There’s a little gray rain cloud hovering above my desk as I write—or at least there is when I pick up my phone to reveal it. Standing back from my chair, holding my iPhone in front of me, I can see, and hear, this tiny cumulus softly misting my battered laptop and pile of books. This is Uncertain Cloud, one component of the 2020 augmented reality (AR) piece WUNDERKAMMER by Olafur Eliasson, and with a swipe of the Acute Art app where it lives, I can add a shimmering rainbow (Marvelous Rainbow), hopping puffins (Rare Puffin), and more. I can also swap Eliasson’s work for that of another artist in the app’s current lineup, which ranges from art historical figures Christo and Jeanne-Claude to global biennale mainstay Cao Fei to pop-cultural lightning rod KAWS. Regardless of their success as individual artworks, an immense amount of capital (technological, financial, and cultural) went into each artist’s colorful kinetic objects and creatures. Perhaps the most interesting thing one can currently glimpse by using the Acute Art app is not this particular rain cloud or puffin, but the ecosystem that produced it, which is to say, the latest mutation of the complex relationship between art, technology, and commerce.
Artists have been putting extended reality (XR) technologies such as AR and virtual reality (VR) to use for decades, but AR has seen a recent surge of interest from various industries. VR represented the first wave of an XR gold rush. Despite a huge influx of investment and major technological advances, it remains expensive and labor-intensive to create, and requires specialized headsets to experience. By contrast, most modern smartphones and tablets already have built-in AR capabilities, which are improving by the day. Many observers anticipate the turning point—in the form of affordable, lightweight, full-function AR glasses—to come sometime this decade. There are rumors that Apple will introduce its top-secret model in 2022, but who knows if this device will be the holy grail that Google Glass failed to be in 2013, or Magic Leap in 2019. In the meantime, an entire generation has become acclimated to experiencing smartphone AR, from Pokémon GO to the user-generated filters of Snapchat and Instagram. AR is now the close-at-hand version of the old sci-fi mixed-reality dream, largely because the layering of virtual images onto the real world (as opposed VR’s total immersion in the virtual) has its own specific appeal for a host of conceptual and aesthetic reasons.
Much of the earliest AR art focused on superimposing virtual objects and information onto real environments as a new form of provocative public art. Several early practitioners described AR art (or at least its potential) in terms of the theorists of the 1960s French Situationists and their notions of “psychogeography”—the invisible (yet “real”) personal emotions, cultural memories, power structures, and political conflicts layered onto the urban landscape. The technique of détournement, a hijacking and redirection of intended meaning, could reveal or transform these associations and challenge traditional hierarchies. Whereas in the time of the Situationists (and earlier, the Lettrists), this might have involved graffiti, posters, or subversive street pranks, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, pioneers of AR art sought to achieve these critical effects through the embedding of provocative digital experiences in everyday spaces.
One such group was Manifest.AR, established in 2010 with eight founding members and twenty associated members around the world. Participants themselves as forming “an international artists’ collective working with emergent forms of augmented reality as interventionist public art.” (Some prominent members who have continued to use AR frequently include Tamiko Thiel, Sander Veenhof, and John Craig Freeman). In 2010, Manifest.AR announced itself by staging a landmark guerrilla AR performance, We AR in MoMA, using the smartphone app Layar (launched only the year before) to position virtual artworks made by the collective’s members in the MoMA galleries without the museum’s approval. The following year, the group published a manifesto proclaiming their vision of AR as a medium for radical interventions. Thereafter, they continued to set the tone of the early AR scene with other large-scale works, both renegade (at the 2011 Venice Biennale) and sanctioned (at FACT gallery, Liverpool, 2013).
For some time since, most AR artworks and apps revolved around specific locations and strong educational or activist messaging (e.g., the MauAR app, which enables users to see a virtual Berlin Wall in place today), but some of the same wishes driving VR development (a fantasy world that can be entered from your armchair), as well as the rise of AR on social media, fueled an appetite for AR experiences not tied to geography. Consequently, art initiatives involving AR have proliferated in the past few years—some originating from the art world, others from technology giants, and still others (like Acute Art) from a mix of the two.
