Circus-ing around

adies and gentlemen, it is time to vote for your favorite interpretation of downtown Beirut’s “dancing building.”

As awkward as it sounds, as of Wednesday, anyone can take part in a ballot in which 15 competing visual artists are giving life to the UFA building at Martyrs’ Square. The event – which kicked off on Wednesday and resumes on December 28 until New Year’s – was funded by the Union Franco Arabe d'Assurances et de Réassurances (UFA Assurances) and is open to the public for free. The live urban art projections are the first-of-a-kind in Lebanon and the Middle East.

The concept, which organizer Layla Nahas stated was conceived only three years ago, started mostly in Europe and then spread to the US. The mapping has been typically used for marketing, such as the Netherlands’ first large-scale mapping commercial by Samsung or last November’s Ralph Lauren advertisement that brought to life the designer New York City boutique on Manhattan’s famous Madison Avenue.

According to Wikipedia, “3D mapping/projection is any method of mapping three-dimensional points to a two- dimensional plane,” with urban projection mapping using the facades of building as the backdrop.  Thanks to highly advanced technology, with cameras that cost up to $500,000 each, video projections can tell a story as well as market a product. The technique has grown increasingly popular for advertisers, with business moguls such as Nokia and BMW making use of the appealing technique to lure in consumers.

Although every Christmas UFA Assurances decks the walls of its landmark building in downtown Beirut with traditional holiday lighting, UFA CEO Henri Chalhoub wanted to try something different, said Nahas. He was set on doing a mapping similar to those featured in other cities, but while such a venture was still in the making, organizers suggested revamping the event into a local competition between Lebanon’s up-and-coming visual artists.

The call for applications was in October and received more than 50 responses, said Nahas, adding that jury members narrowed the number down to 15 finalists.

But rather than make selections according to a final product, members of the jury chose participants based on their portfolio and a general concept that was to serve as the basis for their video. Upon being selected, finalists began two months of rigorous training. “We offered the finalists workshops that taught them the basics and tricks of 3D mapping,” said Nahas. Even experts were flown in from France just for the occasion.

“It was an amazing experience, and at the same time, a very big challenge, because it is not like any other project,” said 25-year-old Dima Boulad, a graphic and motion designer, whose projection was dubbed UFA Circus. “We ran into a number of problems, which we had to research and overcome,” she said. “And there was always a significant element of surprise.”

“When I work [on my projection], I can only see it on my screen. And in this type of project, the artists could only see the final product during the official launching,” noted Boulad, saying this was her first experience in 3D mapping.

The event’s opening night attracted more than 3,000 people, as spectators cheered and delighted in the fresh take on urban art. The concoction of lights, sounds and music – itself a rich array of anything from trip hop, minimal, electronic to more traditional classical music – was also a tribute to Lebanon, as the opening video traveled back in time showing the country’s rich history. 

“The most successful aspect of it is that Martyrs’ Square is not being used for [another] political gathering or demonstration,” said Nahas. “This is a festive, lively and magical moment that is being offered to the Lebanese with no price tag and without limitation.”

It is nice to offer this to the Lebanese, who have a tough and stressful life, she said, especially during this time of year.   

 “I wonder when they tested the projections,” said a member of the audience, as she expressed her awe at the perfect synchronization between sound, light and motion.

Lebanese-American Francis Debbane, a 26-year-old who lives in the US but comes back to Beirut for a few days during the year, told NOW Extra it was very impressive to see this type of work promoting local talent.”

In addition to the aesthetically pleasing aspect of the projections, the mapping extravaganza also provides a platform for Lebanon’s artists, filmmakers, graphic designers and architects to showcase their work to fellow expatriates, who are back in town for the holidays.

“Have you ever seen 4,000 people gathered in Beirut like this for something other than a political rally?” asked Nahas.

The UFA Mapping competition is taking place on December 28 until December 31, at Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut. For more information, please visit here.