installation: light on plastic

This installation is the result of testing the mediality of lightweight tablecloth plastic under different states of light. The surface of the plastic is semi-translucent and subject to tiny changes in air pressure, so the object was to examine these aspects by using a live camera feed to project and re-project the image of the plastic under a very basic lighting rig (2 x 300W redheads) as a way to enhance and distort the ephemeral nature of this material. Several different iterations created surprising results from different formations.

To counterpoint this aesthetic, it was important to introduce shadowplay. I am interested in the notion of the audience-as-performer, and eventually found an arrangement for the work to allow a playful interaction between the spectator and the work itself. Eventually this is working towards a much larger project which allows for a durational exhibition, by which the audience can generate shadowplay with an invisible actor as part of an ongoing interactive performance.

The experiment of projecting a surface onto itself as a mode of dialogic media was inspired by the literary theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, who argues that as an image, word or utterance echoes upon itself over time meaning is generated through this conversant process of heteroglossia. Each utterance contains traces of that which has come before it, and that which is yet to come. Ultimately the work here operates as an experiment in making that process visible in real time.

Rowan McDonald June, 2019


The project began with a desire to further experiment and test the possibilities of this medium, using light and shadow on hanging plastic sheets. I’ve used this material before as a set backdrop for live theatre and in a previous installation for my media arts studies in 2018. I felt that while I was enjoying the aesthetic of how light interacts with this material (white tablecloth plastic), I was really only scratching the surface of its potential. So i wanted to use the workshop space to further explore this dynamic and really test out the possibilities for the material and aesthetic it creates.

Skeletal Remains, 2018. The focus of this installation was the objects behind the screen. The plastic wasn’t significant to the work but a convenient surface on which to cast shadows.

Concurrent to this experimentation, I was doing a range of theoretical and practical research across photography, theatre & performance media (via my other subjects). So I was looking for opportunities where these aspects might cross over, rather than going in with a particular outcome in mind. The main object for the research was to become more acquainted with the material through ongoing practice. As this unfolded, and I made various discoveries regarding the nature of hypermedia – (ie: a medium which can absorb all other mediums), I began to link in some of this other research, incorporating wide ranging concepts such as Butoh Dance Practices, Bakhtinian Poetics, intermediality and the postdramatic.


Early in the session, for another subject we undertook a series of practical workshops surrounding the contemporary dance movement known as Butoh. While I am still very much a novice in this field, I found it a fascinating journey, and very much in line with my philosophy around creating work, that is: embracing the darkness of the unknown, and working in such a way that enables the unpredictability of what this entails. As this research progressed, and after some early photographs were taken for archival purposes, it became clear that I needed to integrate some bodily, performative aspect into the research. A tenet of Butoh practice is Butoh-Fu, which “sounds like poetry, but is the ‘physical language’ that indicates a dancer’s movement, a method for a dancer’s physical being. And a way of relating with space.”  This idea took root, but it was a while before I could articulate any specific logistical means through which I could apply it to the experimentation.

an early photograph testing the translucent quality of the material. I kept returning to this image of the hands, one unmistakably human and the other like an alien claw.

The use of Shadow as a core aspect of the media was also influenced by the William Kentridge exhibit The Nose which utilised distorted shadows of dancing figures which variously surrounded the spectator across different screens. This highly theatrical fusion of black and white film, puppetry and animation gave me a lot to chew on as I worked through different approaches to a similar performance work.


These are two central concepts we investigated in researching the history of theatre practice throughout the 20th Century – although I would argue they are central to all theatre since ancient times – this notion that theatre is a hypermedium which collates and absorbs all other mediums, be it text, speech, song, music, mask design, set/scenography video or lighting, the act of performance is inherently intermedial. This was always about investigating just one aspect of theatre/performance independent to the bigger picture of making an entire show. So the challenge was to find a way to integrate this material research into the qualities of light and plastic into a performative mode. The feedback I received throughout the session reflected this challenge, having discovered an interesting surface with which to generate different effect, but nothing which stood as a completed end unto itself – this critique is accurate as I was more or less aiming to explore just that: How to apply this particular approach to lighting, and use those techniques for the purpose of framing a much larger performance (at a later date). The question was how to proceed with this investigation without anything specific with which to perform? I didn’t really want to burden myself with creating an entire performance work in just a few weeks, however this obstacle became more of a provocation than impediment to the research.

what I was working on was like a “set-design without a play”

The solution was to anticipate the scale of the larger performance, in which I am able to operate as a performer, casting a shadow onto the plastic sheeting, but otherwise invisible to the spectator, who can create their own shadows and thus interact with the performance as it unfolds. With this in mind I was able to then investigate the logistics of how this would work, in terms of lighting, placement of the plastic, and using live-feed video projections. Various iterations of this process created some surprising results.

the mediated self – an early experiment in live projections

“We locate intermediality at the meeting point in between the performers, the observers and the confluence of media involved in a performance at a particular moment in time”

(Chapple, Kattenbelt – Intermediality in Theatre and Performance 2014, p12)

This intersection between the live event and the re-mediation process became the focus of this research, in particular by pushing live projections of the illuminated screen back onto itself, as a way to generate visual feedback of the aesthetic at play. This feedback, framed as a phenomenological dialogue is the ultimate aesthetic I am exploring across all of my practice, {photographic, sculptural, performance based or otherwise) – an area I have taken a long-term theoretical interest in as a logical extrapolation of the theories surrounding dialogic media, or as Mikhail Bakhtin describes the semiotic utterance as an event occurring in discourse with the wider cultural milieu which surrounds it: heteroglossia.

the dialogic self: engaging the spectator with a projection of their own shadow

So, rather than attempting to bring a performance into the medium, the research became about finessing the arrangements around how the audience would experience the event of being there. Multiple arrangements and reconstructions, repositioning cameras and projectors was a matter of trial and error as different combinations generated different effects. Initially I had hung ribbons in the audience area to assist with focusing the cameras but as the final installation progressed I decided I quite enjoyed the aesthetic, as a playful invitation to reach out and discover the work, so they stayed.


Ultimately this exhibit is a “proof-of-concept” with a specific plan to continue to expand and develop the scope of the work into something integrating more “performative” – emphasising spectacle, incorporating durational aspects and pushing the immersive and interactive qualities much further. I have an ongoing interest in work which centres the spectator, going beyond being simply immersive or interactive but placing the audiences’ choice to engage at the crux of the event. SO I’m looking forward to pushing this much further. As an experiment specifically exploring visual textures and lighting, it’s but a fragment of an entire public work – but as an exploration of medium I feel much more confident in applying different techniques with lighting and projection onto this material.

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