Media art has always involved the strange bedfellows and mixed motives of art-tech partnerships, and it’s perhaps fitting that with the new wave of technology brands investing in art (and vice versa), there is a surge of new academic books laying bare this history. Science historian W. Patrick McCray’s recent Making Art Work explores this phenomenon, joining two other books published in 2020 (Technocrats of the Imagination by John Beck and Ryan Bishop, and Pamela M. Lee’s Think Tank Aesthetics, the latter two reviewed in A.i.A., September/October 2020) to consider the symbiotic relationships that artists, designers, and technologists forged in the Cold War era. McCray covers several such interactions, including the fertile program at the Bell Labs research facility in New Jersey, whose directors early on saw the value in inviting artists to collaborate with engineers. One such technician, Billy Klüver, took this mission and ran with it, branching off to stage the landmark “9 Evenings” performance series with Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, and others at New York City’s 69th Regiment Armory in 1966. Some thirty engineers worked with ten artists to facilitate the performances, which reveled in (and sometimes pushed the technical limits of) new inventions like closed-circuit television and wireless aural transmitters conveying the sounds of bodily movements. This event expanded into the nonprofit organization Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), which for several years staged high-profile projects such as the Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka Expo, all combining artistic visions with cutting-edge technological experimentation. Klüver, using a fitting electronic metaphor, described E.A.T. as “a transducer”—a device converting one form of energy into another—between the worlds of art, engineering, and industry.
McCray argues that these initiatives, responding to specific anxieties and hopes of the time, attempted to bridge what British scientist and writer C.P. Snow had, in 1959, called “the two cultures”: the separated realms of science and the humanities, which he lamented were dangerously siloed and rarely in dialogue. Collaborations such as those at Bell Labs were seen as crucial ways to benefit society at large: companies would receive innovative ideas (and cultural cachet) from artists, and artists would receive access to cutting-edge technologies. Shared programs thus set the stage for a convergence of tech platforms and artists—and the uneasy symbiosis, or mutual exploitation, between them.
This same concept lives on today, in the art-facing initiatives of tech giants like Google, Facebook, Snap, Apple, Microsoft, Spotify, Adobe, and others. Though McCray’s book doesn’t make many direct comparisons, his description of the Bell Labs program provides a clear point of contrast for the activities of today’s tech firms, which can be seen as trying to extract much more value from the artist’s identity and network than companies did fifty years ago. These companies have established not only artist residencies, but a variety of other activities like commissioning artists to make content, profiling artists using their products (essentially serving as spokespeople), partnering with museums and cultural festivals, etc. Recent years have seen AR projects involving Shantell Martin and Google, Jeff Koons and Snap, Mel Chin and Microsoft, Tate Museum and Facebook, and in 2019, seven artists—including Nick Cave, Pipilotti Rist, and Carsten Höller—joined Apple’s [AR]T initiative curated by the New Museum.
Many of these projects are conceived of primarily for marketing and PR purposes, similar to the rise of artist partnerships with fashion, automotive, and consumer product brands. But often, harking back to the Bell Labs/E.A.T. model, the projects foster actual research and development, as artists create new possibilities through their experiments that the engineers might never have come up with. In 2012, artist and scholar Golan Levin quipped that “media artists are the unpaid R&D of the advertising industry”; the same could be said of the tech industry, but the artists are now occasionally paid. A third benefit, beyond individual company PR or R&D, is a more diffused benefit to the technosphere as a whole. If the direct goal of inviting artists to experiment with Apple AR is to bolster Apple’s corporate image, a secondary effect is to popularize AR to the public, a benefit to all tech companies. The collaborations lend an approving, even enticing, sheen to the modes of watching, listening, participating, creating, and consuming that are associated with these platforms.
But for many artists, curators, museum administrators, collectors, and others in the art world, working with a tech giant is starting to seem less and less worthwhile, for reasons ranging from concern about data privacy and surveillance, to desire for more creative freedom outside the terms of a specific commission, to the very fact that there are more affordable tools (and a bigger talent pool of engineers and assistants) than ever before to go it alone. So instead, some creative teams are forming their own platforms.
Acute Art is a striking example. Perhaps the most ambitious such start-up in its aims, it is viewed with profound skepticism by media art insiders, who tend to be wary of well-funded newcomers to this territory. Acute Art was founded in 2017 by the Swedish art collector Gerard De Geer and his son Jacob, but took on new prominence when Daniel Birnbaum joined as director in 2019. A respected curator and critic who spent nearly a decade as rector of Frankfurt’s Städelschule fine art academy and served as artistic director of the 2009 Venice Biennale, Birnbaum left his most recent position as director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet to take up this role at Acute Art’s London headquarters. While some artist projects for Acute were already under way, Birnbaum brought a number of new high-profile names to the platform to create new works in VR and AR. Even before the pandemic, the organization had decided to focus on its AR app, in order to reach users who were unable to attend museum shows or who had no VR headset at home; after March, this move seemed prescient.
