The Shed’s Augmented Reality Exhibition Imagines the Phone as a Portal to Other Worlds

How do you put together an exhibition when the pieces aren’t quite real? For the augmented reality (AR) exhibition “The Looking Glass” at the Shed in New York, organizers Emma Enderby, chief curator at the Shed, and Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of AR and VR production company Acute Art, had to address this pressing question. Their answer was to embrace smartphones as gateways to another world. 

“We wanted to call it ‘The Looking Glass’ because in a sense the phone has become this new kind of portal, a rabbit hole that takes us to all of these different worlds. We thought it would be interesting to embellish the story of Alice in Wonderland through a more technologically based lens,” Enderby told ARTnews in a phone interview.

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When audience members first arrive at the plaza in front of the Shed, they see unassuming blue pedestals, each topped with a plexiglass pyramid that gives an artist’s name, the title of their work, and a QR code. But after viewers downloads the Acute Art app, they can point their phone camera at one of these odd monuments, and on the screen the desolate surface is populated with art. 

That is, if the audience does everything correctly. Though AR has slowly been entering the mainstream, the technology is not yet intuitive for most. Enderby admitted to that challenge. “The audience has to be willing to go on that journey with you, to download the app, to use it the right way, to ask for help or figure it out,” she said. “We’ve tried to make it as clear and accessible as possible but that’s always going to be an issue.” 

Despite that limitation, Enderby has found the medium to be somewhat easier to work with than others. “Normally when you do anything in public art, it requires planning permission, cranes, load bearing beams, etc.,” she said. “But with this you can do a giant sculpture and not have to worry about any of those concerns because it’s not quite real.”  

Works by KAWS, Tomás Saraceno, and Darren Bader in particular took advantage of the medium to create and display larger-than-life pieces. KAWS displays Holiday Space (2020), a virtual version of his iconic astronaut figure, in front of the Vessel, while in Maratus Speciosus (2021) Saraceno brings to life a giant spider that performs a threatening dance across the plaza. Bader created a adolescent girl bearing a cross. If she were a physical sculpture, she would stand about 15 feet tall. A life-sized dog that she holds on a leash runs around her feet, further highlighting  her enormous proportions. Though these works only exist on screens, the viewer is left with an impression of their monumental presence, not the narrow windows through which they were seen.

In an interview, Birnbaum noted that beyond the audience’s immediate experience, there is potential for further engagement with these pieces when they are shared online. In this format, the sculptures are as real as anything else posted to an image sharing platform such as Instagram, he suggested.

“You look at [the art], you take photos of it or small films, you send it to your friends, or you put it on social media, and it becomes very, very visible in that world,” Birnbaum said. “We all sometimes wonder, why are we so obsessed with our damn telephones and computer screens? I may have opinions about that and I’m sure you do too, but the simple fact is that we spend a lot of time on the phone. This is an art form that developed because people do live on their phones.”

Birnbaum worked with all the artists from his home in London. The Covid-19 lockdowns taught him how useful and important AR has become. “The pandemic has brought forward certain tendencies that were there already: doing exhibitions where nothing has to be shipped, where you don’t have to travel. I think we’re getting used to those kinds of things,” he said. And while many are happy to shed virtual fairs and working from home, the semi-frictionless global potential of digital art will continue to have appeal.

Julie Curtiss

Julie Curtiss, Lune, 2021

“Acute Art is basically a kind of studio, an atelier, or even a laboratory,” Birnbaum said. “We see ourselves as helping artists get access to new visual possibilities that they wouldn’t have without us.” The process of developing a work is unique for each artist. Cao Fei, for example, has been working in digital art for more than a decade now, so she has clear ideas about what she wants. Her pieces The Eternal Wave AR: Li Nova (2020), in which a young boy speaks to audience members while turtles swim over his head, and RMB City AR (2020), a spinning sea with a city thrumming in its center, are some of the most intricate in “The Looking Glass.”  

But Birnbaum was also eager to commission AR projects from artists who work primarily with traditional media. Julie Curtiss, a French painter and a sculptor based in Brooklyn, was introduced to Birnbaum by KAWS after working for him some years ago as a painting assistant. Curtiss worked with Birnbaum over a span of a year to translate her style for Lune (2021). It features a naked woman who can only be seen from behind. As the viewer moves around the piece, the woman shuffles, continuously turning away, hiding her face.

“It was new for me to think about how to animate [the figure] and to consider her body language,” Curtiss said in an interview. “I would write an email and make a video just to explain how I want the feet to move a little differently. You can’t arbitrarily ask animators to do something since it’s hours and hours of programming.” The resulting piece is simple but striking. The refusal to be seen contrasts with the other works’ invitation to probe and experiment, to step through them and find the vantage points where the illusion falls apart.

Other artists included in the show are Nina Chanel Abney, Olafur Eliasson, Koo Jeong A, Alicja Kwade, Bjarne Melgaard, and Precious Okoyomon, whose piece Ultra Light Beams of Love (2021), in which flowers bloom and recite poetry to audience members, was commissioned as a part of the Frieze Art Prize.

“The Looking Glass” will be on view at the Shed through August 29.


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