to guarantee the artistic integrity of urban landscape, and, in contrast to the crass commercialism perceived in American electrification, contributed to the promotion of a cultured, cosmopolitan image for the Weimar Republic.

As both Dietrich Neumann and Janet Ward observe in their studies of the period, the extent to which nocturnal illumination influenced façade design complicates the traditional account of New Objectivity as an architecture that eschewed ornamentation in favour of structural transparency. In Neumann’s view, artificial illumination acted as no less than a “motor for stylistic change,” all but demanding the smooth, planar surfaces and horizontality that characterize the Weimar façade. [10] The turn away from the sculptural ornamentation of the Wilhelmine period, then, represents not so much a rejection of ornament as a transition to ornament in a more modern form. Ward goes even further in her analysis, arguing that the development of light architecture offered a nocturnal negation of the functionalist effort to dissolve the façade. [11] Although early advocates of light architecture called for the deployment of light in the “accentuation and strengthening of spatial relationships and tension” endemic to the building, [12] it soon became apparent to commentators such as Walter Riezler that projected light had rendered façade utterly “distinct from the structure beneath it, so that it [could] be treated independently.” [13] Thus, even as the functionalist ethos of the New Building strove for transparency by day, its treatment by night bolstered the façade as an opaque surface, initiating the transformation of the architectural surface into a de facto screen.

Commentaries on the transformation of European and North American urban centres into electropolises abound in architectural reviews, literature, trade journals, and the popular press. However, for the purposes of this discussion, that of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is particularly compelling. Eisenstein writes:

All sense of perspective and of realistic depth is washed away by a nocturnal sea of electric advertising [...]. Soaring aloft and dying away, racing and circling, bursting and vanishing—these lights tend to abolish all sense of real space, finally melting into a single plane of coloured light points and neon lines moving over a surface of black velvet sky. [14]

The hallucinatory urban experience that Eisenstein conjures here lends weight to Ward’s characterization of light architecture as an “architecture of pure façade.” [15] Eisenstein goes further, however, in suggesting that electric light not only stresses the façade, but also vacates urban space of all depth. Light architecture thus proceeds through a double abstraction of urban space, not only in reference to the geometrical designs favoured by architects and planners, but more fundamentally in its reduction of three-dimensional form into two-dimensional surface. [16] Moreover, Eisenstein’s depiction of the city as a plane of lights against a “black velvet sky” makes clear the extent to which this reduction of depth is also a form of erasure. Indeed, light architecture allowed urban design an unprecedented independence from pre-existing structures, which could be veiled in darkness and rearticulated as desired. As night fell, arrangements of floodlights, arc lamps, and illuminated billboards could refashion the city, whether to collect disparate buildings into unified compositions or to efface certain, less desirable landmarks from the urban landscape. [17]

The disassociation of the image from its architectural support produced by artificial lighting recalls Siegfried Kracauer’s discussion of the mass ornament. In his essay of that name, Kracauer discusses a prevalent tendency in the arts in which individual parts are combined (as a mass) into figures that “consist of lines and circles like those found in textbooks on Euclidean geometry.” [18] Kracauer terms these choreographed forms the “mass ornament,” and although his text refers primarily to the body arts, his conclusions can easily be stretched to refer to the architectural ensembles created by light. [19] As Eisenstein’s account indicates, the implementation of artificial light transformed twentieth-century urban centres into enormous ornaments by “emptying all substantial constructs [the façades] of their contents [built volume].” [20] Thus, it is no surprise to find that Weimar state art advisor Erwin Redslob went so far as to declare electric light “the great ornamental motif of our time.” [21]

Significantly for our purposes here, Kracauer’s discussion of the mass ornament brings the relationship between interior and exterior to the fore. Although he promotes the mass ornament as a figure of truth insofar as its emphasis on the surface departs from a retrograde fetishism of interiority, Kracauer remains critical of its tendency to efface its components. Rather than “arise out of a community,” he notes that the mass ornament tends to “appear above [its component parts].” [22] In its most common deployment, this is precisely the process through which light architecture proceeded, abstracting from and effacing the materiality of built volume in order to conjure a phantasmagorical environment of illuminated surface.

A similar process can be observed in contemporary work in projection mapping, albeit with significant distinctions occasioned by transformations in the urban landscape and nearly a century of technological innovations. During the latter half of the twentieth century, international expositions, sporting events, and the expanded cinema movement were the testing grounds for the development of new projection techniques and new typologies of screens, which have since become prominent fixtures in most contemporary metropolises. Indeed, media façades and other urban screens have today achieved such ubiquity that Scott McQuire has suggested that we conceive of the city as a large-scale “media-architectural complex.” [23] Although these developments are beyond the scope of the present essay, it must be remembered that such developments stand as important precedents for projection mapping’s engagement of urban space by means of images.

