When heretics turn your eyes into screens and brushstrokes into codes.
The art world has been shocked so many times that avant-garde rule-breaking has become a routine of electro-shock treatments. But now, what we think of as art may change unprecedently: digital independent galleries such as MoMAR, are trying to integrate smartphones into the experience of viewing and creating art.
Augmented reality (AR) art is the virtual product of an incongruous love affair between technology and fine art, between paintbrush and iPhone; augmented reality may change the definition of art as much, or even more, than Dada or Pop Art did.
Is the smartphone-AR integration going to undermine the authority of art galleries, museums, and curators? Or will it democratize it like never before?
The Sabotage Room
In 2018, MoMAR sabotaged MoMA’s Jackson Pollock room. Using MoMAR’s free downloadable app, Pollock paintings became an augmented reality spectacle. While a curator could step in and see nothing worrying, visitors looking though their phones were witnessing enhancements completely unauthorized by MoMA or by the Jackson Pollock estate. MoMAR brought together international AR guerrilla artists who ridiculed the sacred canvases and digitally replaced them with their own works, making Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. look like a schoolboy’s quirk.
Museum directors are not necessarily opposed to augmented reality. Some have even introduced their own smartphone-AR experiences to enhance visitors’ viewing of paintings. For example, Tate Britain introduced a digital enhancement that makes eight paintings in their collection, including William Turner’s Fishing upon the Blythe-Sand, Tide Setting In, and Dora Carrington’s Farm at Watendlath, “come to life” when one looks at them through an Instagram Camera. The feature replaces the static paintings with animated sequences.
People who object to digital augmentation may be treating museums and art galleries as special preservers of physical visuality and quarantines from the digital virus.
For Tate, AR technology is not a replacement, but rather a supplement:
Tate’s AR enhancement still requires visitors to go to the museum, buy the ticket, and look at original paintings.
The role of looking at physical art is not something fragile that will disappear, instead of taking a detached Instagram photo (which is taken anyway), the viewer can be further immersed in the experience of looking. At least, that’s the plan.
The question is, when a viewer looks at a painting that is extended by an Augmented Reality App, does the viewer witness a potential conflict as if visiting the exhibition with an audio guide who may not agree with the curator? Is this kind of AR-museum-driven enhancement undermining or strengthening institutional narration?
If the artist does not agree to having their paintings augmented, and the museum hasn’t agreed to it either, does MoMAR have a right to offer augmentation? Who has the right to control the experience of viewing and explaining art? MoMAR says: not the establishment.
MoMAR’s agenda reflects this conviction: to destroy the elite and scared ideology of museum objects, to democratize the experience of creating, curating, and viewing art and to shift who and what constitutes cultural value.
As AR art is non-physical, and available for anyone who has the free app, it seems tricky to capitalize or control it (at least not yet). MoMAR creators declare that “MoMAR is non-profit, non-owned, and exists in the absence of any privatized structures,” and so far, for the third time, they have managed to nudge MoMA from within. MoMA authorities do not respond to their augmentations, and for the most part, neither do the press.
Art and Pokémon Go
The press does respond to Nancy Baker Cahill. The artist creates AR art in public spaces, and has launched 4th Wall App, which enables anyone to digitally place her artworks in any location.
Baker Cahill collaborates with artists from across the world to create AR artworks, which can be then GPS located, much like Pokémon Go.
“I hope 4th Wall inspires a new understanding of and engagement with AR as a viewer-driven public experience,” Baker Cahill explains, “that democratizes access to fine art,” her words echoing MoMAR’s quest to democratize art.
Beginning of an End?
So far, Tate’s innovation was developed by Facebook, while Google and Apple are getting on board with their own AR art projects. What was supposed to democratize and subvert the elitist Art World, is instead being used to craft a top-down art narration curated by the big players of capitalism, worrying little or less about the essence of art.
Walter Benjamin asked whether the nature of a work of art is changed by the technology that reproduces it in mass quantities.
The cases of MoMAR and Tate are asking us to consider whether the work of art is changed – in its very nature – by technology that digitally augments it.
The profound effect of Instagram and digitalization is not that its altering art exhibitions, but that it is altering life. Many people who visit exhibitions are already immersed in the digital and their perception of reality has been altered far before the art object has. While Benjamin is right that reproduction diminishes artwork’s sacred aura, AR might perhaps summon a new aura to appear in its place.