Image source: www.sndrv.nl
Written by Yong Kim
“You can’t touch that, sir!” That’s what the security guard would say if I were to reach out my hand to touch the art at any museum. I have to keep a “safe distance,” creating a physical space between me and the artwork, a gap, a void, the no man’s land between the artwork and me. I want to touch the artwork so I could absorb more than just its visage. But there’s that space. It’s not really the artwork itself I wish to touch, nor the physical space I wish to cross. I just want to narrow the emotional distance I feel between me and the artwork. I’ve always had to quell that urge to touch the art, put my hands in my pockets and just accept that distance–until now.
Since the launch of Vodule, I’ve been watching technology (specifically augmented reality) fill that void, or at least reduce it, even redefine it, as Internet art did back in the nineties. Just as Internet art was a continuation of the evolution of questioning and redefining the space between art and its audience, augmented reality art furthers that quest, though much of the ideas behind AR had been foreseen by artists such as Jeffrey Shaw in the nineties with works like The Virtual Museum. That space still exists (I imagine it always will), but at least I have the freedom now to interact with the artwork in the physical world, thereby instilling a sense of connection using augmented reality’s boundless capabilities as a virtual prosthetic, which I can use to finally “touch” the art beyond the computer screen. Just to go looking for the pieces of an AR exhibit initiates an interaction, shrinking that space of no man’s land.
Image source: Mashable
My desire for interaction has always attracted me to Internet art. Given the choice between going to the Getty or interacting with art online, I am likely to stay home and surf art on the Web. I prefer the fun of a project like Google Sloppy over what I’ve heard some people refer to as “real art.” Google Sloppy is a creation of Yuin Chien, an MFA candidate at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. I discovered Google Sloppy accidentally while multi-tasking online; and what a find it was, almost serendipitous. I put everything I was doing on hold to play around with it. The premise was amusing enough–a lazy and inaccurate counterpart to Google, a humanistic version that yawns, makes mistakes and has malfunctioning parts–but as I interacted with it, I regressed to my teenage years, back to when I used to make mixed tapes without the benefit of a mixer.
All I had was my cassette recorder and turntable. I’d pause recording in the middle of a Beastie Boys song; un-pause to sample a snippet from Malcolm McLaren; then cut to another song, which was probably something like “The Safety Dance” (it was the ‘80s and I was only 13). Between pausing, replacing the record, finding the part I had in mind, playing the cut I’d made to make sure it was just right before I moved on to the next cut, it would take me 30 minutes just to create a 5-minute mix. I’d spend all night creating such mixes. I never played them for anyone. That wasn’t the point. Not knowing how to play an instrument (never had the discipline to learn one), these tapes were my little musical creations, for my own consumption only. Google Sloppy took me right back to that state of mind. I entered “Bruce Lee” to see what “mistakes” it would make. I got back results for “Buce Lee,” which actually produced the same results I got when I opened a Google session and searched for “Bruce Lee.” After entering countless terms to see how it was purposefully misspelling the terms I’d entered, I intentionally entered misspelled words in an attempt to trick it into searching for the correct term, or something close (as it happened with “Buce Lee”). I was unsuccessful.
This is my kind of art, the level of interactivity I enjoy. And until recent times I was only able to find such works online, sometimes at a new media art show. But with the growing popularity of smart phones and augmented reality (a technology which adds a layer of data–be it text, pictures, graphics or even animation–on the phone’s screen, over the real space that’s being captured live by the phone’s camera), I can now step away from my computer to have such fun with art in museums and even out in the street.
Starting with MoMA in New York, augmented reality art has been spreading, in museums and beyond. Without MoMA’s knowledge (that’s the story and, whether that’s true or not, I’m perfectly willing to play along), Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek staged an augmented reality art invasion/opening at MoMA NYC. Those who were aware of the invasion walked around pointing their smart phones, as if on a virtual Easter hunt. When they found the hidden AR artworks, the pieces displayed in the phones’ screens over the museum space. “Veenhof and Skwarek used the event to raise questions about the impact of AR on public and private spaces, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the frontiers of new media art. ” (quote source: www.museumnext.org) The invitation to the AR invasion said that augmented reality “technology allows anyone to (re-)shape anything, anywhere!” (quote source: www.sndrv.nl) Presumably, the anything includes the artwork itself; and I love that because augmented reality applied to art introduces the mixed tape factor to physical spaces and art, a personalization I’ve never experienced with art beyond my computer screen. As for the anywhere part, Breadboard launched an augmented reality art exhibit throughout Philadelphia back in October of 2010. This is significant because augmented reality “is certainly going to crash through our lives through commerce and advertising…[but] there’s an organization that exists now and is using this technology and exploring creative and artistic aspects.” (quote source: Technically Philly)
Image source: psfk
Breadboard’s AR art exhibit is not really a new concept, though. It is a technological version, or an updating, of a medium: street art, specifically the ones by London-based artists Slinkachu and Isaac Cordal. Whereas Breadboard’s exhibit places floating discs around the city, to be caught by smart phones, Slinkachu and Cordal “have been (independently) installing tiny dioramas in cities around the world, taking photographs – then leaving their work to be kicked or ignored or taken away.” (quote source: psfk) Though they have been preserved in photographs, I enjoy the general attitude of temporary existence conveyed by these miniature pieces of street art (like the one pictured above). Where a street AR exhibit and physical street artworks such as the ones by Slinkachu and Cordal differ is their context. I could’ve inadvertently stepped on Slinkachu and Cordal’s works and gone about my day without ever even knowing that I’d interacted with a piece of artwork.