Projection mapping, however, differs from earlier media architecture in its ability to directly animate three-dimensional surfaces, placing it in more direct relation with early light architecture. Making use of developments during the 1990s in LED lighting, high-lumen projectors, and digital animation software, 3D projection mapping allows for the transformation of any architectural surface into a screen, thereby making possible more flexible and ephemeral interventions in public space, necessitating neither the installation of a screen nor the planar surface once preferred for light architecture. As such, projection mapping has been widely celebrated as moving beyond media architecture to fulfil the twentieth-century dream of an architecture that moves[24] As architect Jan Edler explains, “While the development of a physically changeable (robotic) architecture appears still to be years away, there is a promise of significant progress in digital display technologies, which allow patterns, images, text, to be mapped onto a building’s surface.” [25] In his discussion of performative architecture, however, Chris Salter suggests that we consider Edler’s statement more cautiously. Salter asks:

Is changing appearance on the surface enough to effectuate a true performative architecture, with the characteristics of transformation and flux at the material level and spatiotemporal enactment or is the predominance of electronic skins and so-called mediatecture just another confusion of scene and the screen—between filmic versus inhabited and co-present reality? [26]

Salter’s distinction between scene and screen, filmic and inhabited reality, directs attention to the relationship between the materiality of the screen and the virtuality of the scene. It is therefore especially critical to the discussion of projection mapping, in which the two seem to merge. Without going so far as to suggest a hierarchy between the projected image and the surface of projection, it is nonetheless possible to extrapolate from Salter’s concerns that projection mapping’s potential to transcend ornamentation lies in its creative negotiation of scene and screen, image and material, and ornament and structure.

Largely a commercially funded phenomenon, the majority of projection mapping’s intentions and interventions differ little from those of earlier light architecture. A small group of companies (for example, Moment Factory, NuFormer, Drive Productions) work on a commission basis internationally, creating projections for clients as diverse as fashion houses, tech companies, museums and galleries, light and media festivals, Hollywood, city councils, and the music industry. This being the case, it is perhaps not surprising that projection mapping’s preferred motifs (crumbling architecture, organic profusions, and so on) seem to sprout up across the globe regardless of their specific architectural contexts. Moreover, as Scott McQuire observes, projection mapping can also indicate the extent to which the “architectural emphasis on user-configured design” that once motivated dreams of moving architecture seems to have been “swept aside in favour of sophisticated computer graphics.” [27] This tendency can be observed even when the projection has been commissioned to advertise not a product so much as an urban image. As more and more light and media architecture festivals appear across the globe, projection mapping becomes an increasingly prominent means of place-marketing, promoting tourism, investment, and international recognition for its host cities.

In the world of arts- and city-sponsored projection mapping, however, abstraction often acts as the vernacular of choice, recalling again Kracauer’s ambivalent mass ornament, with one key difference. Whereas for Kracauer the abstraction of the mass ornament emerges as the “aesthetic reflex” of a Taylorist production process, [28] the abstraction found in contemporary media art (motivated more often by data visualization) more accurately reflects today’s information society. [29] Mapping here reprises the role once played by floodlights, insisting on the blackened opacity of the façade in order to animate its surface with a geometry now more frequently topological than Euclidean.

The first projection mapping project examined here, Augmented Structures v1.0: Acoustic Formations (Refik Anadol and Alper Derinbogaz, 2011), offers a case in point. Sited in Istanbul, the projection consisted of a data-map with input values derived from sonic recordings taken from various unnamed streets in the city. Once converted into a sequence of time-modelled abstract patterns, the resultant images were projected onto the Yapi Kredi Cultural Centre on Istiklal Street—or, rather, onto a large-scale parametrically creased fabric that covered the façade entirely. As the artist summarizes, the project “[transforms] sound into mathematics, mathematics into architecture, and architecture into a living canvas, while presenting the viewer with a new media experience that is multi-levelled, produces sound, moves and breathes.” [30] Although visually stunning, Anadol and Derinbogaz’s project brings Kracauer, McQuire, and Salter’s hesitations to the fore. The project’s data-map is an exemplary contemporary iteration of ornamental abstraction; its lines present the viewer with an “abstract designation” of the spatial practices that are the basis of its input data. Here we have, in effect, a form of body art, run through an algorithm.

