December 1, 2023

On a hot afternoon in June, Emma Enderby, chief curator of the Shed, and Cecilia Alemani, director and chief curator of High Line Art, walked side by side between their respective bailiwicks on the West Side of Manhattan, planning the configuration of their first collective exhibition.

They cheered.

“No night installation,” said Alemani. “No cranes. This is the best.”

Nothing would be decided until shortly before the opening. “We didn’t have to think about construction or weight loads,” said Enderby. “You can just spend a leisurely day placing them.”

The exhibition “The Looking Glass”, which runs from Saturday to August 29th, is a show in which all “they” – the sculptures on display – are virtual and only in augmented reality or AR. exist

Using an app developed by Acute Art, a London-based digital art organization, a viewer can point a phone at a QR code displayed on one of the websites – the sign of where a virtual work of art “ is hidden “. The code activates a certain sculpture that appears on the viewer’s camera screen and superimposes the surroundings. (Unlike virtual reality, or VR, where a viewer wears a device like goggles, AR doesn’t require full immersion.) Most virtual art is placed in the plaza around the shed on West 30th Street on 11th Avenue, supplemented by three locations on the nearby High Line.

Acute Art is supervised by the third curator of the exhibition, Daniel Birnbaum, who was only able to be present from a distance due to the pandemic. “The Looking Glass” is an updated and expanded recap of another acute art show, “Unreal City,” which opened on the South Bank of London last year and then reappeared in a month-long home in the face of new lockdowns. A teaser featuring three artists from “The Looking Glass” was presented last month at Frieze New York at the Shed.

“There’s something charming about being secret or not completely visible,” said Birnbaum in a telephone interview. “It’s a completely invisible show until you start talking about it.”

When The Looking Glass duplicates the sensation of Pokémon Go in 2016-2017, the search will be as exciting as the find. While the title of the London iteration alluded to TS Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” the New York show takes its name from Lewis Carroll. “In today’s Alice in Wonderland, the phone is the new rabbit hole,” said Enderby.

Birnbaum, a well-respected curator who was director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm for eight years before heading Acute Art, accepted the participation of 11 artists, including well-known names – Olafur Eliasson and KAWS – and art world favorites like Precious Okoyomon, winner of the Frieze Artist Award 2021, Cao Fei, Nina Chanel Abney, Koo Jeong A and Julie Curtiss. Some of her works unfold over time and involve sound, while others are as immutable as traditional sculpture.

Freed from pedestals, they can gain new meaning from their unconventional contexts. Abney’s play “Imaginary Friend” is a floating, bearded black man in high-top trainers and striped crew socks reading a book with a halo around his head. “That is probably a black Jesus,” said Birnbaum. He noted that it would have a different effect if it occurred at a political demonstration in Washington instead of on the High Line.

Eliasson, whose “Rainbow” was a groundbreaking virtual reality work of art in 2017, contributed a collection of five pieces from a series jointly titled “Chamber of Wonder”: a buzzing ladybug, a floating rock, a cloud, a sun and a clump of flowers pushing through the sidewalk.

“Very often these digitized platforms are presented to us as if they were the opposite of reality, but I saw them as an extension of reality,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m a very analog artist interested in the mix of mind and body, and my first thought is, ‘This is taking your body away from you.’ It feels like escapism and open to hedonism. ”However, after deliberation, he concluded that since people are tied to their phones, he would try to approach them through the device in a” sensitizing “rather than” numbing “way to reach.

“Maybe we can get a message on the phones that the world is amazing,” he said. “In terms of what I hope to achieve, in the rest of the public space – and the High Line is such a good example – there is the potential for the imaginary, the unexpected encounter, the encounter with someone you don’t know, and Be friends. I think it’s about adding plurality and other stories to public space. “

Tomás Saraceno, the Berlin-based Argentine artist who worked in Eliasson’s studio at the beginning of his career, is even more determined to combine augmented reality with real life. Obsessed with environmental concerns, Saraceno is particularly in love with spiders and has created a research organization called Arachnophilia to study them and the architecture of their webs.

For “The Looking Glass” he created two virtual spiders. One that sits in the shed’s square is a replica of the spectacular Maratus speciosus known as the Australian coastal peacock spider. The other will be in a secret location in Manhattan. When you send a photo of a real spider to the Acute Art app, the team replies with the location of the other virtual spider, which can also be transported to your home. “It’s at the heart of it all,” said Birnbaum. “He likes the look of the AR spider, but he cares more that you watch out for real spiders.”

For other artists, the possibilities of augmented reality allow different approaches to their longstanding artistic explorations. Curtiss, a French artist living in Brooklyn, paints and models naked women. “My work is all about the look and what I reveal and what I hide,” she said in a telephone interview. Curtiss was introduced to Birnbaum by Brian Donnelly, known as KAWS, and was thrilled to have the chance to pursue the subject in ways she was previously unable to do.

In mid-June she was still working with the Acute Art computer coders on the development of her piece: A naked woman with long dark hair – one of the figures she presented in paintings – who is placed in the environment. The model is turned away. “If you try to get around it, it will keep dodging so you can never see its front,” said Curtiss. “And if you get too close, you go through it. This naked woman is exposed and vulnerable, but also protected like a wall. It plays out these opposites. “

After the pandemic, Birnbaum said, the popularity of virtual representations could accelerate. “Can you ever do fashion shows again?” he said. “Will people travel? I may see this as another model for exhibitions. I could imagine that the AR and VR and mixed reality thing will be part of a global and local art world of the future. I’ll be surprised if the art world doesn’t change a bit after the lockdown. We may be a little early. “

Although Acute Art is currently not for profit, its backers, wealthy Swedish businessman Gerard De Geer and his son Jacob, are well aware of the commercial opportunities. Acute Art has already created virtual pieces for Chanel and BMW and is researching ways to publish works in editions. “We haven’t really monetized things,” said Birnbaum. But he admitted that the unexpected NFT craze and blockchain purchase had sparked discussions about financial opportunities for some artists.

One thing seems certain: virtual and augmented reality are still in their artistic infancy. Acute Art acts as a technological guru, providing computer coders and engineers to bring artists’ virtual creations to life. “There’s a little storyboard thing written, then we do a trial, and they’ll come back and say, ‘The texture is too small’ and ‘It should be more red,'” said Birnbaum. “You get a test app and can play around with it and place it.”

“My interest is to see what we can do with this technology,” he continued. “There was photography once and everyone thought painting would kill it. Then came the cinema and the video camera and the Internet. In our time, AR and VR are the new media. There is a time before commercialization when you can do experimental things. We are here now. “