Financial Times notes Gretchen Andrew in their article on Frieze New York 2021.
As some parts of the world inch out of lockdown, and virtual worlds suddenly collide with in-real-life experiences, an exhibition of works in augmented reality (AR) at Frieze New York, taking place at The Shed in Hudson Yards, feels timely. Visitors to the fair can view on a digital device new AR works by artists Kaws, Cao Fei and Precious Okoyomon, the winner of the 2021 Frieze Artist award.
“It was interesting to conceive of an exhibition that blurs the boundaries between the real and the virtual, which has completely been our lives for the last year,” says Emma Enderby, chief curator at The Shed who has organised the exhibition, titled The Looking Glass, in partnership with the London-based company Acute Art, described as a “laboratory for art and technology”.
Brooklyn-based Okoyomon’s virtual piece, “Ultra Light Beams of Love”, shows a pair of flowers reciting a poem entitled “Sky Song”, while Cao Fei will unfurl a dystopian urban landscape on the plaza outside (“RMB City AR”). “Okoyomon’s poetry is fun and political in a charmingly direct way, exploring themes of race and sexuality,” says Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of Acute Art. Kaws’s trademark Companion figure will float horizontally in the air — all the works are visible only through the 21st-century lens always at hand: your smartphone.
AR makes actual environments interactive by overlaying 3D objects and sounds that appear to react with the real world. “This is the technology behind the worldwide sensation that was Pokémon Go, and it is also what powers the camera filters on apps such as Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram,” explains Aimee Dawson, associate digital editor at The Art Newspaper.
The works at Frieze New York will be accessible to visitors on the free Acute Art app via compatible iPhones and Android devices. Is this the way forward for public art? “Public space is sacred and it’s personal; public art is not always welcomed,” says chief curator Enderby. “With AR, you can take it away with a push of a button, it’s not forced on anyone and only interrupts your day and your space if you want it to, if you actively engage.”
She raises salient points about the physical presence of sculptures. “I was thinking about what if Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” had been in a virtual space. That completely defeats the point for Serra and many others — the physicality is so important — but it’s interesting to think about it in terms of the audience and reception,” she says. It is also much easier to get planning permission for something that does not exist physically, Enderby adds.
Birnbaum stresses that the Frieze New York AR venture is non- commercial. Asked how the project is funded, he says, “It’s a collaboration with The Shed and Frieze, so they contribute financially and with staff.”
The Shed and Acute Art will expand the AR display in July, adding extra works to The Looking Glass. It will be shown on The Shed’s plaza and on the High Line across Manhattan and is the “second chapter” of the exhibition, says Birnbaum. This AR smorgasbord will include a new piece by French artist Julie Curtiss and other works by Darren Bader, Olafur Eliasson, Nina Chanel Abney, Alicja Kwade, Bjarne Melgaard and Koo Jeong A.
Curtiss says her work, her first in AR, explores ideas of intimacy and privacy in the public arena. “I created a 3D character modelled after a painting of mine. It’s a woman seen from behind, a naked woman.”
Koo Jeong A’s ‘Density’ (2019), in London at Frieze Sculpture 2019 © Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art Will it create a new audience for her work? “It’s too early to tell. I am an artist whose following initially came from social media platforms such as Instagram. I suspect there is some overlap between those audiences, both being tech savvy, open to the digitalisation of art and on the lookout for new types of cultural experiences.” Other works in The Looking Glass have been seen before. Koo Jeong A’s “Density” piece was unveiled at Frieze Sculpture 2019, prompting fairgoers to traipse around the greenery in London’s Regent’s Park, summoning up virtual floating blocks of ice created by the Korean artist. Abney’s piece “Imaginary Friend” was included in the AR show Unreal City — produced by Acute Art with Dazed Media earlier this year — comprising 36 AR works at 24 sites along the Thames.
The works in Unreal City could also be viewed at home, turning art buffs everywhere into curators. Kaws’s “Holiday Space” creation looked rather fetching floating above my washing machine, for instance, while Abney’s transfixing Christ-like figure filled my bedroom. In an accompanying film, Kaws says he is “comfortable with ephemeral works, just [from doing] graffiti”, recalling his street art days.
If AR works can be beamed into our own private spaces, the medium could transform how we view and assimilate works of art worldwide. “People may now see this as a relevant factor in relation to the climate change crisis. We can’t go to another continent for a week to see art that has been shipped there by plane like we used to in the art world,” Birnbaum says.
Eron Rauch is a Los Angeles-based artist and writer who specialises in extended reality (XR) art, the umbrella term used to describe interactive technological experiences combining real and virtual worlds. He says augmented reality is a strange concept because “it’s almost always functioning as a magic window: the contemporary equivalent of an 1800s landscape painting where you’re viewing into a scene.” It is also rooted in place because you have to physically hold the device, he says. “In a way, there may be tensions around the site- specificity. Another challenge is we have seen really buggy [technically glitchy] AR.”
‘Imaginary Friend’ by Nina Chanel Abney © Courtesy of the artist and Acute Art The past year has nonetheless been pivotal in how technology has intersected with art, says Gretchen Andrew, who describes herself as a “search engine artist” (she also has a degree in information systems). “Just a few months ago, the art world was thinking about which platforms — VR [virtual reality] or AR — would be most relevant in the wake of the pandemic. There are still issues around accessibility with AR, and it’s not fully developed, but it’s now been folded into the art world in a continuous and mature way,” she says. But artists are grappling with a new reality. In the digital sphere, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are the current obsession. Julie Curtiss discusses how creating an AR work made her think about issues such as accessibility and ownership, which are “very much in the air with NFTs and the dematerialisation of the physical world in general. I am an old millennial, I grew up with landlines in a pre-internet era. The idea of making my work more accessible is truly exciting,” she says. Birnbaum says Acute Art has looked into utilising blockchain technologies to create limited editions that could be sold, with some participating artists likely to develop this aspect. “It would somehow be more meaningful since the works are pretty advanced pieces of technological craft. But this is not part of the [Frieze] New York project,” he says.
At Frieze New York, Eron Rauch says he is excited about seeing Cao Fei’s new work as “RMB City [earlier piece launched in 2009] is one of the most brilliant pieces of digital art ever made.” Okoyomon’s poetic blossoms should also be a virtual tonic. Ultimately, controlling reality at the flick of a (mobile phone) switch might also prove pleasurable in these unpredictable times.