Fig. 1

Augmented Sculptures v1.0/Acoustic Formations, Refik Anadol and Alper Derinbogaz, 2011. Istanbul, Turkey.

Photo by Refik Anadol Studio
Augmented Sculptures v1.0/Acoustic Formations, Refik Anadol and Alper Derinbogaz, 2011. Istanbul, Turkey.

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Even though Kracauer theorized the mass ornament as a necessary “stage in the process of demystification,” [31] he remained wary of an abstraction that “gets lost in empty formalism.” [32] For all Kracauer’s dismissal of interiority, in his writings the distinction between such empty formalism and a more productive abstraction seems to lie in the extent to which the mass ornament remains open to penetration—that is, the extent to which it is possible to interpret “the fundamental substance of the state of things” from “surface-level expressions.” [33] Insofar as they remain mute, which is to say illegible, the patterns conjured by Anadol and Derinbogaz’s data-map fail to enrich our understanding of either its architectural site or the spatial practices from which its figures are derived. In this respect, the project calls to mind Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s provocative assertion that “data-mapping is all about forgetting.” [34]

The extent to which forgetting—or, rather, erasure—is here bound up with abstraction is evident in the context of the work, which was staged during the twelfth Istanbul Biennial. Although its data-map includes recordings taken throughout the city, its location on Istiklal Street, which bisects Istanbul’s Beyoglu arts district, is indicative of the extent to which such projections tend to reinforce the segregation of highly visible arts districts from the larger (comparatively invisible) city. [35] Moreover, the tension between high-tech urban projections and more socially committed architectural applications of digital technology here comes to the fore. The extent to which Istanbul regularly accommodates projection mapping is interesting when considered against the resistance of its city planners to civilian consultation, digital or otherwise. Although it is beyond the scope of this essay to investigate this question fully, it is not unreasonable to wonder how high-profile projections in cities such as Istanbul contribute (even if unwittingly) to veiling stories of spatial injustice by bequeathing the city with an international reputation as a cultural capital. Anadol and Derinbogaz’s decision to veil their architectural support hyperbolizes this complicity, recalling the erasure occasioned by Istanbul’s aggressive gentrification policies. [36] The projected scene is stressed to such an extent that the building itself disappears beneath the spectacle, which operates (consciously or not) as an aesthetic screen for significant spatial tensions.

The shortcomings of Anadol and Derinbogaz’s project (and others like it) lie primarily in the failure to engage with the site as more than an opaque screen. The underlying structure essentially disappears, as does the social space it constitutes, allowing such work to be easily assimilated into the agendas for the marketing of cultural places. Yet projection mapping might also be used to subvert this function. Indeed, the Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer uses projection to do precisely this in 1000 Platitudes (2003), a projection-mapping project developed as part of the Huge and Mobile Workshop (HuMo), co-organized by Lozano-Hemmer and Brian Massumi. The workshop began with the assertion that “every surface onto which an image might be fixed already affords a recognizable, nonlocal function: advertising,” an assertion that led the organizers and participants to conclude that urban art practice is always an “engagement with publicity.” [37] To function as a critical intervention, therefore, a projection must also be self-critical, recognizing its own implication in the production and projection of abstracted urban image.

Fig. 2

1000 Platitudes, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, 2003. Linz, Austria.

Photo by Antimodular Research
1000 Platitudes, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, 2003. Linz, Austria.

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Lozano-Hemmer’s 1000 Platitudes takes a first step in this direction, ironically emblazoning the façades of the Austrian city of Linz, where the HuMo workshop took place, with abstractions of place-marketing language. Enormous letters spelling words such as “cosmopolitan,” “clean,” and “modern” suddenly appeared across the architecture of the city, caricaturing the catchwords through which the cultural capitals of the globe promote themselves as international destinations. However, other letters also spelt out words more frequently applied to projection mapping itself: “fantastic,” “decorative,” “flowered,” “glowing,” and even “complicit.” With this last set of words, Lozano-Hemmer deftly turns a critical eye to the relational valences of his own practice as an urban light artist, adopting a strategy of tournement to question the role that projected light plays in urban branding.

What rendered 1000 Platitude’s critique especially effective, however, was another innovation. Whereas most projection mapping remains fixed to a single location, in keeping with the title of his workshop, Lozano-Hemmer’s project was not only huge, but also mobile. The artist mounted a high-lumen projector and generator on a twelve-ton truck, which drove through the streets of the city by night. This mobility allowed the projection to move beyond the prestigious façades and cultural districts typically selected for projection mapping, appropriating instead the surfaces of less vaunted façades, including public housing blocks and industrial facilities. This guerrilla appropriation not only sharpened the project’s irony, but also bestowed visibility on precisely the architectural sites that are systematically excluded by urban-branding initiatives. Rather than elide these sites, Lozano-Hemmer’s project uses projected light to make explicit the contradictions that underlie the cosmopolitan image of the today’s cultural capitals.

