Amber Bushnell spent one evening on a Missoula street corner wearing a hat made of light. Or, at least, that was the illusion. In reality she had a projector in a case down by her feet, which sent bright colors—a sea creature-like display of purples, pinks, blues and yellows—onto her face and into the brim of the hat. A 3-year-old boy came by and asked her how the hat worked. She told him that she had a magic hat and a magic mirror. He looked skeptical. "Really?" he asked. She nodded. He thought about it. "I don't think so," he said, and walked off.
Bushnell laughs. Some people like the mystery, some prefer the explanation, she says. As a digital artist who creates hand-illustrated animated art projected with light, she isn't inclined to disclose her tricks without a little resistance.
"Although technology has obviously defined my work, I don't want the obsession focused on how it's being done," she says. "But people want to know how things work. If I can avoid a little bit of that obsession with distraction, I can get people to just have a moment of enjoying it."
Bushnell's upcoming First Friday show, Throw Back, is set to create all kinds of distraction. Live DJs will kick out dubstep as Bushnell projects her art inside the small basement gallery of the Top Hat. In past exhibits, Bushnell has pre-planned her installations. This one will be more of a performance, which will sometimes change according to the crowd's wishes. "Most of my art is very calculated and structured, so this is sort of my outlet for being able to improv," she says.
How does this all work? Even when Bushnell opens up her laptop to reveal the secret projection mapping software behind the show, it's still complex enough to the layperson to seem mysterious. Square surfaces on the walls of the gallery will give a 3D illusion when they're hit by light. Some of the projection is programmed to react to whatever DJs Illegitimate Children and Iammusi Shan decide to play. The name "Throw Back" refers to the way the projections will hit mirrors, which will then throw back the light into the faces of the viewer. So, when Bushnell says she encourages viewers to wear sunglasses, she isn't kidding.
Bushnell has been playing with animation for a few years. She got her MFA last year from the University of Montana's new integrated digital media program. She was the only graduate in her class, and the second ever to graduate from the program. Her animation has been exhibited all around town—the former Macy's, Sotto Voce, Missoula Art Museum, on campus, in office building windows—as well as in Brooklyn and Florida. One of her earliest pieces showed in the windows of McGill Hall, where she rigged up several projectors to create the illusion of plant creatures swaying in moonlight. Bushnell sometimes liked to stand nearby to watch people watch her work.
"People pedaled by and did double takes," she says. "One of my professors said, 'I didn't realize those windows existed until [the animations] were up there.' It's that changing of perspective that's really fun."
For her thesis, Bushnell vowed to get her work off campus and immerse herself in Missoula's art community. Last October she joined an art collective called BassFace that performs at the Top Hat and Badlander every week or so, entertaining audiences with DJs, live painters, breakdancers and Bushnell's projections.
She also did a show at Sotto Voce in the spring for First Friday called Beetle Babes for which she did some cultural research.
"I wanted to show a different side to beetles," she says, "that they weren't just these pests and that within several cultures they haven't historically been seen as pests."
She made a brooch from a screen on which an animated beetle flickered about to evoke Victorian days when ladies wore live beetles on pins as jewelry. She printed her beetle designs on M&Ms, cake and apothecary bottles. Images of moving beetles filled the windows. Researching her shows has continued to be a driving force in her work, but more than anything she loves seeing people's reactions, like when she performs at bars or when she stood for hours in her hat full of light.
"I'm not one of those artists who wants to just sit and do my art and say, 'Hey, look this is what I've done,'" she says. "I want to have those live experiences and interactions complete it."
Amber Bushnell's Throw Back happens at the Rock Bottom Gallery at The Top Hat during "family friendly night," Friday, Sept. 2, from 5 to 9 PM. All ages. Bring sunglasses. Free.