Wendall K. Harrington has often been quoted for saying 'projections should be like music.' The density of that statement positions itself less on the intellectual understanding of that, and more of the feeling of listening to the music. The most interesting thing about musical instruments is that each instrument has its own special properties and also expresses its own range of emotions. Really thinking about that, its interesting to grab a hold of the abstraction of sound and it's relationship to human emotion. Abstraction then is a path to emotion. Right? But what is abstraction? I cannot count the number times I have been told 'let's do something abstract!' only for me to counter, 'what do you mean?' I of course know kind of what they mean. Solid colors maybe, non - real textures, erratic shapes maybe. Sure, abstract. But really, abstraction is so much more than that.
Context is everything and really, anything could mean anything given context. It is the responsibility of the projection designer to challenge the audience's perception of the story and the space. It is within this that the objective of creating an ephemeral space to create meaning can visual poetry come across. I am not going to propose that I have any rule book on the subject, however I do use this question an approach to, if anything, simplify my life.
Canvas and materials are tools in an artist's toolbox to create work. In the same way what you use and what you are projecting onto directly correlates to the meaning of the subject matter. A blank canvas allows an opportunity to immediately grab attention and pull the audience into a completely different world.
With an empty canvas time, space, and dimension are fully open to control and often diverge from the onstage flow. Meaning it doesn't have to worry about lighting or actors as a distraction. That being, in this setup, both lighting and onstage action are affected by this mode of operation and the artist controlling this must be sensitive to this. This is the final direction cinema made in the crossover between magic shows and vaudeville to cinema houses and movie theatres. Therefore careful attention should be made to not distract from the intent of the performance. That is not to say that the projections can take center stage, but only if that is the point. Careful conversations with the creative team should be had to understand how a large presence takes the space. Technical examples include movie screens, backwalls, LED Walls, RP Screens. I often see this as the ultimate freedom and at the same time bondage. In one way you are not bound by the constraints of the space, and it is fairly simple (no matter how complex the design) to completely create beforehand. However, there are no tricks to be had, no reveal, no surprise.
There is another way in which projections evoke imagery in space and that is through what has begun to be called projection mapping, which is a great term to describe industrial shows and technical exhibitions. In my work I like the idea of a term that describes something a little more narrative driven, spacial displacement. Spacial displacement is about illuminating or changing the surface from one thing to another. The concept of the reveal comes into play making what is hidden seen and transporting people to other worlds. The space becomes then an element of the story, a conjuring space that allows the spirits - or god/higher being/computer world to transform the space as it sees fit. A technolgocal version of this is the holodeck of Star Trek, and I must admit I have used that analogy more than once.
The final thing that I would like to describe in the space with no walls. In an installation performance Flying Lotus describes this as 'layer 3' and in various iterations and formalities Joseph Svoboda describes this as a one of the versions of a plastic space. In essence both the foreground and background are complete illusions. It is very easy to become 'animated' in this setup. But what makes this interesting is the opportunity to completely control the the space that the actors occupy and alter the perspective to that of almost a dream.
Why does the space matter so much? I feel like alot of scenic designers and directors look at me like I'm crazy or trying to take over a discipline I have not been hired to do. On the contrary, I feel when understanding the poetry of the moment (no matter what that moment is) is all about context. Who are you walking into the situation, and what you become coming away from it. How you see something, where you see something is a just important (if not more so) than the thing itself. Like music the projections must be in tight rhythm with all of the elements, but the first thing out of the gate is the scenery. I leave you with one last image, one of religious consequence. It's representation has meaning in all manners. Which one you chose is appropriate is not only your decision but one of everyone who is involved. Moreover, everyone is in someway necessary to make it happen.