The Evolving Fusion of AR, Public Art, and Virtual Public Space

Public art in commercial and recreational structures is a means to bring communities together and directly connect people with the physical space around them. Typically, public art is presented in the form of murals, sculptures, architecture, and environmental art. In addition to social bridging, public artworks can serve as identity-markers for particular locations, mediums to express distinct points of view, and vehicles to inspire personal and social change.

As with any visual art form, while history and tradition are important, the field is evolving as technology continues to advance tools, techniques, and presentation avenues in the creative process. Snapchat’s collaboration with American artist Jeff Koons in 2017 helped open the door to a new phenomenon in public art-making: augmented reality (AR). Soon after, multidisciplinary artist Nancy Baker Cahill revolutionized the craft by creating her own mobile app, 4th Wall, that transformed her abstract drawings on paper into AR elements that could be projected by individual users into any environment.

In the past few years, artists have jumped at the opportunity to add AR elements to their work, and this has changed the public art landscape. Many of these elements are designed to be viewed through visitors’ smartphones. Benefits of of adding AR components to public artwork include the ability to reach wider audiences, deepen customizability to account for language and other accessibility barriers, and manipulation of uncontrollables in physical environments, such as weather and geography.

Looking across the globe at current public artworks employing AR, the common thread is the artist’s use of technology to take an authoritative stance on social issues and inspire discussion. In early 2017, Lauren Lee painted Phoenix, Arizona’s first AR mural “Take Flight.” The mural was commissioned by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, an Arizona-based nonpartisan group that promotes voter education and campaign funding accountability. Equipped with QR Codes and links to the popular music app Shazam, the mural is designed to encourage younger generations to vote and realize their political power.

Lauren Lee’s AR mural “Take Flight” in Phoenix, AZ. Image Source:  Phoenix New Sun Times

Lauren Lee’s AR mural “Take Flight” in Phoenix, AZ. Image Source: Phoenix New Sun Times

In Summer 2018, two environmentalist AR public artworks were created. “Oil in Our Creeks,” located in the Falomo Underbridge in Lagos, Nigeria includes a VR/AR documentary that brings attention to pollution and economic struggles in the Niger Delta area caused by a Shell pipeline burst that devastated local fisheries and farms. In tandem, conceptual artist and activist Mel Chin launched “Unmoored” in New York City’s Time Square that allows the viewer to experience the city completely underwater, a consequence of ignoring climate change. Instead of cars and buses, viewers look up to the water’s surface and see a traffic jam of boats bobbing through the waves that engulf the city skyscrapers.

Video Source: Creative Planet Network

Chin’s immersive experience was developed in partnership with the Microsoft, Listen, Zengalt companies who actively support technology and arts initiatives. “Unmoored’s” extensive partnership list helps illuminate the caveat artists face when they want to create pieces with AR components: public AR artworks not only require creative vision, but also significant funding, extensive planning and beta-testing, and viable partnerships with app developers or programmers.

In October 2018, Adobe Creative Cloud announced they are tackling this obstacle head-on through their Project Aero, the company’s new AR authoring software designed to give autonomy to artists who want to work in this medium. When beta testing is completed, Project Aero is expected to standardize interaction models and file formats for immersive content. Artists will be able to work within programs they already know, such as Adobe Photoshop CC and Dimension CC that ideally will make creating AR content more intuitive and fluid.

Access to tools are not the only issue complicating AR in the public art sphere. Technological innovations, such as Project Aero, can easily solve accessibility issues. However, technological advancements further two questions both artists and public spaces must face - who owns virtual public space and how willing are artists to lose creative control in the customizable world of AR? Even Snapchat’s Jeff Koon’s collaboration became subject to vandalism.