Lozano-Hemmer’s project pits the abstraction of language and urban branding against the concrete realities of architectural and social space, deploying an ironic logic of contrasts. However, another approach to projection mapping—and, indeed, abstraction—is also possible. The Moholy-Nagy passage quoted as the epigraph of this essay, stressing the “simultaneous interpenetration of inside and outside, above and beneath, the in and out flowing of space relationships,” [38] offers a clue to what this approach might look like. If we consider this statement alongside Salter’s distinction between scene and screen, we can begin to understand how projected light might move beyond a relationship of contrast in its engagement of site, and instead cultivate one that is more probing. In this model, the architectural surface becomes not so much an opaque screen as a surface on which to investigate the scene of its projection.

The Bremen-based company Urbanscreen offers one example of this more investigative approach to the relationship between projection and architecture. Urbanscreen insists that architecture is not “a surface or carrier of the production, but is itself part of the production.” [39] In the view of Thorsten Bauer, the company’s creative director, the purpose of projection mapping is to act as a “radical reflection” on the underlying structure’s history, transforming the façade into a window that looks into the building both structurally and experientially. [40] To this end, the group frames their work as a series of temporary theatrical interventions, in which the geometry of the façade is reconfigured so as to draw the material, historical, and spatial relationships active within the architectural site onto its surface. The end result is a veritable architectural performance that allows passers-by to witness the emergence of various virtual iterations of the structure. Although also proceeding by way of abstraction, the careful attention that Urbanscreen gives to its architectural supports ensures that its projections “arise from” each site rather than merely “appear[ing] above [it].” [41]

Fig. 3

555 Kubik, Urbanscreen, 2009. Hamburg, Germany.

Photo by Urbanscreen
555 Kubik, Urbanscreen, 2009. Hamburg, Germany.

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In its award-winning 555 Kubik (2009), a work projected onto the façade of the Hamburger Kunsthalle’s Galerie der Gegenwart, Urbanscreen literally turns the building inside out. As the project statement relates, the guiding inspiration behind the work was to use projected light to “dissolve and break through the strict architecture” of the gallery, a white cube designed by the late functionalist architect Oswald Mathias Ungers in 1997. [42] Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of this project is the way in which it stages the tension between rationalism and transparency endemic to functionalist architecture itself. Although highly rational, Unger’s Galerie der Gegenwart is anything but transparent, relying on skylights (invisible from without) as its primary source of illumination. Urbanscreen’s projection begins with the presumed hands of the animator/architect briefly drawing up and pressing down the square-cut stones of the gallery’s sandstone facing before disappearing. The projection then proceeds as a fragmentary reflection on the design and construction of, and movement through, the gallery. As though the group had taken Moholy-Nagy’s words to heart, the façade’s cubic surface decomposes and reconfigures itself into various views from above, below, inside, and outside.

Fig. 4

555 Kubik, Urbanscreen, 2009. Hamburg, Germany.

Photo by Urbanscreen
555 Kubik, Urbanscreen, 2009. Hamburg, Germany.

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Interestingly, these figurations include not only realistic renderings, but also various perspectival sketches, axiomatic views, and cutaways. In this way, the projected image foregrounds the protean nature of the design process itself, redeeming the abstraction of the architectural plan from Henri Lefebvre’s charge against it in his Production of Space. In this late text, Lefebvre famously criticized the fetish of graphic representation in modernist architecture, arguing that the elevation of the plan in twentieth-century architectural discourse amounted to an abstraction that necessarily precluded the plurality of spatial experience. [43]555 Kubik, however, deploys the architectural plan as a strategy to open up the unified surface of the façade, pointing to an alternative understanding of abstraction as a container for a multiplicity of temporally activated virtual arrangements. [44]

In this respect, the abstraction of the projected image assumes a “form-bursting” [45] function that opens up the building, penetrating its rationalist geometry so as to articulate various potential iterations of the structure across its surface. Indeed, the project demonstrates projection mapping’s potential as a means of re-envisioning the façade as more than simply a wall or boundary. Instead, the façade is animated as a threshold in the Benjaminian sense, the plane on which interior and exterior interpenetrate. As Walter Benjamin writes in his unfinished Arcades Project:

