And is a digital future something to cultivate — or resist?
Outside a nondescript building nestled on Facebook’s sprawling campus is a blank wall. On any given day, you could walk by this wall like you would any other wall. But you’d be missing something. Here, beneath the visible surface of reality, exists another one: a living mural, painted on the virtual ether you can only see by holding up your phone and opening your Facebook Camera app.
In doing so, you’ll behold what Facebook is calling “the world’s first augmented reality artwork,” an undulating, deeply-hued progression of strokes and movements seeping off the ground and climbing the wall into a perpetually active artwork, only viewable on your tiny screen. While this artwork is the first large-scale example of the company’s ambitious plans for augmented reality [AR], it’s also a sneak peek at where the art world might be headed — at least if Mark Zuckerberg gets his way.
“This is going to be a thing in the future,” he said at the annual Facebook F8 conference in April, where he revealed the technology. “Just people standing around looking at blank walls.”
For developers and futurists, this vision of a world teeming with virtual minutiae behind our screens is an exciting one. Facebook’s plans for AR through their camera app includes an open platform for developers to build their own experiences and host them through the app, including Snapchat-like lenses that allow users to take selfies with augmented faces. Facebook itself will create a way for people to leave each other virtual notes on the fridge, or carve your name onto tabletops, or leave menu recommendations for your friends at restaurants.
But for the old guard of the art world, this futurist vision is the manifestation of a question that has plagued them for years: Is the future of art digital? And is this something to cultivate, or resist?
Talk of AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and AI (artificial intelligence) is not hard to come by these days. Its potential to disrupt labor, media, porn, video games, transportation and, well, everything, is the topic de jour. And this isn’t the first time one of these lauded concepts has touched the art world, either, despite Zuckerberg’s splashy “world’s first” headline.
Just last year, British artist Scarlett Raven was deemed the “world’s first augmentist” when she unveiled a collection of oil paintings that, when viewed through the Blippar app on a smartphone, move and change.
A year before that, a gallery in Mexico curated a show of sculptures that came to life on the screens of iPads with the help of AR, and all the way back in 2013, the art/tech duo The Heavy Projects painted a mural outside St. Louis’ Moto Museum that unfolded into dozens of variations when viewed through another AR-specific app. And that’s ignoring the many virtual artworks viewable through a special headset.
But beyond screens, the concept of “augmenting reality” through art is not new, according to Josette Melchor, founder and executive director of Gray Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit fostering the intersection of art and technology.
“AR encompasses all sorts of different things about what it means to change someone’s version of their reality,” she said. This could be as simple as projection mapping, 3D chalk art, or even magic, all of which can alter your experience of reality, without the use of high tech. Today’s AR iteration is just one more step in the centuries-old evolution of art through the use of technology, and it’s no less disruptive than it was 100 years ago.
Tools, arguably the first technology, made more intricate sculpture possible; the invention of the loom brought detailed, large-scale weavings; the camera made it possible to capture reality; printmaking made reproduction easy; etc. Art has long been transformed through the latest technologies. A classic example is a 500-year-old portrait by the German Renaissance painter Hans Holbein, which is believed to have been produced by tracing an outline of an image that was projected onto the canvas with mirrors or lenses, which was cutting-edge technology for the time.
Melchor gets this. “Artists are futurists,” she said. “We see technology as a medium in general, just like paint or photography. [It’s] just another tool.”
This sentiment is echoed by Heather Day, the San Francisco artist who teamed up with Facebook to create their living AR mural. An abstract painter by trade, using technology this advanced was new to Day, but that’s what excited her.
“I was curious about what’s happening [with technology] and also sort of thinking about how I can use technology as just another medium,” she said. “Like work on a painting and then switch over to working digitally…that’s really inspiring to me.”
Thinking of artists as futurists might feel counterintuitive when placing them within the stodgy institution of the art world, which is often considered somewhere on the Luddite scale. But this adversity to technology might be deeper than an ideological attachment to the purity and nostalgia of fine art technique. For one, the technologies used to create an AR, VR, or AI artwork today will be outdated in, at most, a few years.
To enter the cannon the way hundred-year-old paintings do, a work of digital art would need to be constantly remastered and rebooted to fit the technology of the now — and its splendor probably wouldn’t stand the test of time. Where physical objects have a lifespan determined by the wear and tear of time, digital art is at the mercy of lightning-speed innovation that quickly renders it irrelevant.Artists are futurists. Click To Tweet
But for artists working with state-of-the-art tech, that’s part of the appeal.
“Traditionally, we want the paint on the canvas; we really honor ‘fine art’ and, I would say, perhaps over-romanticize it,” said Day. “The idea that something we created is special for this time, it existed, is completely enough. And from there we’re going to learn from it and build something greater in the future.”
Of course, there are some downsides. For one, there’s no solid way to value art that lives purely in the digital realm, making it impossible to sell in galleries. And if you can’t commodify it, you probably can’t survive off of it. Additionally, like with every other industry in the world, there is the looming question of when robots will take it over and render humans useless.
While that may sound like an unfounded fear for the art world, consider an exhibition in San Francisco last year that showcased prints of trippy, abstract images created by Google’s artificial neural networks, otherwise known as an artificial human brain. The tech giant sold the paintings, raising $84,000 for Gray Area and stunning those who believe the words “artificial” and “art” should never go together.
But beyond swiping the jobs of artists, digital art has its merits. While admittedly, Zuckerberg’s idea that the future of art will be people staring at their screens isn’t too appealing (and likely not terribly realistic), there is something to be said for the idea that once-mundane areas can be made interesting.
Take Lapse for example, an app created last year by the artist Ivan Toth Depeña that features six AR artworks scattered across various locations in Miami, creating the scavenger-hunt-like appeal of Pokemon Go, but for public art. The idea is that the app acts “as a decoder or magnifying glass that reveals hidden gems throughout the built environment,” as Depeña told Artsy. The same can be said for Facebook’s mural.
In this sense, AR’s potential lies not in its ability to take away from physical space, but to add to it. Like street art, AR can push the art world outside the bounds of the gallery and the museum, and create an opportunity for people to interact with and experience a work of art in a new way — and in a way that aligns with how they already move through the world.
“People are already just going into galleries and staring at their phones,” Melchor said. “Even though you can augment someone’s vision of a space and people are already on their phones, I think that that just adds to the value of it. There’s huge value in painting and illustration and dance and performance. Throwing in augmented reality just makes it better.”