MMC Students Experience Contemporary Art through Augmented Reality

  • This Is It by Swedish animator Nathalie Djurberg and Swedish composer Hans Berg
  • Now at the Dawn of My Life by John Giorno
  • Trade Eden by Cao Fei
  • Thought, by Carsten Höller
  • International Liquid Finger Prayer by Pipilotti Rist
This month, students in Visual Arts Seminar: NYC, a January course taught by Adrienne Baxter Bell, Ph.D., Professor of Art History, took part in [AR]T Walk through Central Park, an event co-sponsored by the New Museum and Apple.

Participants donned headsets and carried iPhones as they experienced six different Augmented Reality (AR) works of art, each one lasting approximately four minutes, created by contemporary artists. Similar walks have been organized in Hong Kong, London, Paris, San Francisco, and Tokyo.

Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which shows an artificial world in which the viewer might exist in simulated form, Augmented Reality (AR) superimposes computer-generated images onto the world that the viewer already inhabits; it can also digitally manipulate the world that the viewer sees in real time—that is, as they see it. The viewer then sees this synthesized view of reality through their computer screen.

Artist #1 [AR]T Walk began with a semi-interactive work by the American performance artist and dancer Nick Cave (b. 1959) in which participants were invited to design their own “Ikon Elements,” doppelgängers in the form of variegated spiked or bouncing balls, which accompanied them on their journey through the park to the first work of art. The “Ikons” were then subsumed into the massive head of one of Cave’s trademark Soundsuits, protective shields masking gender and racial identities, which appeared—first transparently and then in technicolor—above a rocky outcropping [left].

The next AR piece, This Is It by the Swedish animator Nathalie Djurberg and Swedish composer Hans Berg (both b. 1978), explored raw human emotions as it led participants via a series of increasingly dramatic thought bubbles to a tree in the middle of the park; AR then magically revealed a small hollow inside the tree and an ominous, animated vignette starring a group of gremlins and a malefic wolf-dog [photo 1, above].

The third composition, a work of the legendary American poet and performance artist John Giorno (1936-2019), began as participants walked through a rainbow-streaked path overlaid by lines from Giorno’s poem “Now at the Dawn of My Life”; lines from the rest of the poem—such as “Everyone Gets Lighter / Everyone is Light”—sequentially appeared, collapsed into a jumble of letters, and then disappeared into the sky [photo 2, above].  

A fourth piece, Trade Eden by the Chinese artist Cao Fei (b. 1978), produced a kinetic image of the interior of a factory and allowed participants to “move” boxes on an assembly line. Reflecting the rapid and dehumanizing commodification of labor in contemporary businesses, tiny generic human figures emerged and stood expectantly at the ends of the interwoven conveyor belts [photo 3, above].

Thought, by German artist Carsten Höller (b. 1961), was perhaps the most psychedelic AR work, in that it allowed participants to question their essential assumptions about perception and reality. Using their iPhones, participants stepped through an AR portal that turned the bustling scene of New York around them into a fractured, schematic, black-and-white drawing of that very scene [photo 4, above].  

Swiss artist [AR]T Walk ended with International Liquid Finger Prayer, a visionary work by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist (b. 1962) in which sounds and words from a poem Rist recited emerged in swirling, cyclonic cylinders of colors that shot up from a horn of plenty outside of the Plaza (part of Karl Bitter’s Pulitzer Fountain), rapidly and effortlessly swirled around the sky, and then suddenly vanished, all the while evoking the process of transubstantiation [left and photo 5, above].

Despite the ground-breaking visuals, AR technology has a long way to go, says Dr. Bell. “The short duration of the works of art and the inability to record more than ten-seconds of each work at a time reflected the massive drain of battery power that AR inflicts on iPhones,” she explains. “Moreover, AR engenders even more of the personal isolation already endemic to smart phone use. Still, the dynamic works of contemporary art presented through [AR]T Walk foreshadow a radically new and promising category of artistic expression; moreover, they invited participants to see and to engage in unexpected ways with the seemingly familiar sites of New York City.”

[AR]T Walk tours continue in New York through February 6, 2020. Want a taste of Augmented Reality yourself? Check out a few clips of our students experiencing the exhibit below. 


Adrienne Baxter Bell, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History