Virtual Art, Anchored in Reality: A Conversation on Location-Based AR

Dejan Lukic

Ph.D. in Anthropology, Columbia University; Adjunct professor in Art Criticism at SVA (School of Visual Arts)

Seol Park

MA in American Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art; Independent curator & Founder of Spark Art Management

Keywords: augmented reality, AR, miami, intangible, imagination, digital, virtual, augmentation, public art, installation, richard humann, john kelly, icebergs

In December 2015, large-scale digital art installations were on view in Miami Beach in an outdoor exhibition titled #AUGMENTED [1], showcasing artistic visions taking shape at the intersection of art and technology, physical and digital, and reality and imagination. Dejan Lukic, Ph.D., sat with Seol Park, the curator and producer of the exhibit, to discuss Augmented Reality (AR) as at once a new art-making medium and an environment in which to exhibit artistic content.

DL: In discussing an exhibition, I seldom start by asking about the medium; however, in this case I feel it necessary, as the medium was integral to the viewing experience.

SP: #AUGMENTED was a group exhibition of digital artworks by five international artists––Richard Humann, Carl Skelton, John Kelly, Shuli Sadé, and Chris Manzione––, created for and staged in a relatively new technology environment called “Augmented Reality (AR).”

Unlike “Virtual Reality (VR)” that replaces the real world with a simulated one, AR supplements the camera view of a site with computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, or graphics [2]. The computer-generated artworks in #AUGMENTED were not visible to the naked eye: they emerged on viewers’ smart phones when the exhibition site was seen through an AR app.

DL: What triggers these artworks to come into view, on visitors’ smart phones?

SP: The location. Each artwork was tagged to specific GPS coordinates around the exhibition site, which was a six-block area in North Miami Beach. When you entered the pre-configured radius around an artwork, the AR viewer app would detect and display the artwork in-situ on your mobile phone. The display would reflect your position in relation to the artwork, and you could walk around a piece to experience it from all directions. Commercial applications of this capability have been around. The “Monocle” feature in the popular Yelp mobile app is one example: when user turns on the Monocle feature and looks around an area through the phone camera, information about nearby businesses such as hours, ratings, and coupons pop up on the screen augmenting the actual view of the area. In the case of the exhibition #AUGMENTED, I wanted to augment the site with visual content, as opposed to text-based information.

Another, more commonplace method of delivering AR content is by using graphic image, rather than GPS coordinates, as the trigger. It could be a QR code or a printed poster that users scan using an AR viewer in order to access the augmented content.

Installation view, Exhibition #AUGMENTED, 2015, showing En Plein Air In Plain Sight (partial view), 2015, by John Kelly, Miami, Florida ©Spark Art Management/SPARK+

Exhibition #AUGMENTED (installation view), 2015, showing En Plein Air In Plain Sight (partial view), 2015, by John Kelly, Miami, Florida ©Spark Art Management/SPARK+

Installation view, Exhibition #AUGMENTED, 2015, works from left to right, En Plein Air In Plain Sight (partial view), 2015, by John Kelly, and Urbanotopia AR, 2015, by Shuli Sadé, Miami, Florida ©Spark Art Management/SPARK+

Exhibition #AUGMENTED (Installation view), 2015, works from left to right, En Plein Air In Plain Sight (partial view), 2015, by John Kelly, and Urbanotopia AR, 2015, by Shuli Sadé, Miami, Florida ©Spark Art Management/SPARK+

DL: By choosing to use location as trigger, you were pursuing a degree of site-specificity, then. However, unlike Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, you could reassign the AR pieces from the show to different GPS points and have them travel around the world.

SP: That is correct. ‘Site conscious’ may be more appropriate than ‘site specific.’ Nowadays, the viewing conditions for digital content are usually determined by the ones consuming the content. Here, I wanted to empower artists with the ability to control the physical context in which their respective pieces would be staged. During the conception stage, we looked at the map and the street views of the site together, discussing the optimal installation points and orientations for each piece. Carl Skelton’s Between Futures, for example, ran parallel to Collins Avenue and hovered at the exact same height as the signage lining both sides of Collins. Richard Humann’s Harp of the Giant was installed next to an amphitheater, whose architectural character was echoed by the spiral form of the artwork. It demanded that this digital art be consumed there. Michael Kimmelman, an art writer I greatly admire, has noted that, as the Web and mass media flood everyone with the same images, sufficient appreciation for the virtues of the pilgrimage is being lost, and that, it also resulted in creating a “newly heightened role for the one-of-a-kind encounter.”[3] I hoped to retain such sense of pilgrimage despite dealing with digital art.

