EXPERIMENTS IN LIGHT AND SHADOW: DIGITAL PORTFOLIO 2019

Over the course of this year I have been undertaking practical research into the digital mediation of light and how this distorts and generates meaning across the projected image. This portfolio will traverse this research across the course of the year and give an overview of the process and semiotic theories which became integrated into the creative output.

I did not set out with any specific destination or result in mind besides an interest in the mediality of light when cast across this lightweight material – it’s cheap tablecloth plastic, something I had discovered during a performance in Newcastle gave a surprising luminosity when lit from behind. Early experiments showed a semi-opaque quality which could be used to uncanny effect.

I became particularly interested in the materiality of the plastic itself, and sought ways to exploit the creased, crinkly qualities as well as the torn edges, as a surface to project on. I felt this was a disruption to the broader cultural trend towards clean surfaces and sharp edges on screens which was an aesthetic worth pursuing.

basic white incandescent lamp thrown onto white plastic sheeting, shot with DSLR

I thought it might be interesting to re-project these archival photos onto the plastic, to see if the interplay between the shadows and creased surfaces would create anything remarkable. While the live-effect of this was quite fascinating – of two very similar surfaces moving across each other, when I took some photos for archive there were some vivid, surprising results. Using a high-shutter speed on the DSLR meant that the projected light which was only visible as ‘white’ to the human eye, was broken down into its colour components by the camera mechanism. This quickly became a key area of inquiry for the research.

I wanted to explore the relationship between the ‘real’ image and the ‘projected’ – emphasising the difference between them in order to explore the performative qualities inherent with abstraction. Using Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic media, by which language occurs across an ongoing conversant space with all other utterances and cultural events – I wanted to make this process explicit, by making and reproducing an image in a single moment, in dialogue with itself.

This early image of the shadow-self, shot with a live feed using a BlackMagic camera and Qumi projector became the basic technical unit from which the research proceeded. From here I undertook extensive research practice focusing on the interplay between video feedback, light and shadow using a live subject. This image represents the principle of the live image being mediated across itself and the dialogic mutations within this process.

Continuing this line of experimentation by introducing multiple projectors and live feeds of the same image from different angles, and creating shadows with everyday objects such that the live projections would play across each other, it became clear that the presence of shadow was a vital component in articulating this work. These photos, taken in rapid succession demonstrate how the visible and invisible aspects of light work can play out in different ways, as the shadow reveals and hides different elements of the two projected images.

The variety of light and tonal variations became quite startling as I continued to experiment with different techniques, adjusting variables such as shutter speed, camera & projector angles, and re-projecting photographs into these formations. While these images were visually arresting and vivid, they were ultimately abstract experiments and it needed to be brought into thematic focus.

Concurrent with the technical research I had been investigating the semiotic theories of Bakhtin and also the historical significance of “the Shadow Self” in literature. Use of shadows as a performative method was always intended to become a part of this project and although I was unable to schedule a live performance aspect to this particular iteration, I became quite interested in how on a purely technical level, shadows are inherently dialogic as representations of the subject. They cannot exist without light and will distort and respond to any change in movement or perspective. Further, as a visual or literary construct they are hugely evocative.

…the shadow which seeps quietly out of the myth, covering the whole of our culture: the Ulysses who is reincarnated, in different forms and bearing different values, in poetry and history through the centuries, from Homer to the present day. This constant presence and continuing hold over the imagination are signs that it represents our destiny as human beings.

Piero Boitani, The Shadow of Ulysses

Boitani here discusses the influence of the shadow both as literary motif and metaphor for the influence of Homeric verse across milennia of Western Civilisation. This process of influence is how I have taken to understanding Bakhtinian Dialogism, media in the present is conversant with media of both the past and the future. With this extensive relationship of ideas in mind, I chose the ancient myth of the Cyclops as the thematic starting point from which to build this installation.

By projecting onto a mounted mirror I was able to incorporate the shadows of the equipment I was using to create the installation into the image itself. The placement of these shadows allowed different projected images to interweave crating different intensities of darkness as a counterpoint to the light. I began curating from the many research images taken previously to use as source material for this next set, specifically choosing the most vibrant colours with the darkest shadows, to exploit this aspect even further. I also switched one of the screens from the white plastic to a lightweight fabric, which has a more translucent aspect to it. Note that the glare from the projector is slightly visible in this set of images, whereas with the plastic it is not.

Polyphemus, the Cyclops of ancient myth is a brutal one-eyed giant, blinded by Ulysses who tricks him in order to escape. In contemporary times, the etymology of ‘Cyclops’ carries all manner of implications. We are in an encroaching surveillance state, we carry personalised data banks and cameras in our pockets and share images instantly, adding filters and mediated effects without a second thought. By using the shadows of the tripods and projection equipment and naming it after an ancient monster, the intention is to recall ‘futuristic’ images from War of The Worlds, identifying the menacing aspects and placing them in a confused, almost organic arrangement, like an alien presence or artificial intelligence. As McLuhan famously observes, media has begun to take on a life of its own, informing and distorting the content of the message it is ostensibly designed to deliver. These messages are now in such abundance that the human subject is also in a state of reinvention and flux, recording and transmitting our self-images at an unprecedented rate of acceleration.


To escape the cyclops, Ulysses tells him his name is “Nobody”.
“Who blinded you?” … “Nobody did this”

Ultimately our view on the world is informed as much, if not more by what we don’t see as what we do. The presence of the shadow, of the invisible, therefore is a critical aspect to our transformation as individuals or as a society – in an era of social media and individualistic pride fueled by neoliberal ideologies and consumerism, perhaps being “nobody” is the most radical act of all.

The final installation contains two perpendicular screens with an arrangement of tripods and projection gear. The left hand screen shows a ‘clean’ slideshow of curated images from the research. The right hand screen integrates a slideshow with shadows and live feeds in overlay, culminating in a feedback loop making the Cyclops ‘Eye’. Behind the screens, and visible within the context of the exhibition ‘black box’ space, the spectator can observe the multiple projectors and cameras arranged on tripods with the the mirror, with an array of interconnected cables stretching up towards the ceiling.

At the edges of the installed space are a series of hanging sheets, folded and tied off into a curtain-like frame, emphasising the performativity of media and adding a dash of pomp to the apparatus of representation.

Ultimately this has been a rewarding process integrating 21st century technology into shadow and light, mediating one of the most ancient performative techniques for a digital age. Moving forward I am interested to further explore the organic aspects of this process, and push the possibilities of live streaming performance as a means to combine this approach with the human body as a mode of expression.