In 2020 Acute launched works by nine artists, and the app has now been downloaded over half a million times. Some of the pieces currently on offer are adaptations or offshoots of existing VR projects that Acute Art also produced—such Eliasson’s WUNDERKAMMER which was adapted from his 2018 VR piece Rainbow—while others are stand-alone AR works, like the series of KAWS sculptures that have rolled out over several months, such as Holiday Space, Expanded Holiday, The Scotts, and Vote Him Out. Several of the pieces I found most effective involve dialogue or storytelling, evoking cinema, performance, and sound art as much as sculpture or installation. Among them is Cao Fei’s The Eternal Wave AR: Li Nova (a supplement to the artist’s Acute Art-produced VR piece recently on view at London’s Serpentine Gallery), in which a photorealistic little boy (patterned after the artist’s son) slurps soda as turtles fly around his head and asks quizzically, “Excuse me, have you seen my Dad?” Another that makes subtly transfixing use of a virtual character’s “presence” and voice is Nina Chanel Abney’s Imaginary Friend, which introduces a stylized AR Sage, who imparts a blessing to the viewer through a short monologue (created in collaboration with writer Jeanette E. Toomer, actor Chris Chalk, and musician El Tsid). The most engaging pieces are those that pull the viewer in with old-fashioned narrative instead of more advanced visual/spatial augmentation—but the latter, entailing high-tech prowess, is Acute Art’s value proposition at present.
Aiming to “matchmake” artists with talented engineers, Birnbaum explicitly cites the lineage of E.A.T. and Billy Klüver (who, coincidentally, worked on a few shows at the Moderna Museet in the 1960s and ’70s in collaboration with his friend Pontus Hultén, the museum’s founding director). But the company has a much newer business development approach, one that is distinct from the latest forays of big tech companies into artist collaborations. While Bell Labs cultivated artists to gain access to their creative ideas, as well as to feel “plugged into” cutting-edge culture, all this was peripheral to the outfit’s real aim of researching and developing new telecommunications technology for the parent company, Bell Telephone. The residency and commission programs of Google, Spotify, and others today likely seek some of the same exchange, albeit sweetened by even more PR and branding benefits. For Acute, artworks (and thus artists) are the business—at present, the platform offers no other product or service.
Acute Art inverts the model of an existing company bringing in artists to lend cultural cachet to its tech experiments—instead, it brings in artists to help experiment with a start-up. The enterprise describes itself as a “technical partner” or production studio for artists who want to create works in XR. The invited artist proposes a concept that is then realized in collaboration with Acute Art’s in-house technical team (a core group of about six, which expands as needed with specialist freelancers, under the direction of chief technology officer Rodrigo Marques). From one angle, Acute Art can be seen as akin to other high-level “fabricator” entities employed by artists (sometimes outright, sometimes in a profit-sharing partnership) to realize complex works with specialty materials or engineering requirements—for example, the legendary printmakers Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. In this case, Acute provides these high-grade “digital fabrication” services at no cost to the artist, and then splits any sales fifty-fifty. Birnbaum speaks with pride about the talented technicians—often from the film, gaming, and industrial design worlds—who come as needed. For instance, “if someone wants to do something with shiny surfaces, we bring in somebody who works with BMW or Maserati.”
Though Acute Art was is currently operating with the spirit of “an experimental laboratory,” Birnbaum confirms that the business eventually needs to become financially sustainable. Acute currently sells digital editions and authenticates them by blockchain, but the model is still in an experimental stage. The firm’s first set of limited-edition digital sculptures by KAWS, scheduled to launch last spring (in an edition of twenty-five at $10,000 each), got delayed by the pandemic. At the moment, Eliasson’s WUNDERKAMMER features a buzzing Progressive Ladybug that can be rented for $1.99 for thirty days. This open edition, Birnbaum says, is mostly meant to experiment with the sales model, since determining the number of users who might choose to rent or purchase at this price point is more valuable at the moment than the actual Ladybug revenue.
Acute’s founders have implied that their business strategy goes far beyond art fabrication and sales—perhaps to collaborations in the realms of fashion, film, and music. In April 2020, the company premiered a digital sculpture designed by KAWS to accompany a new song by The Scotts (Travis Scott and Kid Cudi). The combination was accessible in the app for only a few days, at the artist’s request. No doubt this was to lend a sense of exclusivity, the logic of the sneaker drop intentionally evoked by other limited-edition KAWS pieces. Although Acute’s embrace of advanced technology is in keeping with what Birnbaum calls an “elastic and fluid understanding of what art can be,” the operation is still currently bound by two of the oldest structures in the art world—a generous patron and the collector market. The first is currently cultivating the second, while hoping the venture will survive long enough to generate something new, a third path.
Other artists are pursuing some of the same goals, but with different approaches and priorities. An interesting point of contrast is Jeremy Bailey’s YOUar, an e-commerce platform (youar. shop) that runs on mobile phone browsers, with no specialized app required. Bailey, who is self-identified on the platform as “Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey,” launched YOUar in September 2020 as part of a show with panke.gallery in Berlin, featuring AR sculptures by Bailey and other artists (among them Jennifer Chan and Shawné Michaelain Holloway). A longtime AR user, Bailey wants to revolutionize the way artists are paid for their labor. Those who place affordable digital editions on youar.shop keep 100 percent of the sale price. Partially funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Bailey is also committed to providing technical production support to artists who don’t have AR backgrounds.
