A Handy Beginner’s Guide to Urban Light Projection

The front and back covers of A Manual for Urban Projection (MUP) (all photos courtesy Ali Momeni)
The front and back covers of ‘A Manual for Urban Projection’ (MUP) (all photos courtesy Ali Momeni)

As the technology for it improves and advances, light projection is becoming an increasingly affordable and accessible method for publicly telling stories or spreading messages to a large audience. In the past couple of years alone, many artists and organizations have harnessed projection in a variety of ways, from recreating lost treasures to raising awareness of extinction to protesting issues like fracking and government surveillance. For anyone interested in exploring the medium, the Center for Urban Intervention Research (CUIR) recently released its first printed book, A Manual for Urban Projection (MUP), to illustrate the potentials of projection, particularly in urban spaces, whether sanctioned or not.

Successfully funded on Kickstarter, MUP is co-authored by CUIR founder Ali Momeni and collaborator Stephanie Sherman, who draw on years of personal experience with urban projection. The 90-page book is divided into four sections: concepts that inform and motivate all types of projection actions, the human and mechanical tools involved, different designs to produce ideal projection scenarios, and a list of reading resources, both printed and online. It also includes diagrams and pages of image cutouts for brainstorming one’s own possible plans. More of an introductory guide to projection practices rather than a dense, comprehensive reference, MUP is meant to inspire newcomers and highly experienced projectionists alike to envision possible scenarios and collaborate on future happenings. The book is also pocket-sized, which makes it convenient for toting around for reference during projects.

System diagram for an urban projection intervention performed by Ali Momeni and The Maw in Minneapolis in 2010 (click to enlarge)
System diagram for an urban projection intervention performed by Ali Momeni and The Maw in Minneapolis in 2010 (click to enlarge)

It’s encouraging to read about the seemingly endless possibilities such a medium offers, with far less equipment than one might expect. In addition to a projector, many setups require just a computer, a webcam, and software that’s available for free. As MUP explains, although assembly requires careful planning in advance and moving equipment around may be difficult, as with any endeavor, with practice comes ease. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of urban projection — for novices in particular — is learning how to actually work the technology, but the section devoted to projection tools is detailed, covering everything from picking the right projector and projection surface to integrating a live feed to reach an even larger audience.

Beyond the basic tools, every projection setup is different and faces its own specific challenges, especially if installed in a busy and unpredictable urban setting. MUP provides 10 illustrated scenarios that form a broad foundation for projectionists to model their own arrangements on; they include instructions for setting up theater-like scenes, live interviews, and even mobile carts fitted with hardware to “leave a site swiftly when necessary” — ideal for guerrilla protests, for example.

Light projections rarely fail to capture public attention, as they play on our love for spectacles and visual storytelling. Bright and usually large, they also easily disrupt the quotidian, which makes them fitting for bold displays of public art and protest messages. Actually launching and successfully installing such a project may seem daunting, but MUP is a helpful introductory aid for anyone trying to transform public thinking through the transformation of public space.

A code to the symbols used to illustrate sample scenarios
A key of symbols used to illustrate sample scenarios
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