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Stories & Ideas

Mon 18 Mar 2024

Making the Light and Shadow Workshop

Susan Bye

Susan Bye

Senior Producer, Education, ACMI

ACMI's hands-on learning workshops connect with the themes, ideas and technologies featured in our centrepiece exhibition The Story of the Moving Image.

Our Light and Shadow workshop for early years students introduces students to First People's storytelling, Indonesian shadow puppetry and Lotte Reiniger's silhouette animations to delve into the basic storytelling principle of light and shadow.

Planning our new workshop

Since ACMI reopened in 2021 after a long period of renovation and renewal, we have enjoyed sharing our reimagined education program and brand-new learning spaces with students and their teachers. In this short piece, we share the journey of one of these programs from inception to delivery. Our Light and Shadow workshop is such a satisfying example of how important it is to take the time to reflect and develop ideas before forging ahead to create a final product.

As well as reflecting on our learning goals and developing our ideas, we sought inspiration from the exciting changes taking place across the ACMI museum. We were particularly keen to connect our workshops with ACMI’s new centrepiece exhibition The Story of the Moving Image, and our Light and Shadow workshop is inspired by the first section of the exhibition and its celebration of telling stories through the interplay of light and shadow. Knowing that we wanted to explore this fundamental moving image concept as part of a hands-on workshop with young learners, we began intensive research, and explored a range of creative ideas from across the globe. In the process, we discovered a beautiful Light Play workshop developed in the Tinkering Studio at Exploratorium, an outstanding science and technology museum in San Francisco. It was love at first sight – when we saw the outcome of this activity, we knew straight away this was the one.

In the meantime, while we were developing our workshop, The Story of the Moving Image exhibition was taking shape, including the installation of Vicky Couzens’ multi-part artwork Yanmeeyarr, which means “flickering in the firelight” in the Keerray Wooroong language of the Gunditjmara people. Couzens’ work, which frames the exhibition, celebrates First People’s storytelling and the way stories can be brought to life through movement, light and shadow. The exploration of the significance and impact of light, shadow and silhouette in our exhibition also includes the ancient art of Javanese Wayang shadow puppetry, Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and Ali Gumillya Baker’s postcolonial performance artwork The colonial imagination/ down among the wild men (2014).

Cross-curriculum learning

Inspired by these works, we planned our workshop to meet the learning needs of Foundation to Year 2 learners and to assist teachers with curriculum-targeted and cross-disciplinary learning. Visual Arts, Design and Technologies, Science, and Critical and Creative Thinking come together as students find out about the history of shadow puppets and silhouette animation, connect with contemporary First Peoples artworks, and work together to create their own light and shadow installations. The program includes a visit to The Story of the Moving Image so students can engage with the featured art and moving image works in the exhibition and discover other thematically-related works such as Taree Mackenzie’s Pepper’s Ghost sculpture and the super-fun Shadow play interactive.

In drawing on exhibition content to share history and context with workshop participants, our education team uses visual thinking strategies to encourage thoughtful engagement with artworks. For instance, Ali Gumillya Baker’s looped video artwork is a satirical commentary on colonialism and the racist colonial gaze. These are complex ideas for young learners but, through observation and reflection, they engage with the artist’s provocation around dominant and alternative histories and perspectives.

We also encourage students to think about the creative process – after all the goal of the workshop is that they build their own light and shadow installations. Each of the works we feature represents a different evocative silhouette technique and one of our favourite moments is when students watch a video of a Wayang puppet performance and then have the opportunity to see and touch one of the intricate and beautiful Wayang puppets that are a cherished part of our Education resource collection.

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Creative collaboration

Having inspired workshop participants with ideas, process and technique, we then challenge them to become light and shadow artists. They work in pairs or small groups to build light and shadow artworks inside small boxes with a shadow screen – they are small theatres. When our light and shadow artists arrive at their stations, they discover a similar but varied collection of lights, revolving plinths, and basic construction materials. They begin by planning the look of their world-inside-a box, exploring visual and design ideas, and experimenting with basic shapes. The artists then add colour and texture, all the time exploring effects through a process of discovery and problem-solving. They are encouraged to be creative and playful and to take their time to experiment by playing with shape, colour, shadow and light.

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Getting into the flow

One of the things that stands out as workshop participants work together to create is the intensity of their focus. Young children typically have a limited capacity for concentrating on a single task, something that we are very aware of, and take into account in our planning and presentation. However, our experience in this workshop has put paid to our assumptions about children’s concentration spans, as we see them completely focused on an activity that combines creative expression, problem-solving and scientific observation. We are also super-impressed with students’ capacity for collaborative creation. What we are seeing is the “flow state” identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where people become so immersed in what they are doing, the experience of ‘doing’ becomes completely satisfying in its own right.

The big reveal

As a consequence, we run this workshop a bit like Masterchef! Like the famous cooking show, we’ve had to incorporate a countdown that readies participants to ‘let go’ of their creation and deliver it into the world. In this case, that means becoming part of a larger group-created artwork where the separate shadow theatres are stacked to become a multi-part installation (as originally conceived by Exploritorium). The effect is such that the whole becomes even greater than the sum of the very beautiful individual parts/artworks created by our student artists. The workshop concludes in an exquisite climax where the students become the audience for their own production – they sit quietly as the lights are dimmed and their work is revealed. We give them the time to experience and reflect on their creation as a group.

We film the installation and share the video file with students so they can show their work to family and friends. However, we imagine no subsequent viewing could ever possibly compare with that initial ‘reveal’. For us in the Education team, there is huge satisfaction in watching participants become completely captivated by the creative process. It is also wonderful to witness how differently each group of students responds to this light and shadow challenge along with the singularity of the final installations that emerge out of this creative collaboration.

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