Paint the Night

Paint the Night

James Nagel and Michael Kellis don’t want you know who they are. Which makes a profile rather difficult. What they want you to know is that during the Vivid Festival next week, guerrilla graffiti projections will be roaming Circular Quay and the Opera House precinct. The two-man band of undercover artists is on a mission and has a message they will splash all over the harbour.

“We’re against boring lighting,” says James, a Master of Design Science (Illumination Design) student at the University of Sydney. “We’re projecting graffiti onto buildings precisely because it’s in your face and it’s a creative use of light.”

Michael – who also studies Illumination Design - says that lighting is a little bit like graffiti itself.

“If it’s done right, it can look really good. But when it’s bad, it’s really bad,” Michael says. “With this project we can express our message without defacing any property – which is one advantage that light has over traditional spray-on graffiti.”

The two will be roaming the Vivid Festival with custom-made projection trolleys. Armed with a series of preconfigured projection-stencils and laptops to customise the projection output to suit any surface they encounter, James and Michael will have their knowledge of lighting – and their bodies – put to the test. Each trolley will weigh 60kg by the time projectors, laptops and generators are loaded and will need to be pushed up, down and around the Rocks district.

James and Michael are completing their final year of their master program. Michael comes from an electrical and engineering background while James is in lighting sales. Both say that the courses they have taken as part of their Master degree have helped inform their contribution to Vivid this year.

“We had the idea after the stage lighting course. And we both took the photography course together so we thought to combine the two,” Michael says.

“I was originally going to build some press by doing this guerrilla awareness campaign in Canberra,” James says. “I was going to project our slogan – lighting against Mission Brown – onto Parliament House.

“Mission Brown are the boring guys in lighting. We have one projection that just simply says “Light this Wall” to draw attention to how lighting can enhance even very plain things,” James said.

“So the project’s involvement in Vivid was just a bonus. We’re totally committed to this. I have quit my job and have moved to Sydney for the three weeks of Vivid to make this happen.”

Michael and James have discussed turning their experience in Vivid into a business venture. They’re confident that their no-damage form of graffiti could be a perfect fit for innovative brands looking to make new advertising spaces.

“We could get a company’s logo, say someone like Red Bull, and go and splash it all over the city. It’s easy to change and does not damage because we’re not really graffiti, just light,” James said.

With seven days to go, James and Michael have some final testing to do before Lights On, May 25th. Their mobile guerrilla installations show how illumination and lighting can combine aesthetic experimentation and technical skills to produce a social message. The Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning congratulates James and Michael on their innovative approach to lighting and is excited to see the installation in action at Vivid this year.

Light the Night vanquishes gloomy Sydney weather

00:35 minutes Download video (mp4, 6.23 Mb)

It’s seven days into the Vivid Festival. James Nagel and Michael Kellis have locked their mobile projection trolleys into place along Argyle St in the Rocks. They pull the ripcord on their generators and the smell of fuel is joined by the quiet purr of a motor. A flicker of light escapes the black-clad steel trolleys that shroud their projection equipment from the wind. And then, where there was nothing before, graffiti appears.

James says that they’ve had a number of learning experiences; particularly in how to handle Sydney’s unpredictable and blustery winter weather.

‘We’ve been finding our feet and seeing what works best in the different areas,” James says. “The first night it was raining. We were wet, but the trolleys and the projections held up well. But we were standing outside for six hours.

Michael agrees that the experience has had some unexpected challenges.

“The hard bit for us has been finding areas where the projections work well and moving the trolleys across the uneven, hilly ground in the Rocks area,” Michael said.

The pair’s guerrilla-themed installation has been well received by the public. The striking images and video they are projecting immediately grab the attention of passersby, sometimes to the point that it creates new complications.

“We’ve had a really good response,” James said. “A lot of people are saying it’s a great idea and are really responding to it. They are understanding that it’s a form of graffiti that doesn’t deface property.”

“It’s a challenge to move pedestrians. People will crowd up around the projectors,” Michael said. “You’ve got to be aware of both the road traffic and the pedestrian traffic and keep people moving. It was hard to move on Saturday night – it was jam-packed!”

The pair has been keeping themselves to a rigorous schedule. Each night at 5:45pm they are on site for setup. Michael says that they’ve gotten a lot more efficient at getting everything prepared as the festival has continued.

“It’s gotten better as we’ve gotten more experience,” Michael said. “But we underestimated how heavy the trolleys would be. They weight more than the 60kg we were expecting. They’re probably closer to 90kg, even 100kg. So we’re pushing these around for six hours, getting to bed at around three after our debrief and then I have to work the next day!”

They’ve also been collaborating with other Vivid artists. Because of the mobile nature of their projection, they have projected their works through and onto other installations, including Ben Baxter’s Cumulus. They also have a good relationship with the other mobile installations.

“There are a few mobile exhibits,” James said. “The MPU – a couple of guys on pushbikes projecting snake games onto the wall and of course the angler fish. It’s worked out well, we can share the spaces and keep out of each other’s way. But when it rains it gets a bit tricky to find space and might have to compete a bit.”

When you’re next down at Vivid Sydney, spare a though for James and Michael, who are braving the elements, sleep deprivation and muscle fatigue to bring you their exciting installation, Light the Night.