Light Play: Using Projection Arts to Reclaim Space

A conversation between collaborators Za'Nia Coleman, Sabrina Ford, and CRICE on activating archives of Black joy, community, and memory, and and the placemaking abilities of digital projection

Three people in warm clothing stand with their arms around each other in front of projection on chain link fence.
1Sabrina Ford, Za’Nia Coleman, and CRICE (left to right) at Light Play. Photo: Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

As a self-proclaimed Black Feminist, I often reference what I consider holy texts or works. Toni Morrison’s Sula1 has been guiding a lot of my intentions creatively across the disciplines I practice: textiles, digital media, oral history, and cultural curation. The placemaking Morrison does in her text reminds me of the beginning of The Grinch, when we finally exit the clouds in the title sequence and land on an aerial view of Whoville. Morrison does a similar landing in Medallion, Ohio, which she references in the novel as “the Bottom.” While it is called the Bottom, this land is actually the top of a valley where Black folx were subjugated after emancipation. In this story, Black folx were pushed to the top of the valley because it had horrible agricultural conditions, and white folks found it undesirable; Black folx called it the Bottom because when you look down from heaven, it’s what you see first (essentially being the bottom of heaven). Black communities both fictional and real have been forced into environments that are not perfect in any way, but we create beautiful and full lives. 

Recently, the expression of my disciplines has been more abstract and metaphorical, leaving room for emotional interpretation. I’ve been trying to define my own beliefs within Afro-pessimism: a commonly preached understanding of Black folx’ relationship to the present is that, in this material world, we will suffer, but happiness and our blessing lie in the afterlife or heaven. This understanding is most commonly brought up in relation to racism and what feels like the uncontrollable parts of our lives based on our identity as Black people. I bring in this framing because, while I love the connection Morrison built between the Bottom and heaven, I don’t subscribe to the notion that Black folx should revere heaven as our only space for rest and happiness. 

When I think of the fictional Bottom, it mirrors real places that Black folx call home and have built community—places like the historically Black communities of North Minneapolis and the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. These two communities are placed at many intersections that feel like the edges or the outskirts of something, with mortality being a present thought in times of both joy and sadness. At the end of Sula, Morrison started to describe the gentrification that the Bottom was experiencing. The communities I listed share this dynamic: after Black folx worked to turn these places into home, the white people that pushed them there came back to take it from them. The violent part of the takeback is that it erases the spaces where all the memories took place, leaving communities dispossessed. For me, the bridge between the Bottom and heaven is the liminal space where Black life takes place.

Excerpt from Za’Nia Coleman’s installation at Light Play, 2023. Footage by Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

An outlet for my curiosities around liminal space, Afro-pessimism, and many other framings of Black life—especially in Black femme-centered folklore—has been large-scale public projection. My background is in oral history and documentary, and large-scale projection aligned with my intention to showcase Black stories and faces in as large a way as possible. With projections, the idea of taking up space feels important—because Black life, and my perspective on Black femme experiences, have felt restricted, tight, and limiting; in contrast, digital projection as a medium feels expansive and limitless in its representational and placemaking abilities.

One of the texts that initially brought me into my projection journey is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.2 Hartman’s text explores how historical archives perpetuate violent narratives of Black femme existence by both how these figures were documented and intentionally left out; both positions were meant to make judgments on worth and place in society. Hartman uses these archives to explore subtext and give a more complex queer analysis of those lives. The text lands on a framing of “outsideness” both physically and metaphorically. The experiences or identities of Black femmes that didn’t subscribe to being someone’s property or align with white heteronormative social standards were subjected to the outside. Outside of acceptance, literally houseless and on the fringe of the rest of the world’s purview. 

These concepts and histories were circulating in my mind when I was commissioned by Springboard for the Arts to do a park activation at Central Village Park in the historic Rondo neighborhood—where, between 1956 and 1968, at least 650 Black families were displaced as Interstate 94 was forced through the neighborhood. A part of my practice has always been to prioritize collaboration with Black artists and center Black narratives; so for this activation, entitled Light Play, I pulled in two Black digital artists, CRICE and Sabrina Ford. To reflect on this event, I interviewed them about their artistic inspirations and relationships to projection arts.

Sabrina Ford, Za’Nia Coleman, and CRICE (left to right) at Light Play. Footage by Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

ZA’NIA COLEMANHow do you classify your mediums and your practice?

CRICEI say multidisciplinary because I end up having to do a lot of different roles and wear different hats depending on the project. I’m not necessarily trying to deconstruct the methods and the mediums that I use, but I’m trying to blend them in a holistic way to create the pieces. Primarily I work in projection mapping in public art scenarios. I use large-format printmaking as well. I’m also a mural painter and I draw digitally, so lots of different things. 

SABRINA FORDI recently saw the artist Cameron Downey—they were talking about being an anti-disciplinary artist, and I really liked that description. Just like not limiting myself to a specific discipline, but allowing the work that I’m interested in conceptually to inform the work that I make.

ZCHow did you come to projections and projection mapping?

CI got into projection mapping through public art. In a broader sense, I was doing graffiti and street art as an undergrad when I was going to MCAD, and that led me into different realms, but it made me want to engage with the public and create more monumental pieces. At the same time, I was doing a lot of illustration and animation work, so it was a natural way to blend the smaller 2D world that I was working in with a more public art context.