DL: To me, Harp of the Giant by Richard Humann stood out for the depth of concept and relevance of expression.

SP: I agree with you. Richard Humann is a Neo conceptual artist based in New York. His work frequently employs words and letters. Harp of the Giant is an original piece he conceived specifically for this exhibition. Never before exposed to the concept of AR, he was quite taken and inspired by its potential and created a deeply contemplative piece.

Installation views, Harp of the Giant (partial), 2015, Richard Humann, AR ©Spark Art Management/SPARK+

Harp of the giant (partial installation views), 2015, Richard Humann, AR ©Spark Art Management/SPARK+

The artwork is shaped like a beanstalk, a reference to the classic tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. The virtual beanstalk is comprised of key words pulled from the tale, spiraling all the way up into the clouds. The scale is monumental, and the words hover in a neat, orderly spiral form, true to the artist’s minimalist inclinations. Such form can exist only in the realm of AR where gravity is not a governing factor. Viewers’ gaze climb the spiral as they follow the narrative, although the words become no longer legible as the spiral disappears into the clouds. Later in the story, after Jack has stolen many items from the Giant that lives in the clouds, he attempts to steal the harp that sings beautiful songs. The harp cries out as Jack takes off, waking the Giant who then chases after Jack. The harp, at once fascinating and dangerous, represents technology, art, music, and humanity. It is a combination of it all. The harp is autonomous, yet at the same time is beholden to its master, the giant.

DL: In that respect, our technological creations, including mobile phones and AR, are double-edged swords that resemble Jack’s beanstalk that tantalizes the curious minds. The mankind is hopelessly attracted to technological advances––we cannot help climbing that beanstalk to see what lies beyond.

SP: Exactly.

DL: Another memorable and visually striking installation was the cluster of icebergs off the beach. Could you expand on this piece?

SP: The cluster, titled En Plein Air In Plain Sight, is by John Kelly. This celebrated Australian artist is known for making quirky, surreal, and critical work in painting, printmaking, and sculpture. En Plein Air In Plain Sight furthers the themes of humorous displacement and monumentality that surface often in his oeuvre.

In 2014, Kelly traveled to Antarctica and painted views of the remote continent en plein air. The entire set of fifty seven paintings is currently traveling the world for institutional exhibitions. For the occasion of #AUGMENTED, Kelly conceived “environmental-scale” sculptural versions of select icebergs based on the most iconic images from his Antarctica paintings, and installed them to float on the ocean. The installation brings to attention that, despite the efforts artists take to capture plein-air views of the nature, when it comes to the curators’ turn to exhibit the work, we seldom think twice before resorting to the conventional way of locking the artworks inside what Kelly calls a ‘padded cell.’ The en-plein-air spirit that was alive at the point-of-creation becomes lost at the point-of-presentation. This AR installation was an act of bringing the subject matter of his paintings back out to the elements and allowing the viewer a chance at experiencing the subject in an expansive real-world backdrop.

DL: Few artists explore landscape art nowadays and very few scholars and critics discuss it outside of a narrow art historical context. Isn’t it considered extinct?

SP: You are right about that. It is considered something belonging to a bygone era. But lo and behold, there was room to innovate upon the subject still.

DL: And I assume the icebergs didn’t melt?

SP: They didn’t.

DL: Aside from the fact artists can conceive artworks free of concerns over certain laws of physics such as temperature and gravity, what are other merits of AR as an artistic medium and as an exhibit-staging environment?

SP: In my mind, an artistic medium is worth exploring not because it’s simply new but when it allows artists to create meaningful visual expressions that are otherwise unachievable. When artists start thinking in the realm of AR, they can conceive artworks in architectural- or even environmental scale, if the concept requires as such. Fabrication, shipping, and assembly become irrelevant, which can be quite liberating. Also, there is considerable flexibility with the content types. Artists can conceive AR content in video, audio, or even animated 3-dimensional figures.

