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In July, the US tech giant Apple announced that it had entered into a novel collaboration with the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York to produce a number of augmented reality installations. The New Museum, as the gallery is more commonly referred to, has been at the avant-garde of museum innovation since it first opened its doors in 1977 and its latest teamwork with Apple is very much in its established tradition. Apple said that it had got involved with the New Museum as a means of showcasing what their technology can do for the museum and gallery sectors in terms of public engagement.
The project involves a number of augmented reality (AR) virtual installations which are focussed on creativity and visual interpretations of the world. Appropriately named as the [AR]T project, it will feature at Apple Stores around the globe as well as at the New Museum itself. There are three new installations under the [AR]T programme which includes works by some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. To create the virtual artwork, Apple asked the New Museum to choose seven artists to come up with their own take on what their AR vision could look like. Nick Cave, well-known for his musical career as well as his visual art, was among the seven as was Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg. The other contributors were Cao Fei, a Chinese multimedia artist born in Guangzhou, Carsten Höller, John Giorno and Pipilotti Rist. Each was known for their use of technology in some way as well as their creative approach to producing their artworks in new ways.
According to the New Museum’s director, Lisa Phillips, the gallery has always led the way at the intersection between technology and visual creativity. “The New Museum… could not have asked for a better partner in Apple to support these pioneering artists’ fantastic visions,” she said. “AR is a medium that is ripe for visual storytelling that can extend artistic work beyond the gallery and into the urban fabric.”
Phillips went on to add that gallery’s artistic director, Massimiliano Gioni, had been given the task of selecting the participating artists. Each had to demonstrate artistic practices that lent themselves the sort of new technology that would be used. In addition, the artists needed to be able to produce work that was relatively accessible to newcomers. This was because the AR[T] initiative is part of a wider educational programme in which Apple intends to provide free classes where the public can learn the essentials of coding their own experiences in AR. Gioni’s task was, therefore, not a simple matter of choosing artists who could use AR tools but finding those who could make something genuinely engaging with it.
Apple’s senior executives were no less enthusiastic about the prospects for the wider engagement the project might engender. Deirdre O’Brien, the senior vice president of Retail and People at Apple said that [AR]T offers the public a window into the creative arts in a new way that is only possible thanks to their products and customers. “We hope that visitors will be inspired by the incredible AR creations in the [AR]T project,” she added.
The co-curation – and co-branding, in some aspects of the project – has obvious dividends for both Apple and the New Museum. The way the project will work, when it is launched in mid-August, is that anyone with a suitable Apple device will be able to view the artwork of Cave, Rist and the others through its screen. What they will see will be an experiential walk. When in the right location, the AR technology will kick in to show the artworks created by the creative team just as though it were really there.
Anyone wanting to view the pieces will go on a walk in real space but be able to see the creations of the artist as they head through San Francisco, New York, London and Paris. Further virtual artworks derived from AR software will also be available in Hong Kong and Tokyo. In the main, the AR will show new visions of public space reimagined as if large public artworks had been installed there. For example, it will be possible to see the same virtual artworks in Trafalgar Square in London or the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. In New York, the much-visited Grand Army Plaza in Central Park will serve as the real location for the virtual artworks.
By utilising AR technology, the artists have been able to invent novel ways to express some of the core themes of their previous work. For example, Rist developed a piece called ‘International Liquid Finger Prayer’ which bounces in a somewhat intangible form that encourages viewers to keep moving on to try and capture the entirety of his work’s shimmering form. Giorno’s piece is called ‘Now at the Dawn of My Life’. In it, the American poet and performance artist has generated an AR rainbow journey which includes many of his well-known pearls of wisdom along the way. Meanwhile, ‘Through’, which is the name of Höller’s contribution, takes viewers on an entirely different path. The German artist’s vision is much more conceptual and takes participants through a portal into a recognisable version of reality, only one which has no perspective to speak of.
Crucially, each of the artists involved in the [AR]T project has adapted their AR vision to fit in with the surroundings of each of the cities involved. Sometimes, their work will seem to be floating above Central Park and sometimes it will be tucked away in a corner of Trafalgar Square. This means that the experience will be different for viewers and, even if a work has been curated for a single city, then it will inevitably look a little different each time it is viewed. This is because the background of the real world, which the AR artwork is interacting with, is always changing in some way. It is this constant flux in light and atmosphere that makes viewing artworks via AR technology so unique. This is definitely not a virtual gallery with photos of artworks that viewers can swipe their way through. It is a viewing experience in its own right.
This idea of the project being something that does not augment the artworks available in public spaces already – or the contemporary artworks on show in the New Museum, for that matter – but which stands alone is borne out by the staff at the gallery. Karen Wong, the New Museum’s deputy director, said that the entire initiative was conceived to produce a new form of artwork for public consumption. According to Wong, the artists involved were intrigued by the creative possibilities of AR but they were even more excited to explore a new medium which could possibly be the future for the way in which galleries – and visual artists themselves – interact with the viewing public.
For its part, Apple plans to offer 90-minute [AR]T Lab sessions without charge to its customers at its stores. Using the [AR]T AR pieces as a springboard, these sessions will be available at most of its stores and allow for a hands-on experience with educators in AR to create smaller, but no less creative, versions of virtual artistry with nothing more than digital technology. Alternatively, Apple customers will be able to try the art-making technology out for themselves at home by downloading their Swift Playgrounds app. Whether or not the public comes up with artwork to match that of the seven big names involved in the [AR]T project remains to be seen, however.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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