Magic Lantern

It was 6:45 p.m. at January’s First Friday and I found myself at Blue Star’s Three Walls Gallery trying to quickly get a photo of projectionist Luke Savisky before the crowd came storming through the black curtain. Things were running late and it was pretty much my fault. I had interviewed Luke and gallery owner Michele Monseau earlier that day at Mad Hatter’s and Rosario’s and, as a result, things were now running behind schedule. Because I’ve seen Luke’s projection work on and off since around 1994, and because we used to be neighbors in Austin (I once convinced Luke to act in a film as a Civil War-documentary-recreation-footage-actor with his then performance-artist `now rapper` girlfriend), we had a lot to discuss.

I call Luke a projectionist because that’s the simplest way to describe his art.  He projects moving images, usually 16mm film but also regular 8mm film, Super 8mm film, and on bigger projects, 35mm film. He’s also a cameraman; sometimes he shoots the images. And he’s also an archivist who has collected more than a million feet of motion-picture film for use in his various projects.

Quick résumé: Luke has produced film installations in museums; he has done installations on location (such as at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, when he was invited to project images onto the snow-covered mountains surrounding the festival); and, since the late ’80s, he’s been on tour with bands such as Ed Hall, Poi Dog Pondering, Mercury Rev, and Stars of the Lid, projecting images onto the performers and the stage and in the process, becoming an integral part of the show.

Luke’s creativity and work is determined by the geography of the space he is allowed to use. Last week he projected a huge gazing eyeball onto a downtown Austin water tower for the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration. That piece employed video projection, and will likely be the direction that Luke takes next. That information is crucial for putting Luke’s show at Three Walls into perspective. Though Luke’s work has inspired many imitators, what he does is a dying tradition. As magic-lantern projectors were replaced by film projectors in the mid-1890s, video projectors have now all but replaced film projectors. The likes of his multi-16mm film-projector piece at Three Walls will not be seen much in the coming years.

Let me try to give you the perspective of a patron walking into Three Walls Gallery to see Luke’s installation (and I’ll try to do this without assuming you’re 17 and just slammed a six pack of Lone Star in the parking lot with your friends. FIRST FRIDAY!). The room is dark. Ambient music mixes with the sound of 16mm projectors bouncing off the (three) walls. To your left, you see a white blanket with a rear-projected, 3-D image of a bird spinning around in a cage, trying to get free. Hey, there are some 3-D glasses laying on top of a projector. Sweet. You put on the glasses, and the bird is now in full dimension. You put the 3-D glasses back on the projector. Oh wait, you’re in the way of a projector. You move. Now you’re in the path of another projector. Whoah. It’s pretty much an ambush. There are projectors shooting everywhere. As you move out of the way, you see a white-fabric “dress” hanging above the floor in the center of the room. There is a black platform with wheels and a white arrow pointing underneath the white dress.  You lay down and slide underneath. Totally upskirting. As you look up you see yourself in a parabolic mirror. You raise your hands and try to touch your face. Crazy.

On each wall, there are different works of art with film projected onto them. Walking into the space, you interrupt the art, yet you also become part of the art. That level of interactivity, and mystery, is what makes Luke’s piece so engaging.

At one point during our visit, Luke said that he has thought about moving to San Antonio. And because SA is usually 10 years behind the rest of the country, perhaps he could continue his film projection down here and not feel out of step.

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