For curators, one important feature of the AR technology environment is the ability to stage digital art without the disturbance of any plaster walls, pedestals, projector screens or hanging wires that are not part of the artwork itself. Harnessing AR could enhance exhibition design of conventional art as well. Virtual to-scale model of Van Gogh’s bedroom, for example, could augment an exhibit of the artist’s paintings. An exhibit of antique musical instruments could be brought to life if augmented with audio files for each instrument.
AR exhibitions can be staged indoors of course, although outdoor staging was without doubt more suitable for #AUGMENTED. During the run of the show, the weather in Miami was uncharacteristically precipitous with sudden showers. It was during the Miami Art Week and many fair-goers complained about the weather, but this exhibit looked fantastic rain or shine, set against the changing light of sky and occasional rainbows.
It also felt good that the production of this exhibition left zero impact on the environment. Not an inch of bubble wrap was involved. Anyone who has seen first-hand the amount of carbon footprint today’s globally nomadic art logistics generate would understand this sentiment.

DL: On the other hand, what were some of the challenges in bringing this exhibition together?

SP: Expertise. It required significant research into AR’s capabilities in its current state. We researched various AR platforms out there, each with different features and levels of sophistication and yet none built with the specific needs of art exhibits in mind, and determined which one could be best repurposed for my vision. Assigning artworks to GPS points and configuring POI(Point-Of-Interest)s for mobile map interface required collaboration with a programmer. Each participating artist went through a learning curve as well.

DL: Speaking of which, I found it intriguing that the artists you showed are not necessarily known to have been “digital” artists. If anything, their practices seem to be anchored more strongly in conventional media. Was that a conscious choice?

SP: Yes. There have been attempts at using AR to present original visual content for a few years by now, most of which were led by digital technology enthusiasts. In conceiving this exhibit, I thought it meaningful to introduce AR to artists outside the circle of early adopters. Conversely, I believed that input from these seasoned practitioners whose artistic rigor had been honed in conventional media could be constructive to the development AR as an artistic medium in the future. The artists I engaged had demonstrated clarity of thought and effective visual expression of it in their past work. I wanted them to bring the same standards to this new medium and the resulting work to be discussed for their artistic merits first and foremost, than simply for the novelty of the medium itself. I also had seen in each of these artists potential to benefit from an encounter with AR. It was most gratifying to observe their imagination expand and stretch through the course of this project.

DL: AR seems to be where photography was during its early stage as an artistic medium. So you are correct in expecting a considerable evolution of the medium. Lastly, what did you hope to convey through this exhibition?

SP: This exhibition brought to attention one trait of the contemporary world we absolutely cannot do without: data. Waves of data surround us at any moment, though invisible to the naked eye. We are reminded of that realm as these artworks, conceived to exist only in the form of data, come into view through the AR app –each work is a visual mnemonic of the data-rich reality that we all live in.

References

  1. Exhibition #AUGMENTED was presented as part of the official programming of THE SATELLITE SHOW, a new-media/performance/installation-oriented art fair that inaugurated in 2015 and was on view in Miami Beach from December 1 through 6, 2015.
  2. Jonathan Steuer,  Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence (Department of Communication, Stanford University, 1993).
  3. Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (Penguin Books, 2005), 176.

Bios

Dejan Lukic is a philosopher, writer, and teacher who addresses issues pertaining to the nature of images and the inescapable convergence of politics and aesthetics. He was trained as an anthropologist, and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2007. He has taught in Reed College (2009-2013), Columbia University (2007-2009), Eugene Lang College, The New School (2008), and Rutgers University (2007-2008). He currently teaches art criticism at School of Visual Arts and Parsons School of Design. | 5Dal.com
Seol Park is an independent art advisor and curator based in New York City. She founded Spark Art Management to serve as a platform for international artist liaison and exhibitions production. Before founding Spark Art Management, she previously worked for Christie’s and The Curator’s Eye online platform. She studied art history and design in Korea, Canada, and the U.S., and earned a Master’s degree in American Art with honors in 2012 from Sotheby’s Institute of Art.
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