A similar direction is represented by Nancy Baker Cahill, an artist who in 2018 created the 4th Wall, which presents works both by herself and other artists. Some of Cahill’s projects within the app (designed with Drive Studios) were supported by grants or loans. The pieces, intended as public artworks, are not for sale, though Cahill says that the studio is open to discussion with collectors. Compared to Acute Art, Cahill’s endeavor is a throwback to the medium’s earliest focus on digitally intervening in public spaces, mostly outdoors. The app’s Defining Line project, about the social history the LA River, is site-specific, not accessible from one’s living room. Overall, 4th Wall emphasizes “curation, unapologetic activism, and user privacy”; the app doesn’t even have a mechanism for registering an account (unlike Acute Art, which asks users to share their email address).
Each of these platforms asserts the goal of making AR tools more accessible to newcomers, but actually, at present, the lowest-entry-barrier platforms for AR creation are Snap and Instagram—via Lens Studio and Spark AR Studio, respectively. These free and relatively easy tools are giving rise to an entire new generation of creators. In many cases, these users do not label themselves “artists” or plan to pursue a traditional art world path (some may be barely old enough to legally use the apps), but their visions are likely to increasingly shape the medium, and to bleed over into countless other digital and art fields. But anyone who uploads works to these platforms—whether outside-the-system filter creator or more traditional emerging artist—encounters their inherent constraints, and has very few options to expand their artwork’s reach, monetize it, or maintain control over its future. Some users, like Kelani Nichole, founder of the virtual gallery TRANSFER, are coming up with ad hoc solutions to “liberate” artworks from the Snap or Facebook ecosystem. One of the artists she’s working with is Huntrezz Janos, whose fantastical series “Infilteriterations” is currently accessible via the Instagram face-filter gallery as part of a larger body of work (including Instagram videos) reflecting on identity and protest, produced in the context of the pandemic lockdown and activist uprisings against police violence this summer. When a Janos work is collected, the artist has an engineer translate the piece from Spark AR Studio to Unity, a platform known for long-term conservation of 3D interactive art. This web-based installation remains available to public (with only a browser required for viewing), but is officially “owned” by the purchaser in accordance with the terms of the Art Website Sales Contract as conceived by artist Rafaël Rozendaal in 2011.
Clearly artists need a variety of platforms to help them navigate the infrastructure developed by enormous corporations. Each of the examples cited seeks to enable artists to sustain their practice and connect to audiences, while pushing conceptual and technical limits. These efforts would certainly be helped by a more developed collector market for digital artworks—the fervent dream of media artists for the past several decades. Changes in technology will also open up new possibilities for AR art. Potentially, 5G could cause a more profound shift than the long-imagined glasses: with higher data speeds, WebXR (of the type running on Jeremy Bailey’s YOUar) would be a more stable and versatile basis for AR sites, removing the need for an app at all. Many artists lament the perennial headache of getting AR apps approved through Apple’s or Google Play’s app store review process, or a new face filter approved by Facebook/Instagram’s Spark AR Studio. In a way, these obstacles are a meta-AR layer, reminding us that we are currently trapped in highly controlled, for-profit digital spaces. Noting how the coronavirus outbreak prompted museums and institutions to shift online, turning their collections and programs digital, Bailey observed that “art was forced into the public park, or rather the mall that was once a public park that is the internet.” In this metaphoric mall, perhaps we can see Acute Art as a glossy gallery storefront (with a high-tech atelier in the back). There’s clearly space for it, and it will likely do just fine. What’s striking to consider, however, is that the more art platforms set up digital shop within the mall of these larger tech companies, with all the restrictions they impose, the more any physical gallery or fabrication shop (however commercial) seems like a zone of ultimate possibility by comparison.
As we consider the AR art space today, it’s worth looking back to Manifest.AR’s 2011 “AR Art Manifesto.” Though modeled in part after the 1909 Futurist Manifesto by F.T. Marinetti (which is today hard to detach from its Fascist associations, even as a tongue-in-cheek template), the hyperbolic manifesto is a stirring vision of the ways AR could make a more inclusive, playful, provocative art world for all. “Standing firmly in the Real, we expand the influence of the Virtual, integrating and mapping it onto the World around us,” they wrote, and prophesied the inevitability that “Objects, banal By-Products, Ghost Imagery and Radical Events will co-exist in our Private Homes and in our Public Spaces.” So far, the growing AR art landscape seems to have no shortage of objects, banal by-products, and ghost imagery, but we could use a lot more radical events.
This article appears in the January/February 2021 issue, pp. 40–47.