SFWhile painting, I was realizing that there were limitations with the medium itself—that there was just something missing, and I started connecting to photography. I realized what was missing, and the thing that I was seeing was movement. I liked that video was a reflection of reality. I then got really interested in archives because I worked at an archive for about a year. Like the importance of keeping video alive—I realized that, as much as I love it and want people to do it more, that I should just do it [myself] if I love it so much.

Excerpt from Sabrina Ford’s installation at Light Play. Footage by Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

ZCWhat pulls you to larger format applications of your mediums?

CI work in large format because I like that the work relates to the viewer’s physical body. I want to create work that is more experiential rather than a commodity—just in my anti-capitalistic kind of thought. I want it to be something that the viewer is experiencing and they can’t physically take with them.

ZCTalk about the inspiration and some of the images you used for the pieces you showed in Light Play.

SFThat piece specifically was a combination of found footage that my family has. What’s the word, “archive collected?” I really wanted to focus on Black joy specifically. A lot of the videos were starting to be really reflective. It could be kind of sad, but I just had this obsession at that period of time, thinking about joy and thinking about childhood. So I was attracted to people laughing and smiling and gathering, and doing events and parties. It was a combination of all the things that brought me joy when I was watching it. 

CThe pieces that I showed, they’re all different phases of creation. The first piece shows a creator God and there’s flowers that grow after the lightning appears. The middle piece shows a flower of death, which is a meditation on the process of dying and how short the actual human corporeal form is in this world. The following footage is of the flower of life, which is to make viewers think about the cleansing away and the rebirth. It’s kind of like the three phases of creation, death, and rebirth.

Excerpt from CRICE’s installation at Light Play, 2023. Footage by Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

My own contribution to Light Play used archival footage of Black girls jumping rope or creating dances in very open spaces like the park we were showing in. Most of the imagery I create focuses on the intimate and girlish parts that make up Black womanhood, like doing hair, getting dressed, cackling with girlfriends, etc. Amongst the archival footage, I pulled in clips from the first broadcast of For Colored Girls by Ntzokae Shange.3 Originally, Shange’s piece was a collection of narrative poems about the lives of Black women covering love, familial relationships between women, self-image, loss, and many more themes. I love to reference Shange’s text in my work because it was one of the first pieces that gave language to the Black femme experiences I was witnessing and living, and it heavily influenced my interest in Black feminist theory. In homage to texts like Shange’s, my piece spoke to similar themes around Black joy, community, and memory.

Excerpt from Za’Nia Coleman’s installation at Light Play. Footage by Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

ZCBecause you use your art to spotlight underrepresented stories and reclaim physical space, what comes up for you when you hear the word “spacelessness?”

CThat theme resonates for a few reasons. The first thing I think of with spacelessness is existing as a Black person in America. It feels like there is no space that’s for us—that is a safe space for us to inhabit. It’s like, you either gotta pay, or, you know, there’s just a lot of trauma whenever we can get time for our own. Obviously, America’s not our own, so we’re kind of like, our space is just our own, wherever we curate that. The other thing I think of are my beliefs and experiences around a more spiritual realm where the physical constructs of time and space are not a factor. Where I can tap in with different ancestral forces and things like that.

SFSomething that I’ve always really liked about video and projection is that it can exist without being a space, if that makes sense. It’s all these memories and environments that existed in a certain amount of time that can be projected and put up into the air. That’s something that I’ve always loved about video, that it just feels like it can be anywhere. It feels like you could exist at any moment in time… That’s a hard ass question.

Excerpt from Sabrina Ford’s installation at Light Play. Footage by Driven Dreams Media/Connor Anderson.

As I fabricated the surfaces for Light Play that the three of us would project onto, Morrison’s Sula and the Bottom were at the forefront of my mind. The final install took place on a fence that sat in the middle of the park and bordered a tennis court, visible by folx in their surrounding homes as well as those outside. In Morrison’s writing, she speaks about the multiple gazes her main characters experience, specifically being in a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. This collective witnessing described in the text is simulated during large-scale projection art in public spaces that allow for communal witnessing. 

What feels powerful about projection as a whole—and about Light Play specifically—is that, depending on the location, it’s extremely accessible. The power of light can place memories anywhere and projections can be used to claim space, even if temporarily. I intend to use large-scale projection to reclaim the liminal spaces described in my reference texts—the “outside” or the Bottom that Black folx have been pushed to—and reframe them as a source of light, collective reflection, and affirmation.

  1. Toni Morrison, Sula, (New York: Knopf, 1973).

  2. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019).

  3. Ntozake Shange, writer. American Playhouse. Season 1, episode 7, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Oz Scott, director. Aired February 23, 1982. Public Broadcasting Service.

Za'Nia Coleman

Za’Nia Coleman is an interdisciplinary artist experimenting with textiles, digital media, and cultural curation. Her primary medium is film focusing on documentary, oral history, and digital projections. The goal is to experiment with how to visualize the intersections of the archive, Black Folklore, and Black Science Fiction. The root of her work is archiving Black traditional and historical practices around love, pleasure, cultural expression, and community building. She is Co-Founder and …   read more