How the Vatican was turned into an epic protest

May 16, 2016
This article originally appeared in Wired

The Empire State Building, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, The Vatican: Obscura Digital turns landmarks into canvases for art and activism on an epic scale.

“We’re using an interesting medium in a unique way – to get massive impact,” says Chris Lejeune, CEO and co-founder of the San Francisco-based design company. Founded in 2000 by Lejeune and creative director Travis Threlkel, Obscura has pioneered projection mapping for years, creating attention-grabbing projects for companies such as NikeGoogle and Nasa.

Recently, it’s pivoted into using the technique for political messaging, particularly around climate change. The Empire State project, Projecting Change, was a partnership with the film-maker Louie Psihoyos for his film Racing Extinction.

“There’s a particular statement behind using a building like the Empire State as it pertains to capitalism and the environment,” says Lejeune. “It’s not so much about the medium, as what the message is.” The piece took two years of planning and negotiations. “We wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Creating such massive artworks requires an equally large-scale set-up: Projecting Change took 40 carefully positioned 20,000-lumen projectors to create a 33-storey 5K image. “We create a lot of hardware and software innovation,” says Lejeune. It also requires unique access – for example, in December 2015, convincing the archbishop of Rome to let Obscura’s team inside the Vatican.

“We were inside catacombs that people had not been inside before, going up to laser scan the façade of St Peter’s basilica,” he says. Lejeune estimates one billion people have seen the two projects either directly or online.

“We want this to become a movement,” Lejeune says. As such, the company is working with governments and charities on local issues. It’s using bigger canvases, too, including an architectural façade for a concert hall in China. “We’re looking at landscapes – what could it be to project on a mountain or a desert?” And Obscura’s dream? “A Moon shot,” he says. After all, it’s already seen that dreaming big pays.

Projection Mapping Vatican Cat

By Will Chase