Although art and technology seem to be pitted against each other often, such as during ongoing debates on whether to favor STEM versus art programs financially in public schools, the truth is that art and tech have always had a complex and evolving relationship with one another. From how pieces of art are created to how they’re distributed to the public or put on permanent display in museums, technology plays an integral part in our modern-day society. We use it for travel, communication, and goods and services, so it’s only natural that its grasp eventually reaches the art realm.
In this era of the pandemic and dependency on online media, technology has given the world the ability to gander at famous works at any time of day with a simple tap tap tap on a screen. Instead of needing to travel miles upon miles and spend who knows how much on a ticket in order to view a painting up close and personally, you can now zoom in on your computer screen to see those same brush strokes. You can even right-click on it and save it for another time in your downloads folder if you’d like. The explosion of possibilities in the 21st century are infinite and still improving. With the help of technology, art has transformed into an immersive form of media that is transportable and affordable. No more is the art world restricted to the world’s elite — it’s for all to interact with despite social or economic class.
- THE EVOLUTION OF PROJECTORS
One of the most-used tech pieces for displaying art today is the projector. People employ them for film viewings at your local theater, for watching anti-bullying YouTube videos at school assemblies, and even for business meetings where everyone congregates to tear apart Greg’s presentation on Elizabethan-era embroidery techniques. However, projectors originated far earlier than the invention of videos or computers — the first use of projection to view still images was with what was termed the “magic lantern” all the way back in the 17th century. Manipulating the light of a lamp via a concave mirror, one could make this same light pass through a glass side depicting the desired image. The final step was to adjust the lens at the front of the contraption, fixing the focus of the image onto whatever was being used to project against — i.e., a fabric screen, a white wall, etc.
By the 18th century, though, the magic lantern evolved into the episcope. Unlike its predecessor, the episcope wasn’t restricted to using transparent glass slides and hand-painted images. Instead, it could project physical objects, like pages from a book or one’s hand, onto a background, allowing for more displays. Artists also became able to project objects onto a canvas to use as a basis for their paintings. The risk of this newer product, though, was that it also came with a greater potential for catching fire. In addition to the mirrors and lenses used for the magic lantern, the episcope required a much brighter source of light, which, in turn, needed careful attention to prevent overheating. This technology also could be utilized for larger means than previously with the magic lantern. Instead of a small gathering, it displayed images and objects to lecture halls and opera houses, thus marking the growth of such tech in the art world.
Projectors’ popularity in educational institutions and homes grew in the 20th century with the invention of slide projectors. While the episcope stayed in continual usage, it was after the development of photographs and personal cameras that slide projectors began to replace the episcope. With this newer model, families were able to display their personal film slides via slide shows, allowing for more intimate viewings in people’s own homes. It also provided entertainment for a wider range of ages;children and the elderly could access it whenever they pleased, not relegated to a lecture hall in a university or a public movie theater.
As one could guess, however, slide projectors required slides in order to have images to display. These could be bulky and needed to be assembled prior to projection. Its successor, the overhead projector (or OHP), did not. Instead, an OHP relied on transparent sheets placed over the light source, making for easy transference to another sheet. This also allowed for the operator to interact with the sheet by simply drawing or writing on it, which was a no-go with the slide projector. Regardless, both still remained popular, even if for different purposes, in the ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond.
After the 1960s came the development of the digital computer, a machine that had been in the works since the World Wars. In this new age, photographs did not need to be printed in a tangible form in order to be projected onto a screen — visual presenters were a branch of projectors that came with a cameras of their own that snapped the desired items in real time and in higher quality, unlike the slide or overhead projectors. But this is still all in connection to projecting images. What about videos?
Enter Digital Light Processing (DLP) projector. DLP projectors provide us with the digital-projecting equipment we use today. Forget lamps and concave mirrors — a DLP projector instead implements the use of a DMD, or Digital Micromirror Device, in order to display both videos and images alike, both at higher resolutions and speeds than before.
- MODERN-DAY IMMERSIVE ART
The significance of projectors crafting art into a sensory-immersive experience for students, family members, and more is the next step for viewing experience in today’s society. A prime example of this would be Mathieu St-Arnaud and Normal Studio’s “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” show. Using a combination of visual and audio techniques, it provides its audience with an all-immersive experience into the works of the famous Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. The first half of the show involves hanging frames, devoid of the usual paintings, and portions of Van Gogh’s personal letters to his brother, as well as a general timeline of his life. The lights from above are gentle, and soft music plays from some indiscernible place. The atmosphere is welcoming, quiet and warm, but the second half of the show is where the full immersion begins.
Guests enter a room completely covered in images, all displayed via projectors from above. Van Gogh’s works flood the space, overlapping each other and dissipating moments later. Scribbles of his words flitter across his pieces, voices from overhead echoing the words onscreen, sometimes in their translated English, sometimes in Van Gogh’s native tongue, sometimes as an adult’s voice, sometimes as a child’s. The art flickers with life, seemingly a trick of the eye — a self portrait of the artist, bandage covering where his ear was infamously removed, stares ahead at nothing, and then he blinks. There’s an initial hesitation between imagination and reality. Intent gazing reveals it’s not a figment as another portrait blinks slowly on the other side of the room. The show combines the lulling audio overhead with carefully crafted animations. Van Gogh’s artwork is painted onscreen, each individual brush stroke visible as trees and flowers sprawl across the room, on the floor and the walls like a boundless vine.
Without technology or the steady evolution of something such as the magic lantern to modern day digital projectors, artwork might still be limited to only being viewable in museums or lavish estates that cater to the wealthy elite. Though those two experiences are still available today, the development of a tool as simple as a lamp, a mirror, and a lens has proven to help reshape art and how we interpret and experience it. Besides, museums nowadays aren’t always desolate buildings with dusty relics — most include interactive experiences via technology. Whether it’s an overhead projector displaying videos of the failed trials of the Wright brothers and their airplanes or a touchscreen that requires you to answer questions in order to move on to the next level of a game about the Revolutionary War, technology transforms how we consume the works of others, crafting these moments into something more memorable than a simple “Hey, look at that skeleton!” or “Hey, see this plaque!” By interacting with both historic and modern pieces of art — art being defined as however you like — we’re invited into a deeper sense of who we are as humans and what connects us all, despite whatever differences, whether slim or many, we have with each other.