Artist and Associate Professor, Art Department, Pace University, New York
Bufo Virtanus Heroicus Sublimis, 2010, Will Pappenheimer, John Craig Freeman, Virtaflaneurazine, screenshot collage of giant virtual toad legs protruding through a Barnett Newman painting during the 2010 “We AR in MOMA” intervention by Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek.
“At about 8 am on a beach near the Los Angeles International Airport, I fired several shots with a pistol at a Boeing 747.”
Los Angeles, California, USA; January 5, 1973.
The question, “Is augmented reality the next medium?” was the focus of a panel discussion surrounding a recent exhibition “Gimme More” at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York. The title of the exhibition suggests that augmented reality (AR) promotes the need for something more than what is already physically present in the visible world. Some of the participants queried: Why does technology always need something more? Why do we need fake virtual objects mediating between our environment and us? Are we not already sufficiently preoccupied with our electronic media and rapidly loosing touch with the corporeal world?
While pertinent, these questions are related to the physical (real) world and its representation, about mimesis, and about the natural and the artificial, and conflate a host of philosophical and media inquiries which have been debated from various perspectives over the course of Western civilization. The panel’s concerns could similarly apply to a great painting, a film or other media – and perhaps to all of literature – regarding the ability to present a concentrated vision or experience that might diminish reality, or the self, as a unique and embodied individual.
I address this issue with the comment: Reality is always already augmented. Consider for example, that every experience is augmented by memory, by identity or by imagination. A site on a mountainside is potent with stories, the collective grid of human mapping, or the possible presence of gods. In other words, any investigation of how we perceive or represent ‘reality’ reveals the many ways in which we personally and socially augment the world around us, with or without media. As artists, our interest is often to shift these augmentations or to provide new ones.
The AR experience is, in fact, a step towards the embodiment of the virtual. You pick up your smart phone; you look through the thin panel between you and the ‘real’ world in front of you; the panel and the world align; an object appears hovering in the foreground; you walk around looking for more objects; up, down, they are all around you. At the same time as your phone is a live viewer, it is also a vital conduit through which you connect to your shared social network, in addition to a plethora of virtual public realms.
Now, having put forth this ideal AR proposition, I acknowledge that proliferating mediations accelerating in the current technological world, are also profoundly problematic. As with any medium, contradictions are always at work.
I became interested in mobile AR two and a half years ago, not as a new technological gimmick to improve physical space, but rather to explore it as an alternative or interstitial space. The first event into which I was drawn, was an ingenious idea created by artists Mark Skwarek and Sander Veenhof to create an unannounced AR exhibition within MoMA  coinciding with its six floors in November of 2010. This institutional art intervention – however crudely carried out – suggested both the capabilities of the medium to transgress a highly fixed social structure, and introduced a wide open parallel artistic space particular to the trajectories of digital media. It also solidly built on Duchamp’s challenge to art as purely a physical category. The project also gave participants an empowering and limitless invitation to envision just what they would do with MoMA if the museum’s curation was open to participation.
The medium of mobile AR was, and still is, quite primitive. It cannot deliver a perfect seamless overlay. At times, AR powerfully integrates virtual objects into one’s surroundings, and at others these objects seem simplistically digitally fabricated, loosely anchored to an environment. The experience can seem glitched, with elements at times thrown off by the inconsistencies of GPS and bandwidth reception. However, these initial ‘failures’ of the medium importantly reveal its construction, and prevent an overreaching projection of a futuristic techno-utopia. While the medium is fast improving, its crude early form appeals to the strength of artworks that have a strong conceptual basis. In spite of its shortcomings as a medium, AR utilizes GPS location, network transmission, smart phone reception, and full-bodied motions to provide a sense of ontological presence which has yet to be fully theorized.
Furthermore, this early stage of the medium represents a rare critical opportunity for an artist to explore an uncharted media space before it is successfully commercialized. It is a ‘Portapak video moment’ for an interstitial virtual medium, filled with possibilities and an uncertain future. There are several different kinds of augmented reality content generation. A considerable amount is devoted to marker or image recognition, which launches and tracks media based on image and motion detection. This method has taken more of a salient turn since it can be launched from magazine or product shapes or surfaces.
However, what has interested me most has been the GPS-located form of the medium. It is the site-specificity of the artworks that gives them significance, as well as a peculiar independent sense of being. This presence is not unlike the notion of the “Internet of Things” in that it extends from and is part of everything that has been socially and technologically invested in the Internet. Moreover, it comes to us through the mobile phone or PC, which is arguably one of the most pervasive prostheses of the contemporary individual, at least for the growing numbers that can acquire these devices. Reception (or perception) of location-based augmented reality content is a shared experience through free downloadable browsers such as Layar and Junaio. This feature’s vital attribute is the way in which it infers a coexistent public space, and one, which at least for now, is largely without any restrictions of content and property. The analog of GPS-based AR is perhaps sculpture, and in the sense that it can be placed in public spaces, it is an emergent form of virtual public art. As such, it suggests that physical space is now intimately layered with virtual and network space.
