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The Artist is Prescient: Relational Aesthetics and Augmented Reality

Amir Baradaran. "FutARism Performance," 2011.

Amir Baradaran, "FutARism Performance," 2011. Benrimon Contemporary (NYC). Courtesy the artist.

This entry takes up where I left off last December, when I documented my encounter with electronics artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer who lectured at the High Museum of Art (Atlanta) about art that engages in “the realm of social interaction and content.”  Since then, I successfully completed my first year in a digital media Ph.D program and I continue to cover emerging contemporary artistic practices in the social realm.  Writing posts about socially-engaged and paradoxical art in popular culture led me into the topic of mobile augmented reality (defined below). The AR movement at first may seem like a novelty, but a closer look reveals interdisciplinary perspectives that involve aesthetic explorations of blended realities as a new kind of artistic practice and cultural space.

"Augmented Reality: Rogue Art Exhibition" at MoMA. Photo:

Augmented reality is becoming more accessible and new uses continue to emerge as tools for creating and customizing applications become easier to use.  The layering of information over 3D space produces new ways to experience content that is fueling the broader migration of computing from the desktop to the mobile device, bringing with it opportunities for broader user dynamic engagement with social media.  Artists and other users are being encouraged to view their smart phones, iPods ,and tablet computers as tools for production and display.  Augmented Reality tools can be used to explore concepts in ways that are ‘user led’ and increasingly participatory.  Last year, a rogue augmented reality art show made its debut at MoMA (NYC).  The physical show was visible to regular visitors, but those who were using a mobile phone application called Layar on their smart phones could see additional works on each of the floors, merging form and content in a non-didactic way.

Here, I return to Relational Aesthetics, Nicholas Bourriaud’s approach to examining contemporary art by getting as close as possible to artists’ works in order to reveal interlocking social structures that link curators, artists, and audiences together.  Beyond designing or re-designing amenities within existing cultural spaces, new media artists have their own motives.  They are using alternative platforms for the production and experiencing of art within social contexts, presenting interactive environments within cultural frameworks and, as stated by curator Claire Bishop in her essay, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” creating a “buzz of creativity and the aura of being at the vanguard of contemporary production.”  In exploring mobile augmented reality (AR), Amir Baradaran offers his own declaration as a “provocation and proposition.” Regarding a movement he calls FutARism, Baradaran writes,

Under the auspices of FutARism, Augmented Reality (AR) is employed as a new artistic medium, as it adds virtual content to a given space that is experienced in real-time and in semantic context with the real-world environment. Canonical artworks and sites will be appropriated and augmented. These virtual installations will be viewable with a smartphone application.

The projects of FutARism to date include Manifesto Stamped, Venice Augmented, Frenchising Mona Lisa, and Takeoff.  Baradaran’s works demonstrate more understandable forms of AR, such as surface and pattern systems.  Surface AR refers to screens, floors, and walls that respond to touch when people are in the physical space.  Pattern AR enables mobile devices to recognize shapes (markers) and replaces them with two-dimensional images, 3D models, audio, and video.  Manifesto Stamped incorporates live performance, on-site production, and marker display.  Baradaran sees pattern AR and the FutARIsm marker as a “product of the cause of its demise,” due to newer developments in new media and mobile AR and an “important hedge to the utopian bet of better living through design.”  To experience FutARism on a camera-enabled device (smart phone, iPad) a user must first download a free browser called Junaio, search for and open “FutARism,” then point the camera at the marker provided on the artist’s web site to see the AR content.

Amir Baradaran, "FutARism Marker 3.3," 2011. Silkscreen print on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

A quick note for arts educators: I’ve been teaching Principles of Visual Design for my graduate teaching assistantship and early on, I have the students (mostly undergrad Computational Media majors) doing mark-making exercises.  Manifesto Stamped will be something to explore and discuss with them in the Fall, as an example of merging analog and digital mark-making for new media design.

Amir Baradaran, "FutARism Marker 4.4," 2011. Silkscreen print on canvas. Courtesy the artist.

In Work Smarter, Not Harder [an interview w/Evan Roth], Art21 guest blogger Nick Briz follows an artist whose work focuses on tools of empowerment, open source technology, and popular culture.  Artists are cleverly using new media as a form of infiltration and social engagement.  For free visitors can download the utopian “metaverse” of Cao Fei or play art as a game as demonstrated by Matthew Ritchie‘s Proposition Player.  These works create scripted, staged participatory (social) experiences but they are not mobile.  Anyone with the funds can pick up a pair of AR glasses that connect to a computer/laptop with a webcam or game console add-on to move around, control or interact with objects (see video below).  Aequitas and The Heavy Projects are developing innovative (and free) AR art projects; in many ways, this is rendering pattern-based AR as obsolete, which Baradaran notes on his website.  He states that, “markers are no longer at the leading edge of virtual technology, but is caught up in the narrative of technological development and a paradigm of planned obsolesce.”

In a recent presentation, Baradaran cited three reasons that mobile AR resonates with art: 1) it redefines what installation art is; 2) it provides alternatives to using mobile AR for didactic purposes; and 3) it is a form of infiltration.  Mobile AR challenges the notion of intellectual property on work that is not physical, opening up a whole new dialogue about power in cultural institutions.  Bourriaud’s notion of relational aesthetics creates a theoretical framework in which to consider artists like Baradaran and Roth, who adopt a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach to creating art, while modeling “possible universes” (Bishop and RA, p. 13).  Earlier this year, Baradaran was featured in Art in America to cover the release of his mobile AR smart phone application, Frenchising Mona Lisa.  Michael Slenske writes,

Focusing their camera phones on the eternally mysterious Da Vinci painting—the original in the Louvre or a reproduction anywhere—the technology shows the Italian maiden (superimposed over Baradaran’s body) unfurl her hair and use some very manly hands to wrap a French flag around herself in the form of a hijab.

This release coincided with the performance of Baradaran’s FutARism manifesto, much of which questions the conditions under which cultural institutions sanction displays of art.  Experiencing mobile AR in museums and galleries broaden the path to curation and allows users to immerse themselves into the exhibition, regardless of the intent of the intervention. The exhibition is then experienced as a whole, as the user is navigating from the large-scaled architecture of physical rooms to the smallest pieces of art.  Baradaran seeks to open up the mobile AR platform to artists around the world and allow them to place their own content in his system.  Eventually he will consolidate these projects into a single application. FutARism resonates with relational aesthetics but it also encourages artists to change their environment and create possible, alternative futures.

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