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Borealis Brings Video-Mapping to Seattle’s Streets

By M+E Staff

Although the Northern Lights aren’t typically visible in the Seattle night sky, the city’s South Lake Union neighborhood welcomed a light show of its own this past fall: Borealis, a Festival of Light. The first-in-the-U.S. global competition and exhibition of multimedia video-mapping transformed the city’s streets and built environment into an urban canvas for unconventional storytelling. Video-mapping artists showcased their works on the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) building while light-art installations and live music enlivened the neighborhood at large.

We sat down with the mastermind of the show, Terry Morgan, president of Modern Enterprises, LLC, to learn more about how he and his team produced Borealis. Supporters included presenting sponsor Comcast, MOHAI, Amazon, 4Culture, Audi, KOMO TV and MadArt.

NWM+E: What exactly is projection mapping?
You work with a building, like we did with MOHAI here. And you create a digital template for artists. … In our case, we had an international call for artists to submit ideas and concepts for the competition. And from that template you get a variety of different perspectives. We chose the theme of flux—change— which we’re all going through, especially in South Lake Union. And then a jury adjudicated the proposals and selected the six artists to go ahead and produce the final pieces that we saw here in Seattle. Maxin10sity, who acts as my production partner and curator for the event, produced an introductory piece that was quite spectacular also.

NWM+E: Was Seattle the first place you’ve produced this show?
Yes. I live here in Seattle and had been aware of the European lighting festival that had been taking place over the last 10 years. I was fascinated by projection mapping and the art installations and just the whole involvement creating a whole new festival aspect. So I started seeking out information and learning about projection mapping and who was doing the best work.

NWM+E: The audience was able to vote on which was their favorite, correct?
There was an audience vote that we did online, and a gentleman named George Berlin, the only American in the show, won. His piece was very whimsical, almost an 8-bit video game–style piece, completely different than the others, but very fun.

And then we had a jury selection of arts professionals here in Seattle plus Jean-Francois Zurawik, who is the coordinator general of the Fête des Lumiéres in Lyon, France (the world’s largest lighting festival). He came over to work with us to be a judge also. The 8th of December is the traditional date for his event. But it runs the 6th through the 9th in Lyon. And that festival attracts 2.5 million–3 million people over the four days. We’re nothing like that yet, but it’s something to aspire to.

NWM+E: How many people do you estimate came to Borealis?
We know that there were over 65,000 registered with tickets over the four days. And that didn’t count children or people who just came or wandered by. We’re probably over 120,000 people [for attendance].

NWM+E: Are you planning on doing this again next year?
We’re working on it now. We’re assessing all the situations and talking with the city and all of our sponsors to see who wants to come back on board. But, for our first year out, we were a major success, and [we’re] very pleased with the turnout and incredibly pleased with the artwork that was delivered. The public response has just been overwhelming.

NWM+E: How long did it take you, from conception to completion, to set up this event?
This project took three years to get off the ground

NWM+E: How long was the process for the artists? When did you put a call out for entries, and how long did you give them?
We did a call for artists in March, I believe. And then had submissions in by the end of April and made our jury selection. So they worked five or six months developing the video pieces. And they’re the most complex, because everything that you see has to be created as it’s all digital. The piece that won, a Russian team put together. It took six artists a month just to render and draw one of its major sections.

NWM+E: About how many people on your team did you have working on this?
We had about a dozen people.

NWM+E: Is there any other event like Borealis in the United States?
There are other lighting festivals but none that have the large video-mapping projections. And if they do, they’re maybe one projection. And since we were an international competition, that’s what made it easy. We had artists from Hungary, from Slovenia, from Russia, from Turkey, from China and Japan all represented in our show.

NWM+E: How many artists in total were represented?
If you count Maxin10sity’s introductory piece, there were seven video-mapping artists and 25 light-art installations.