Shortly after the MoMA exhibition, entitled, “We AR in MoMA,”  in early 2011, a few international participants, myself included, assembled to form an open-ended group entitled Manifest.AR.  Adopting, amongst other strategies, a DADAist approach, we wrote a hasty helter-skelter manifesto.  Given the possibilities of creating works for limitless sites and spaces, we also shared a common interest in intervention, that is, a consciousness of entering sites and events with an interest in altering, at least via virtual inference, existing meanings embedded in physicality. While many of the artworks we have created since, envision a playful or perhaps surreal parallel universe of possibilities, much of our work addresses, at least as an undercurrent, a set of existent problems and their trajectories located in the ‘real’ world as a cultural, technological or political ‘situation.’
In this approach, some works re-manifest virtual cultural memory such as the casualties of war or cultural conflict. Others displace or disseminate signs of resistance or injustice to global sites considered to be linked or antithetical to these issues. Still others populate and transform specific institutions with invasive nonsensical animal life or digital paraphernalia, calling into question the status, iconography or ‘use value’ of the location. Ecological futures or disasters have been visualized locally and distantly, with a particular interest in sites considered to be impervious to this consciousness. Reverse strategies to adding or augmenting reality are embedded in approaches known as ‘diminished reality,’ that is, the erasing of significant elements of the surroundings, as if with ease of a Photoshop maneuver, suggesting grave consequences. If some of these works have an implied or even overt political activist sensibility, they might be understood as a form of virtual agitprop, that is, conjectural objects, present in some form, which challenge the politics of a given location. Their value is not to supplant political action, but rather to become an irritant by existing at exactly the locations where they are meant to be repressed. This manifests, if you will, the hacking of physical space.
AR interventions or artworks related to global events or potent locations that require placing objects at the relevant GPS site coordinates, are often ‘performed’ by endeavoring to have participants at the actual site record screenshots or video of the work in place. The screenshot or the video of an AR element on location functions in this practice as both “the decisive moment” (Henri Cartier-Bresson) and the proof that the work was there, even if its existence within traditional paradigms is not yet defined. The placement or dissemination of works at specific distant global sites, some of which might be hazardous to visit, bears resemblance at times to land art works of the 1960s, which attempted to alter remote physical landscapes, bringing back for the artworld the photograph of the work in place and inviting the audience to make a ‘pilgrimage’ to see the work. Another analogy might be that of city graffiti art of the 1980s onwards, as it illicitly ‘intervened’ into cityspace, often at significant physical risk. The practice of this type of mobile AR media is a very outdoor exercise. Once objects are created in 3-D and mapped through the computer studio, they need to be aligned on-site. This is a process that often involves many excursions, travel to distant lands, and sometimes difficult weather conditions.
The idea that the medium has no scale restrictions also allows for the envisioning of large-scale projects such as landscape alteration, cityscape or architectural modification and global sized virtual sculpture. In this sense it can take on a Fluxus prescriptive poetic, but then, in this case, proceeds to carry out the vision virtually.
|TUNAFISH SANDWICH PIECE Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time. Let them shine for one hour. Then, let them gradually melt into the sky. Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.1964 spring Yoko Ono|
Finally, mobile AR can also be set up to invite participation, such that the audience can affect the addition of AR content and ultimately, artwork co-construction. If some of these works take on a utopic aura, suggesting physically limitless possibilities for a technologically augmented world, projections are often posited and implemented in AR as a reparative gesture for current problematic conditions. There is an implied dystopian undercurrent that the technology could, but probably cannot solve. So for my purposes, as well as for many of the members of Manifest.AR, the medium takes on, at least for now, a precious critical space.
1. “We AR in MoMA,” Mark Skwarek and Sander Veenhof, intervention staged for the Conflux Festival, October 9, 2010
3. Manifest.AR collective, http://manifestarblog.wordpress.com/, founding members: Mark Skwarek (US), Sander Veenhof (NL), Tamiko Thiel (US,JP,DE), Will Pappenheimer (US), John Craig Freeman (US), Christopher Manzione, (US), Geoffrey Alan Rhodes (US), and John Cleater (US).
4. Manifest.AR manifesto, “The AR Art Manifesto,” January 25th, 2011 http://www.manifestar.info/
Will Pappenheimer is an artist, and professor at Pace University, New York. He has exhibited internationally at the ICA, Boston; Fringe Exhibitions, LA; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Exit Art, Postmasters, and DUMBO Arts Festival in New York; LACMA, Los Angeles; FACT in Liverpool, UK and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
Sky Petition City, 2013, Will Pappenheimer / Zachary Brady, augmented reality visualization for upcoming exhibition, “Manifest: AR,” Gallery 31, Corcoran Gallery of Art, opening August 15, 2013.