Over the last few years, we have been witness to the emergence of the use of the virtual in public space. The manifestation of the virtual and the interplay of it with the real are changing the concept of public space and the perception of art that is now being presented in it. The integration process of the virtual into the real is also clearly affecting the way in which cultural institutions are now presenting and meditating art, as well as how this process is bringing the demand for new and innovate ways to link the virtual to the real GDR Fig 1. Photo of a Banksy graffiti work at the Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem This change to the virtual has its root in the rise of affordable mobile technology and innovative software applications such as LAYAR and Junaio, which have allowed artists to make use of them in new ways. The application mobile technology in the realm of the arts has lead to completely new forms of art and has brought about new ways to consume and mediate it outside of the practices of established platforms such as museums and galleries. Further, artists have also found new solutions in terms of presentation and the ability to position “art” per se as an integral part of the community. The availability of art has increased and is now being consumed by a larger, more diverse audience. New aesthetics have emerged and are still maturing from the mobile arts movement and the way of understanding the arts today for artists, curators, theorists, and arts manager now entails intermediating between the real and the virtual, as well as between the artist and the larger non-museum going public.

Fig 2.  “AR Skywriting” by Will Pappenheimer

What is Augmented Reality Art?

In a similar way to the British graffiti artist, Banksy who in the early 90s’ went beyond the gallery walls by adding a touch of optical integration into street art, artists using Augmented Reality today to virtually place their work in public space can be understood more or less as the technically hip graffiti artists creating the street art of the 21st century. They, like Bansky have re-validated public space as a viable venue for the arts. But what exactly is Augmented Reality and how does it work? In its simplest sense, Augmented Reality enhances a real-world environment with graphics, audio or other stored or generated media. In this way, Augmented Reality is really the art of combining virtual content with physical reality. It can also involve engagement through interactivity and force the viewer into proactive participation in a way yet unknown to the art world.

Lily & Honglei new media art, new media artist from China

Lily & Honglei: Butterfly Lovers augmented reality art

Fig. 3. 2D AR Artwork (“Butterfly Lovers” by Lily & Honglei, Virtuale in Hong Kong 2013 during SIGGRAPH Asia)

Diverse Approaches to AR

AR artists have taken diverse approaches in terms of creating artworks using AR technology and these approaches can be passive or active in terms of interactivity and can include moving or non-moving images in 2D and or 3D. However, the art-object itself is actually of second importance, because the actual context of the artwork and how the visitor “explores” the work plays much more of a decisive role in terms of the artwork’s identity.

Fig. 4. 3D AR Artwork (“Orators” by John Craig Freeman, Virtuale in Hong Kong 2013 during SIGGRAPH Asia)

It is also important to understand that some AR artworks are viewable at only specific locations while others are viewable everywhere. In the opinion of the authors, those artworks that are at fixed locations tend to be of more relevance to the genre, because they stand in a more intimate relationship to the environment that they are placed in, offering a stronger dialog between the work and its locations. Some AR artworks are always facing you, meaning that the spatial relationship between the viewer and the artwork stays in constant relationship, but a few AR Artworks allow you to walk into them, letting the viewer explore them from the inside as well as from the outside.

Fig. 5. AR Artwork that is explored from the inside out (“Funnels” by Will Pappenheimer, No Need for Real Exhibition, Triennial di Milano)

Beyond Virtual Graffiti: Interactivity

Interactivity belongs to a second generation of AR artworks and it is important factor, because its use affects how an AR artwork appears and more so how it redefines the virtual space it is occupying. This type of interaction is unique to the genre and perhaps for the first time in history that the viewer is able to physically explore an artwork in such a way. In “Things We Have Lost” by John Craig Freeman, EEG is used to create interactivity between the viewer and the artwork. The work uses a database of objects that were collected by first asking the people what they’ve lost. These include a broad range of lost items from the usual things such as wallets, watches and money to less usual such as pensions, empires and dodo birds. During viewing, the participants conjure up the virtual objects by simply imagining them into existence using the brainwave sensor technology provided as they walk through the city. With the artwork, “Biomer Skelters” by Will Pappenheimer and Tamiko Thiel, it can be seen that AR has moved from its initial Bansky like beginning to fully interactive mobile artwork. For this work, a tour guide, wearing a heart rate monitor plants indigenous or exotic vegetation as they move through the city. Technically this works as follows.

Fig 6. “Drone” by Will Pappenheimer (Window Zoos Exhibition, DAW Singapore 2013)

The heart rate of each tour guide is picked up and then transmitted via Bluetooth to an Android cell phone. The tour guide starts a custom program and begins walking through the city and the phone begins to vibrate as vegetation is planted. The guide can walk as long as wanted, planting vegetation. In terms of the group being guided, each of its members uses an iPad or a cell phone logged onto the Biomer Skelters Layar from which they can view the creation trail and population of vegetation created by the guide.

From Pleasure to Politics

Works using AR are not only genre works or “art for art” per se. On account of the tools involved, how the artworks use public space, and the connections that can be made between the artwork and space, they are able to pick up on make diverse statements, become integral parts of missions (such as Sustainability) and take on diverse forms of representations and communication. The international arts group ManifestAr is a collective of artists working in diverse ways with the technology, but who as a group have been exhibiting worldwide. Their manifest gives some insight into to possible roles of AR artworks: ”Augmented Reality is a new Form of Art, but it is Anti-Art. It is Primitive, which amplifies its Viral Potency. It is Bad Painting challenging the definition of Good Painting. It shows up in the Wrong Places. It Takes the Stage without permission. It is Relational Conceptual Art that Self-Actualizes”.

Read more on Tafter Journal N. 66, December 2013