AR in the Art World, from the Omi Sculpture Park to a 9/11 Memorial

[From ArtInfo, where the story includes other images and a short video]


How Augmented Reality Is Going Viral in the Art World, From the Omi Sculpture Park to a 9/11 Memorial

By Kyle Chayka
Published: August 31, 2011

Right under our noses, or perhaps under our fingertips, a new art medium has been springing up. Augmented Reality (AR) refers to smartphone, tablet, and computer applications that mix the real with the digital, using mobile devices’ built-in cameras to take an image of a user’s physical surroundings, and adding in digital graphics or information on the viewing screen (it’s important to note that this differs from “virtual reality,” as AR depends on a physical environment to function). The concept is simple: download the appropriate application, point your iPhone, and the environment, as glimpsed through the screen, appears to be “augmented” with virtual works of art. An ordinary space becomes extraordinary through digital wizardry.

The aesthetic potential of such applications is obvious, and as a medium for art, AR has been gaining in mainstream appeal as ever more art-lovers adopt the appropriate technology. From public art installations to advertising initiatives, AR is everywhere. Few AR artworks have met with critical acclaim — but that may be changing with the latest generation of virtual art.

Want to catch a glimpse of augmented reality work, but lack the necessary tools to experience it? The Museum of Modern Art’s ongoing “Talk to Me” exhibition highlights a few AR projects. First, check out Dentsu London and BERG’s “Suwappu,” a collection of cute plastic toys that appear surrounded by different cartoon environments when viewed in AR. A fish figurine, when pictured in a computer screen, seems to be surrounded by a pool of water; a deer, a small animated woodland. In this case, AR is used to create a narrative, with interactive toys coming alive when placed in a virtual space.

Perhaps the most visible — and most commercial — AR art project has come in the form of an advertising campaign for middling beer brand Beck’s. Taking a cue from Intel and Vice’s art-and-tech Creators Project initiative, Beck’s is pushing into the world of avant-garde technology and art with its Green Box Project, which has the aim of establishing “the first ever Augmented Reality Gallery across major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Rome, and Milan.” The project kicked off with “Rock Strangers,” a 200-foot-tall virtual sculpture that resembles a glitchy, polygon flame rising out of the Statue of Liberty’s torch, conceived by Belgian artist Arnes Quinze. Beck’s will go on to fund and stage “around 1,000” artworks from artists including Bompas & Parr, Andrew Kuo, and Hussein Chalayan, visible only through iPhones, Android phones, and iPads equipped with the special Beck’s Green Box Project app.

Engaging similar ideas of public art, the Hudson Valley’s Omi International Arts Center sculpture park has created a more austere, critically-considered exhibition of augmented reality work in a new permanent show called “Augmented Reality: Peeling Layers of Space Out of Thin Air” (just featured in the Wall Street Journal). Curated by architect John Cleater, the exhibition features AR work by artists and architects including Daniel Libeskind and Vito Acconci. Libeskind contributes a virtual analog to his angular buildings with a piece made up of spikes of gray polygonal surfaces protruding from the ground in a structure that, though digital, looks towering and massive. Where work like Libeskind’s differs from both the AR work in “Talk to Me” and the flashy gimmickry of Beck’s Green Box Project is in its purely artistic intent. The virtual architecture on view here is not meant as product placement or advertising vehicle; it’s not even meant as functional. It is simply an exercise in experimental sculpture, albeit sculpture that exists in a reality just removed from our own, visible only through the window of a computer screen.

Finally, the “110 Stories” project by Brian August uses augmented reality to create a public monument invested with the memories of those impacted by 9/11. The free application (which was crowdfunded through Kickstarter, incidentally) will render the missing silhouette of the World Trade Center as seen from anywhere in the city, and allow users to take a picture of the simulated towers, add their own comments and stories, and share them on a Web site. The emotional and physical aspects to this project easily surpass the abstract nature of its medium; in this way “110 Stories” seems to point a way forward for augmented reality applications that truly shift and interact with their physical contexts in a way that no ordinary sculpture could.


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