The physical artwork is not placed for intentional consumption by people passing by. But Breadboard’s AR exhibit requires an awareness that artwork is out there to be searched for, although one could accidentally come across them while using a smart phone to get directions or find a restaurant. The main difference for me, however, is that Slinkachu and Cordal’s works will be viewed through photos, which means, once again, there’s that distance. But an AR art exhibit out in the wild provides a level of interactivity, that touch I’ve always craved, which I only used to get through Internet art. Even though art which invites interaction didn’t begin with Internet art, nor the concept of questioning the space of no man’s land, Internet art was the first medium that made me feel comfortable enough to “touch” the art, felt invited to contribute and create my version of it (even if that version is only fleeting), my mixed tape of art. AR art takes me away from my computer and puts me in the wild, in its environment. This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned Internet art, which will continue to evolve and become even more expressive as the Internet technology (and technology, in general) advance. Plus, there’s a whole new remixed medium: Internet TV. AR art is simply a welcome addition, a significant one. With Internet speed and technology for mobile devices advancing so rapidly, as AR and Internet art converge on smart phones and tablets, the potential for fun will increase exponentially–infinity times infinity.
Of course there are skeptics:
Tristan Gooley, author of Natural Navigator, told a BBC Radio 4 programme that despite our best intentions technology too often ‘gets between us and the experience’. His comments came in a discussion about the forthcoming mobile app from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, so in this case Gooley was referring to the experience of viewing the natural world unmediated by a screen. However, similar objections could be raised in relation to objects in a museum exhibition. (quote source: www.museumnext.org)
Not everyone agrees with Tristan Gooley. Conceptual artist Amir Baradaran applied AR technology to a classic piece of art, perhaps the most famous painting. He used the Mona Lisa and a smart phone AR app, Frenchising Mona Lisa, to make a new statement:
The artist says he’s using banal means and short-form animation to make a grand gesture. “I wanted to compare one emblem of Frenchness to the other emblem of Frenchness: the dress code,” says the artist. (quote source: artinamericamagazine.com)
In the case with Frenchising Mona Lisa, not only does AR not get in the way of the experience, it is the experience. It mixes canonical physical art with AR technology to create a new dynamic between physical art, technology and the viewer. The experience is a portable one. Once the app has been downloaded to a smart phone, that device can now be pointed at any Mona Lisa (the original or a copy) to experience Baradaran’s statement. In a similar vain (minus the portability), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts used augmented reality in their Picasso exhibit. Keith Cartwright, the group director of the agency responsible for promoting the Picasso exhibit, said “We started thinking about Picasso and how progressive he was as an artist and it made sense to use technology.” (quote source: Mashable) Whether Picasso would’ve agreed with Mr. Cartwright isn’t the point here. The basic argument against using a technology like AR would be that it distracts from the art itself, and thereby the experience of it, that a painter, for example, would want people to experience the paintings, not spend their time staring at the screens of their phones.
But, it could also be argued that the paintings could be enhanced by or mixed with AR technology. I enjoy AR in art because it gives me a choice. If someone wants only to enjoy the artwork without its AR enhancement, then she could always choose not to use the technology. Even if AR isn’t used to enhance or add to the artwork itself, the technology could still be used to provide information about the artwork, in which case the viewer will put down the phone after absorbing the information and enjoy the piece she just learned about. Perhaps the most important use of AR technology is that it “can liberate objects too. The Stedelijk Museum’s head of collections Margriet Schavemaker noted…that objects in a museum collection are permanently removed from their original contexts and placed instead inside a ‘white cube’. But AR has the power to return them. In theory, the collection of the ‘augmented museum’ could be geographically and spatially boundless, with objects appearing at relevant locations in the real-world by using an AR overlay.” (quote source:www.museumnext.org)
Image source: NY Times
Select museums around the world (Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, for example) have already implemented AR to enhance the experience of the whole museum itself. Visitors of one of these museums could download the implemented AR app and have a virtual tour guide with them in their phones, point their phones around the museum space to reveal how the space looked at a given era, view hidden digital artwork in addition to the physical art, and more. (information source: NY Times) Rejecting AR technology while visiting one of these museums would be to deny oneself of the full experience.
For me, though, using AR as a virtual tour guide and to display some hidden images isn’t very exciting. I want more innovative uses of AR in art, like Sander Veenhof’s Biggar, the world’s largest “interactive AR sculpture which grows one virtual meter a day out into the universe and has been viewed in over 100 countries. It covers the earth with 7,463,185,678 virtual blocks whose color you can change in their entirety using the Layar app on your smartphone.” (quote source: The Creators Project). Not only is Biggar interactive, it redefines the space between art and the rest of the world.
Even most AR art function within the bounds of traditional dynamic between artwork and its viewer, meaning the art exists in the direction of the gaze (or rather where the smart phone is pointed). But Biggar surrounds us, engulfs us, whether we know it or not, whether we’d like it or not. The phone can be pointed in any direction to display it, but the screen only displays a small part of it. We have to be content with knowing that we can never get a full view of the artwork, which is continually growing. We are immersed in the art and can’t step back from it. Those who are aware of it can interact with it. The rest move about within it, unaware of what’s going on around them. The allegorical implications of Biggar are endless, just like the potential for AR art in the future.
AR artist Helen Papagiannis sees AR art “as a medium in its infancy, likening it to the beginning of film when Georges Méliès was wowing audiences with nothing more than the locomotion of a train, so too do AR exhibits look rudimentary.” (quote source: The Creators Project) As a rather jaded moviegoer who too often has come out of theaters saying “yeah, yeah, yeah, the special effects looked really cool and realistic, the direction was superb, the acting was… blah blah blah… whatever!,” I have sometimes envied Méliès’s audience, how wondrous it must have been to be part of the generation which witnessed the birth of a medium like film, to feel the excitement that must’ve radiated from theaters of that era. But now I get to witness the beginning of a similarly revolutionary medium: augmented reality art.