An artist has a large range of ways they can display their work. Cave walls gave way to canvas and paper as ways to create portals into another human’s imagination. Stained glass windows were early versions of combining light and imagery. Electronic displays are our next continuation of this same concept. A photon is emitted; it travels until it reflects off of or passes through a medium. That photon then passes into your eyeball and excites some specialized cells — when enough of these cells are excited, your brain turns these into what you perceive as an image.
However, standard computer monitors, LED video walls and projection screens offer only a small glimpse of the range of possible visual illusions. Any traditional display can be augmented or used in an unusual way. New displays and technologies are still being actively developed and researched. Some content is suited precisely to being shown on a standard display, like a webpage. Other content is better suited to a space that exists beyond the screen’s surface and enables a sort of suspension of disbelief that this thing is really there. We continue to find new ways to construct the image of new destinations within the eye.
Knowing the range and limits of these different displays is similar to a painter really understanding their choice of paint and surfaces. Spray paint behaves very differently than oil, watercolor or ink. Drying times, color depth, texture, reflectivity, ability to blend colors — these are just some of the characteristics the painter must consider when choosing a medium for their new work. The textures of canvas, concrete, metal also impart a particular surface aesthetic. The same considerations can be a part of a digital artist’s practice when they work with displays.
Additionally, musicians use what is called extended technique to explore the absolute limits of what sounds are possible with their instrument. Mastering an instrument with classical training is one dimension. Extended techniques demonstrate a deep understanding of how these devices function and respond to human input. Things that may sound like mistakes at first can be honed into highly expressive new tools. Violins can be made to sound like cellos with the right bowing method. Video and film artists like Nam June Paik and the Vasulka’s have been exploring extended techniques for displaying video since their inception — but it is important to continue this tradition. There is still much to discover.
Nam June Paik's Wobbulator
The purpose of this article is to collect and consolidate a list of these alternative methods of working with displays, light and optics. This will by no means be an exhaustive list of the possibilities available — depending on how you categorize, there could be dozens or hundreds of ways. There are historical mainstays, oddball one-offs, expensive failures and techniques that are only beginning to come into their own. There is a continuum here of display technology to light art.
This document will hopefully serve as a reference for artists who are curious about pushing their content outside of a standard screen. Some implementations are incredibly practical and achievable on small budgets, and some require very specialized patented hardware that only exists in a lab somewhere. It is important not to get bogged down in the specifics of the technology, but to recognize that these all exist on a spectrum of information transference that employ light, medium, and viewer. By keeping things in these simple terms, you are free to mix, match and re-use to tell new stories.