Making light of old city dames
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Making light of old city dames

Who can forget last year's Canberra Enlighten Festival, when the Electric Canvas Company arranged for some of our city's hitherto pompous public buildings to be magically transfigured at night? The buildings were, in the company's spot-on description, ''bathed in the luminosity of projections''.

For this year's festival, Electric Canvas's founder and driving force Peter Milne told Gang-gang yesterday, the buildings bathed in luminosity will be the Museum of Democracy (Old Parliament House), the National Library, the National Gallery and, being bathed in luminosity for the festival for the first time, Questacon and the National Portrait Gallery.

Milne explained that each transformed building would be illuminated by a miscellany of designs and that this year The Electric Canvas collaborated with Canberra artists, winnowing a large field of them down to a magnificent five. They are Josh Dykgraaf, Nicola Dickson, Paul Summerfield, Julie Ryder and Racket. Racket is an exciting and eccentric Canberra art and design studio and I've seen works of theirs in which Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin are juxtaposed with that melancholy thylacine the Tasmanian Tiger.

In every case the architectural projections that the local artists and The Electric Canvas have conceived together will relate somehow to the function and contents of the illuminated building. So for example Old Parliament House (by day a shy, plain old wedding cake of an object) will have political cartoons and what Milne calls ''buzz words'' from parliamentary language splashed on to its usually rather self-effacing facade. Questacon, with its scientific associations, will sometimes be bathed in designs based on images harvested by electron microscopy. The National Portrait Gallery will sometimes be electrically embossed with some giant variations on themes of portraits in the collection within. This will be a joy for those of us who think that some of Electric Canvas's most spellbinding magic has been the projection of gigantic pictures of famous Australians (such as troubled genius Todd Carney, just after he'd won the Dally M Medal) on to the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I put it to Milne that as well as being a bedazzling thing, the transformation of familiar buildings was a little bit eerie, too, for the local citizens.

We like to think we know our surroundings, and we take some of our psychological bearings from its edifices. What Milne does to them, he asserts with pride, is change a familiar building into something else.

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Milne responded that he's never in 15 years of bathing places in the luminosity of projections heard of anyone being unnerved by it. After all, he points out, all of the transforming is necessarily done at night (he reports that he has some naive prospective clients who want things done in daylight) so that the building is its familiar old self all day until things get dark. And in daylight he's sure ''most people are around beautiful buildings every day but walk right past them without noticing them''. And so he's pleased with the way in which Electric Canvas can, by night, give them some well-deserved limelight and draw rapt attention to them.

The Electric Canvas prides itself on meeting ''challenging briefs'' and I wondered if, as well as great big clients such as governments Milne ever does really esoteric work, like, say, bathing in luminosity the McMansions of the narcissistic filthy rich? I live just across the road from O'Malley where some of the homes, ostentatious by day, could continue to be ostentatious by night too with Electric Canvas's treatment. Milne said that in fact the company does get 10 or 15 inquiries a week from individuals but they're usually people who want the job done for nothing, or are those simpletons who want things done in daylight. Some of them are the sorts of people who want things projected on to clouds. The latter buffoons are told that, yes, all they need to do is supply the clouds and then Electric Canvas will see what it can do.

The Griffins and the thylacines don't get guernseys in Racket's designs for the National Portrait Gallery projections but there will be among other things startling portraits of The Snake Woman, The Tattooed Boy, The Strength (the magnificently mustachioed face of a circus strongman) and Jack Panic the Space Monkey.

The Enlighten Festival See Canberra In A Whole New Light is on the nights of March 2-3 and 9-10.