[t]hreshold and boundary must be carefully distinguished. The Schwelle [threshold] is a zone. And indeed, a zone of transition. Transformation, passage, flight are in the word schwellen [to swell] and etymology aught not to overlook these senses. On the other hand, it is necessary to keep in mind the immediate tectonic and ceremonial context which has brought the word to its current meaning. [46]

Benjamin’s fascination with the arcades was tied to their existence as thresholds that mediate between interior and exterior. In the same convolute, he goes on to argue that the hybridity of these spaces allows for the possible generation of new forms of experience, leading him to attribute a magical quality to them (“threshold magic”). [47] His Arcades Project, however, was fated to remark on this quality only as it had already begun to disappear. As Zygmunt Bauman has contended, plans for cities and structures striving for transparency and rationality (from Hausmann to Le Corbusier) would paradoxically render the façade a starker boundary. [48] Hence Benjamin’s lament: “We have grown very poor in threshold experiences. ‘Falling asleep’ is perhaps the only such experience that remains to us.” [49]

Considered in this light, it is perhaps no coincidence that 555 Kubik bears the subtitle “how it would be if a house were dreaming.” [50] These suggestive words gesture toward projection mapping’s potential as a form of architectural dreaming, wherein the divisions between interior and exterior can be reimagined again and again. Here, too, a reading of Benjamin is helpful. In Convolute K of The Arcades Project, Benjamin locates a revolutionary potential in the dream—or, rather, in the “dialectical” process of awaking. [51] He notes that while asleep, the dreamer has access to an “extravagantly heightened inner awareness,” suggesting that the common disavowal of dreaming is not indicative of a lack of value so much as of the difficulty of translating this awareness into waking reality. [52] Benjamin turns to architecture for a solution, arguing that architecture is “in the interior of the collective, what the sensoria of organs […] are inside the individual.” [53] Architectural experiences that confuse habitual spatial boundaries and relationships, then, become particularly important means through which a population might acquire a critical understanding of urban space. [54] Working directly on the surfaces of urban space, projection mapping has the potential to elicit such encounters with built environment, opening up the façade as a site of dialogue about urban design and experience.

It must be granted, however, that, like Augmented Structures v1.0, the critical potential implicit in 555 Kubik’s particular brand of luminous abstraction remains circumscribed by its site and context. As Brian Massumi observes in his essay on the HuMo workshop, when projecting images onto a given site, “there is always the possibility that the image might be hijacked by the site.” [55] Thus, although Urbanscreen’s project deftly demonstrates the possibility of harnessing projected light to create a new relationship with architectural form, the politics of this relationship remain influenced by those of its location on a celebrated façade in Hamburg’s cultural centre. Architecturally critical, the project remains resolutely apolitical. Nonetheless, its innovative deployment of architectural surface and plan to thematize the design and movement through space points provocatively to other, more socially rigorous investigations of urban space. It allows us to imagine the application of projection mapping to more contested terrain, as a medium through which new proposals for spatial design and use might be articulated. While ephemeral, such a cinematic engagement of the city, can, as Richard Koeck argues, place the “creative act of shaping architecture and cities […] with a population that is film literate and has the ability to interpret and appropriate spaces and places.” [56] Placed in the service of a population, as a means of expressing alternative valences and propositions regarding charged spaces or spaces in transition, projection mapping offers the possibility of engaging and even changing urban space with projected light.

The intervention of projection mapping in urban space may be virtual; however, this does not necessarily bar such interventions from initiating concrete consequences. As Thorsten Bauer has argued, “the merging of the virtual and the real environment seems to be a deep need of our time.” [57] A merging of these two dimensions refers not to the increased proliferation of images in urban space, but to a dialectical relationship between the two, wherein the reality of images has the potential to reveal the latent virtuality of built environment—that is, its availability for change. In this way, the projected image can be applied not only to draw existing relationships from its architectural support, but also to trace upon it aspirations for new relationships. It is here that projection mapping acquires the potential to surpass earlier experiments with projected light and urban screens. Rather than using light to abstract away from its architectural environment, projection can become a means of temporarily engaging the spatial dynamics of the site and appropriating it for alternative ends. Luminous abstraction, then, might become a critical approach to architectural form, illuminating structural properties, architectural history, and spatial practices as well as articulating imagined alternatives. Applied in this manner, projection mapping could truly begin to advance the utopian aspirations of twentieth-century architecture, not by building so much as by promoting a public renegotiation of urban space. The ephemerality of these projections is, here, their principle advantage, because, like a dream, each projection ends in an awakening.

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