Though Snapchat is usually associated with teens using dog filters and disappearing chats, just before the pandemic, the social media company partnered with Alex Israel to create something a little less ephemeral.
Now on view at The Bass museum in Miami through May 1, “Alex Israel x Snapchat” is the latest in the Los Angeles–based artist’s long running collaborations with luxury brands (Louis Vuitton, Rimowa, Vilebrequin, to name a few). Over the years, he’s consistently positioned his creative practice as an exercise in branding. Look no further than his instantly recognizable series of self-portraits—airbrushed, illustrated portraits of his face in profile, wearing sunglasses—that has at this point become an equivalent to a logo. For the exhibition, Israel has returned to his self-portraits, bringing them to life using Snapchat’s augmented reality (AR) technology.
The five AR enhanced portraits on view in the Miami exhibition first showed at the Centre d’art La Malmaison in France during the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Silvia Cubiña, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, encountered them later that year while listening to a presentation at the Serpentine Galleries by its artistic director, Hans Ulrich Obrist. “I just immediately said, ‘Okay, that’s definitely for us,'” Cubiña recalled in a recent interview, noting that Israel’s L.A. iconography of palm trees, sunsets, and beaches brought to mind Miami’s own scenery.
Though she had organized exhibitions of new media art for two decades, Cubiña hadn’t yet tried her hand at AR at the time. The initial idea had been to travel Israel’s Snapchat show to the museum last December, but the pandemic brought those plans to a halt.
“It’s actually better timing now,” Cubiña said of the show’s delay. The pandemic has integrated technology into people’s lives even more than before, and the rise of NFTs earlier this year have proved to make the traveling show feel even more prescient than might have been gleaned in pre-pandemic days. (To keep up with changes in technology, the 2019 works have been tweaked as part of their new staging in Miami.)
When walking through the exhibition, viewers will, of course, see the kind of Israel self-portraits that been circulating since 2013, when the artist first started on the series. But with the Snapchat collaboration, they will be enlivened with a unique AR experience, accessible through Snapchat’s mobile app, which builds on the company’s well-known photo and video filters. (Expecting that museumgoers might not be Snapchat savvy, The Bass has 20 phones available for visitors to use to experience the show in full.)
Cubiña explained that their collaboration with Snapchat led to a loss of some control, on the museum’s part, in mounting the exhibition since the AR is to integral to it. Our job here is to put everyone together and to make it happen and to install it,” she said. “There’s a lot of trust involved. As a museum curator you put up the work, receive it, unpack it, install it, light it. Now, there’s [an added] layer that other people are doing, that you don’t quite understand.”
As with the rest of his art, this exhibition is a love letter to his hometown. In Self-Portrait (Drive), viewers are taken on a space-bending drive through Israel’s L.A. home. Flora and fauna indigenous to California make appearances in other works, like Self-Portrait (Pelican with Fish), where the quintessential water bird comes flapping toward viewers.
New to this exhibition is a site-specific work that activates The Bass’s facade. When the museum’s exterior is viewed through AR, visitors will see an avatar of Israel, sitting atop the museum as Disney-esque creatures flit around him. With Snapchat and The Bass being Israel’s latest co-conspirators in a practice that blurs the lines between art and marketing, Cubiña said, “The collaborations are an extension of his work because each one gives him certain tools he could not have otherwise. He embraces it.”