Augmented Reality – together with Virtual Reality – is the new medium launched in the 21st century so far. For this reason, Dazed Media and art studio Acute Art called artists to experiment with this new tool.

Leading artists from all over the world including Nina Chanel Abney, Olafur Eliasson, Cao Fei, Alicja Kwade, Koo Jeong A, Marco Brambilla were commissioned “immaterial sculptures” that were shown in London from December 2020 to January 2021. Unreal City was the biggest Augmented Reality exhibition ever held in London as it was composed of 36 artworks distributed in more than 20 locations between Waterloo Bridge and Millennium Bridge on the South Bank, giving shape to a walking tour along the River Thames. As explained by the show’s curator, Daniel Birnbaum, AR weaves into reality as a non-material physicality that adds a layer to what we conceive as real. Even if it has not a solid tangibility, AR produces works that makes us question how we build reality, makes us aware of the ambiguity of our perception and can easily be used for political aims, as it adds meaning to the urban landscape in a way that can escape authorities’ control.

In addition to the walking tour in London, audience members could view and interact with AR installations inside of their home between January and February for one month only. As presented by the producers of the festival, the exhibition wanted to be a response to the reappearance of the lockdown measures for the umpteenth wave of Covid during winter 2020-21. Londoners were called to walk and reappropriate of public spaces while audiences all around the world were invited to discover the site-specific artworks from the safety of their homes via the free Acute Art app. Not only could anyone watch the artwork through their mobile screens, but one could also take on the challenge to curate an AR exhibition in their own space. In this way, the viewer turns into a curator, breaking the traditional roles of the art institutions. Of course, the Festival team has warmly invited the viewers to share images and videos of the home-made versions of the exhibition on Instagram with the tags #unrealcity and #acuteart. This created an extra space for exhibiting the artworks, which are currently still visible on Instagram.

In this short article, I want to briefly take into analysis the modalities through which we can appreciate art thanks to the larger use of Augmented Reality. Besides the experience of the immaterial artworks as one could find them in the South Bank, the use of AR in this festival has also enacted two extra ways to enjoy the festival, namely the Acute Art free app and on Instagram, thanks to the wide use of the tag #unrealcity. This will serve as a first map to understand the use of AR as it has been employed in the artistic field when museums were shut due to the pandemic emergency. As highlighted by this festival, the connection between physical space and Augmented Reality is tighter and more problematic than expected.

Unreal City in Southbank: making ARt fit in the city at the time of restrictive lockdown measures

Curator Daniel Birnbaum invited some of the key artists of our times to experiment with AR, then located the artworks in 24 different locations where the spectator would find a red buoy to trigger the digital sculpture. The augmented landscape originated an unreal city laying on top of the existing London. Any person owning an Android or iOS device could have access to the exploration of the city: audience members would find any kind of artworks floating on their head, walking by their side, and hovering above the river.

The very first piece appearing in South Bank is an ice cube floating in the air by Korean artist Koo Jeong A. The ice cube breaks and reflect the light according to changes in the environment, turning into a mirror interacting with the surroundings. Walking by the pier, the second sculpture is Cao Fei’s work. Depicting her son while eating some snacks and drawing on his desk, Fei’s work has directly been sent to Europe from China, with no need for the artist to inspect the exhibition space. The AR sculpture seems to be a live rendering of what the artists’ eyes look at. The kid, which is just sitting and chilling in front of the viewer, reproduces what Fei’s child does on a daily basis in her mother’s apartment. Just behind the back of Fei’s child, KAWS’ work floats above the river. His Companion – a greyish figure reminding of Mickey Mouse – has existed for over 20 years now and has been reproduced through any possible medium and material. In London, it appeared for the first time as an AR sculpture.

Tomás Saraceno has designed an alluring object with a very catchy aesthetic that worked as a very critical tool towards our human-centred society. Usually creating immersive and participatory artworks to invite the audience to forge new connections with non-human entities, for Unreal City Saraceno has created a gigantic Maratus spider, a species that is about to get extinct. Standing against the anthropocentric vision putting the human being at the centre of any kind of process on planet Earth, this huge spider meant to be the prototype paving the way for a much bigger project to bring attention to the existence of minuscule creatures like spiders, which have been living on planet Earth for much longer than humans. By adding a digital layer to the real, Saraceno opens a conversation about the invisibility of minuscule lives that surround us. By reproducing them on a bigger scale and making them visible through a technological device, Saraceno is making evident that anthropocentrism continuously hides and ignores a thousand species that undergo the consequences of our behaviours. It is like we are playing a game with other companion species we are not aware of. AR turns the invisibility into visibility as a way invite people to pay more attention towards the existence of other life forms.
After this buoy, the spectator would find a space hosting Aljcia Kwade, Darren Bader and Bjarne Melgaard’s installations. Scandinavian artist Melgaard’s characters were walking together with the spectators on the Southbank. Escaped from the Swedish polyhedric artist’s own cosmology, the Lightbulb Man and the Octopus are here presented as three-dimensional characters interacting among them. In this way, the spectators find themselves sharing their reality with creatures “on the run” from their bidimensional painted existence.

Nina Chanel’s creation was used as a political intervention in Washington DC. This piece was selected to symbolise the political potential of AR, which can connect images and objects to politically relevant places and monuments. Her work consists of an AR spiritual leader that jokes and speaks with the audience members and pushes them to think about the consequences of consumerism on their everyday life.

