In many ways projection is a truly ancient technology and art form. It would be reasonable to describe shadow plays and revolving lanterns as a form of projection art which trace back thousands of years, however a more useful starting point is probably the camera obscura.
Light passing through a pinhole into a darkened space creates a projected image of what is outside even without a lens; an effect noticed at least as long ago as 500BC, and often utilised through history by astronomers to do things like observing eclipses. Chinese, Greek, and Arabic astronomers and physicists observed and studied the phenomenon and by the 1200s there were many examples, with some even being used to project live performances for entertainment.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote one of the clearest early descriptions of a camera obscura in 1502, and over the course of that century numerous inventors played with adding lenses and other variations. Several used it as a drawing aid; projecting onto a sheet of paper and drawing over the projected image. From that point forward, it was just a matter of time for people to think up ideas like magic lanterns, and slide and film projectors.
Projection just displays art, projection art has to become it
Something had been lost though; shadow plays had involved the creation of images by minds thinking creatively, but obscuras and early projectors tended to be early forerunners of cinema or television; it was a display medium or drawing tool rather than the art itself. The real story of projection art has come to exist much more recently as our understanding of what constitutes an original artwork has evolved through the modern art period, and alongside it the technology to do much more with projection.
From the 1970s onwards, as modern became contemporary art, people began to think more creatively as complex multi-projector shows and happenings were put together by artists. These were not singular projections of artworks, but multiple projections connected together to create a singular piece of projection art.
Of course it could be argued that the same effect could be achieved with modern digital editing technology, turning the artwork into a film which could be displayed via projection or screen, but this was only a starting point. Through the 1990s interest was growing in projection mapping; the precision application of projections to irregular objects to create something new.
Projection mapping and using the projector as a fundamental tool
We’ve all seen projection mapping in eye catching displays on famous buildings; ones which animate and utilise the windows, doorways, and other architecture precisely to create visually stunning effects. Much of this grew from experiments such as projecting a moving face onto a dummy to give the impression the dummy was talking. Sometimes utilised as a commercial lightshow, many artists have also been using the technology inside building spaces, or projecting onto other kinds of three dimensional sculpted object to create a unique visual experience.
Some of the most recent high profile projects have combined projection mapping technology with a live environment; an image is projected into a room, and adjusts as people move around the room, making them an intrinsic part of the ever changing artwork. A simple example is a projection of a river, which parts to flow around people as they walk through the projection space, or a wall projection that changes as you touch it. Meanwhile other artists have taken it back to a more traditional form such as animating a painting with projection over the top of it.
Projection art is finding it’s true form as technology allows it to, alongside other digital technologies such as virtual reality, which also holds the potential to be both an entertaining gimmick, and a highly immersive artwork. As artists become more familiar with both they have the potential to show us some exciting new things.