The High Line, a public park in New York City that occupies the site of a former raised railroad, and The Shed, a cultural centre in Manhattan, have collaborated to produce a sculpture hunt the public can explore. The difference? This sculptural exhibition is only possible to see virtually through the lens of augmented reality (AR).
By downloading an app developed by a London-based digital-art developer known as Acute Art, anyone can walk through the High Line and point their device at one of the locations where the AR art is installed. The app will then read a QR code that is physically displayed at one of these sites and reveal digital art in its place. By looking at the screen, the background will appear as it really is, with other visitors walking around and so on. However, the code will activate a digital sculpture designed to appear on screen, too, as though it were there in real life. In short, the technology superimposes the art onto the surroundings. As you move your device, so the AR image also twists and turns in virtual three-dimensions as if it were really there.
Smart Technology and Hidden Realities
All that is needed for the AR art show to work is a smart device with a camera and sufficient space to store the app. This means that no virtual reality headsets and so on are required to enjoy the sculptures and to enjoy them from multiple angles. The idea is that visitors to the public park will have fun seeking out the locations of the QR codes and also get to know the High Line better in the process. That said, since the Shed is behind much of the thinking behind the project, it will come as little surprise that the majority of the virtual art that is on display is to be found in the vicinity of the plaza where the Shed is located, close to the Lincoln Tunnel on the Lower West Side of Manhattan Island.
Although the idea of hunting for virtual art might seem like the project is a bit gimmicky, the show – named The Looking Glass – has higher ambitions. Yes, the technology involved has been used for games in the past – such as the phenomenally successful Pokemon Go! – but it is the quality of the virtual art on offer that makes this outdoor exhibition different. Some interesting artists have created digital sculptures specifically for the show, one that echoes a similar installation that was staged last year on London’s South Bank.
Experienced Curation and Diverse Pieces
Along with the Shed and the High Line, Daniel Birnbaum – who had been involved in the curation of the London show – was chosen to work on choosing the digital works of art and their creators. Birnbaum was a distinguished curator who worked at the Moderna Museet in Sweden before he left to help run Acute Art. Indeed, he had already shown the possibilities that AR technology and art could offer. Birnbaum had been instrumental in bringing Unreal City, as the aforementioned digital art exhibition in the UK’s capital was named, to fruition. According to the Swedish curator, the fact that the sculptures are not really there means that they are hidden in some way which brings about a certain charm in discovering them.
It is this alternate sense of reality that accounts for the name of the virtual exhibition, too. The Looking Glass is a reference to the follow-up novel Lewis Carroll wrote after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Birnbaum and the others in the creative team have tried to evoke the same sort of mysteriousness and hidden reality. In the book, Alice goes through a mirror, or looking glass, whereas the art show encourages people to look through the glass of their device’s screen to see what is there, normally hidden from view. Emma Enderby, the Shed’s chief curator, said that the smartphone constitutes today’s rabbit hole, the thing we are drawn into and where strange and undiscovered worlds may await.
Birnbaum brought respected artists like Olafur Eliasson and Nina Chanel on board along with the likes of KAWS, Koo Jeong A and Julie Curtiss. Precious Okoyomon, the 2021 Frieze Artist Award winner, was also recruited to produce some AR art for the project. Interestingly, some of the artworks that the team produced were more like traditional sculptures insofar as they remain static. Others, however, alter subtly over time and some even feature sounds as a part of the viewer’s experience. Of course, all this is possible in an augmented reality world where imagination is the only true limit to what public sculpture can be. Each digital piece is unique and can only be seen in its intended location until the end of August 2021.
Commercial Possibilities and Creative Opportunities
Acute Art was keen to point out that its contribution to the show – both technical and curatorial – was done so on a not-for-profit basis. That said, the British firm has some financial backers in Sweden who are only too aware of the potential for favourable commercial outcomes down the line. For example, Acute Art has been involved with AR pieces for big brand names in the past, such as Chanel and BMW.
Nevertheless, Birnbaum told the New York press that up to this point his firm had not yet fully monetised its technology or processes. However, given the recent upsurge in interest in digital art – especially ownership of virtual artworks through non-fungible tokens and blockchain technology – it may only be a matter of time before both the co-branding opportunities of AR art, as well as the way people value it in its own right, will start to generate significant income streams for technology providers and digital artists alike.
About the author – Manuel Charr
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.