After being exhibited at Tate Modern a couple of years earlier, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson went back to Tate and prepared a series of installations inspired to changes in atmospheric conditions. All the elements that he has put around in front of the Tate Modern change and take different shapes according to what the viewer does with it. His work wanted to be representative of the technological structure on which we depend. In a moment when everything was shut and public spaces and institutions were off limits because of the pandemic emergency, AR was the expression of the acceleration of the presence of technology in our society. But, instead of reading this acceleration in a negative way, Eliasson wants to perceive AR as a new tool that makes people experience public space in innovative ways, so to have a glimpse of the world to come.

Unreal City at home: Instagram on the privilege of consuming (AR)t

The interview released by the most popular artists taking part to the project shows how everyone agreed on experimenting with Augmented Reality because it gave them the chance to experiment with futuristic instruments while asking themselves questions as regards as centennial topics like how we produce reality (Alicja Kwade), or how we live together with other organic and inorganic entities (Tomas Saraceno), how we can reach a wider audience (Darren Bader). Thanks to their intangibility, AR artworks allowed artists, audience members and passers-by to enjoy the feeling of creating art and/or walking around in a museum day even during a pandemic emergency. As stated by Olafur Eliasson at the online presentation of the festival, Unreal City wanted to stimulate people to reclaim public space, which in that specific context was the only material space one could cross and inhabit without being in danger of infection. Anyhow, Dazed Media and Acute Art decided to make available a free app to curate and visualize AR artworks at home also for people living outside of London. In this way, Unreal City was appreciated by a larger number of spectators than what the pandemic measures would have allowed. On Instagram, there are still today posts by people showing their personal version of Unreal City.
After quickly scrolling through the results, the impression is that only people living in an elegant and tidy house posted pictures of their private AR exhibition. AR sculptures stand and move around shiny and clean apartments that seem to be galleries themselves: not only the artworks are carefully positioned in an aesthetically pleasant way, but also the environment seems to be perfectly on point. Then, the immediate reaction is to notice the contradiction between the curator’s will to democratize access to AR art also to people who would not enter fancy galleries and the gleaming appearance of the apartments hosting the #unrealcityathome exhibition. If Unreal City wanted to present AR artworks to people of any kind during the pandemic, why can’t we immediately find in the collection of #unrealcity tags any pictures or videos of AR sculptures floating in the chaotic living room of a middle-class family during the lockdown, maybe above the heads of children following online classes or among pieces of home workout equipment?
The answer has to be found in the combination of two main reasons. The first one relates to the aesthetics canon that was originally created on Instagram and gradually imposed on our worldview. As daily-users of Instagram, people got used to looking at the world through a square framework, to select the best moments of their daily life for their followers. As noticed by sociologists, Instagram has also changed the way we decorate our private space, what we buy and how we eat. Consciously or unconsciously, everyday we let influencers have a huge impact on our life, so much that we started eating crunchy avocado sandwiches, drinking pastel coloured milkshakes and decoring our rooms with tiny cactuses and fairy-like tiny lights. The second reason why the ordinary life of average audience members is lefct unseen on Instagram relates to the fact that the platform’s algorhythm keeps visible only what has a huge impact on users, which is measured by the amount of likes received by a post. In this way, the same aesthetic values prompted by influencers are reproduced and maintained in a loop that hides away what does not follow such rules. Put in this way, it is evident that Instagram reinforces and reiterates processes of exclusion of what is at stake with the canonic idea of beauty and order on Instagram. Therefore, Instagram results to be inappropriate to promote the democratisation of access to a range of forms of art.

In my explanation of the invisibility of the ordinary on Instagram, I deliberately chose to exclude the possibility that only rich people have downloaded the app because I believe in the potentiality of AR and VR to democratise access to certain kinds of knowledge and artistic production, even if with some evident structural shortcomings. The process of democratisation, in fact, will always be partial because AR art requires access to a good WiFi connection and to updated mobile devices. From this point of view, AR and VR will never be totally inclusive, as they exist only in certain techno-material conditions which cannot be taken for granted. Despite this, it is undeniable that AR is and will be more and more part of the everyday life of people with access to the Internet. This means that this partial democratisation needs to be examined and criticised if needed.

Dazed Media and Acute Art have worked to the realization of a huge exhibition that has certainly gave us a hint of what the possibilites to come are. Thanks to the work done by artists in this show, people saw reality through new lenses. Spectators established a very intimate relationship with their mobile devices, experienced the construction of reality and perception, observed a gigantic reproduction of usually minuscule species and had the chance to reflect on the consequences of the overlapping of digital and physical elements in the city (or in their apartments) and could experience London’s landscape in an innovative way. People from home could interact with Nina Chanel’s spiritual leader while sitting on the sofa, watch Olafur Eliasson’s flowers bloom in their sink, could dance with Melgaard’s creatures in their private space and sit next to Cao Fei’s son. But, the Instagram’s collection of pictures and videos of the Unreal Festival witnesses the fact that the popularization of the latest technologies cannot pass through the algorhythic structure of social media, as most of the times it is built on biases that are incoherent with and counterproductive to the ambitious intention of reaching and representing as much people as possible. Thus, maybe, AR art curators should work for the radical enhancement of communication about the existence of such media.

If the Unreal City Festival claimed to give us a hint of the future to come, why is its version of the future produced, performed and represented exclusively by the rich?

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All pictures and videos were taken with the courtesy of artists and Acute Art.