American Landscape(s) AR, 2019 

augmented reality installation; dimensions n/a; run-time n/a

install date July 31, 2019 and currently on view

Featured in: (Buxton Contemporary Museum, March 2020) Project Anywhere 2020 Global Exhibition Program, a Parsons & Univ. of Melbourne joint initiative

Abstract:

AMERICAN LANDSCAPE(S) AR (2019) is an independent augmented reality (AR) production by Seol Park. It engage the public in viewing museum artifacts overlaid with digital content - text, imagery, audio, and video - visible only through a mobile AR app.

The work's content addresses themes of migration, cross-cultural dimension, Romanticism, Realism/reality, landscape painting traditions, and digital technology. Its collage-like digital compositions augment three iconic 19th Century paintings by American masters* in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection, and are presented in situ across three galleries in the museum's American Wing. 

This project proposes a rapidly updatable, marker-based yet location-aware, in-museum AR experience that helps cultural institutions such as The Met, 1) cost-effectively present interdisciplinary content while leaving zero physical footprint, 2) attract more visitors in general and direct traffic to less-popular historical galleries in particular, 3) deepen the public’s interaction with on-site content in contrast to existing methodologies in which engagement between visitors and museum exhibits remain largely passive.

The production engages the public in an alternate experience in two regards: one technical the other aesthetic. The former by configuring an AR experience in which all content elements can be 'touched' (tapped) by the viewer on the device and the latter by introducing a collage-like "aggregate" aesthetic composed of text/video/image elements overlaying historical pictures. With this two-pronged approach, Park present to viewers nuanced readings of these historical paintings through a contemporary lens.

Details:

 

AMERICAN LANDSCAPE(S) AR (2019) captures the Park's impression of America, observing the national landscape from within as a resident alien** — a view of the country caught between preserving (a somewhat Romantic notion of) its national identity while embracing multiculturalism. The AR collage imagery of the country's present day challenges adds dimension to these "quintessentially American" vistas, resembling the way immigrants come to America and build upon the country's foundations. 

The original paintings on the Met’s walls are at once triggers (without which Park’s AR collage does not come into view) and “altered readymades” (without which Park’s AR compositions aren’t complete). The production does not oppose or dismiss historical artifacts, but rather expands upon them conceptually and technically.*** AR, in this work, is at once an artmaking medium and a mode of content delivery and audience engagement -- the artwork’s ability to track the number of viewer interactions is inherent in the medium the work is made in.

 

Park anchors her virtual AR compositions to a specific physical environment -- the American Wing galleries at the Met --, insisting that the alternate aesthetic experience she offers be viewed not in the absence of the incumbent historical narratives but right in the thick of that context. This site-specificity means viewers still have to make the pilgrimage to the museum in order to see this AR installation. As Michael Kimmelman noted, as the Web and mass media flood everyone with the same images, sufficient appreciation for the virtues of the pilgrimage is being lost, and, it also resulted in creating a “newly heightened role for the one-of-a-kind encounter.”****  All text and video elements in the AR compositions are "touchable" -- when tapped on screen, they take the viewer to corresponding source articles that had informed Park’s collage composition -- equipping the viewer to trace his/her way backward in the artist’s process. In doing so, Park seems to suggest no histories are off-limits to new interpretations.

Gallery #759, American Wing

Thomas Cole’s “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow "(1836) is laden with strong juxtapositions symbolizing the tension between the “ideal state” of the American land and what at the time was considered “threats of technology.” Romanticism began in Europe in the early nineteenth century and sought to idealize the beauties of nature and exalt emotion and the senses over rationality. On the other side of the Atlantic in America, it was embraced by artists of the young country who found a sense of national pride in its vast nature on a scale that the Continent lacked. Threatening the beauty of this landscape was the incoming dangers of industrialization and development.**** American adaptation of Romanticism hence nurtured a flavor of patriotism unlike its European origin. What kind of romantic ideals and reality has the nation's landscape come to hold since?

 

America’s protectionist anxiety toward advancements that may disrupt what is perceived to be inherent to the American land (and values) -- be those Industrialization in the past century, or Indian tech workers, automation, AI, and 5G -- seems to continue to this day. 

 

In Park’s composition, notions of water and flow are highly present. In selecting the three iconic paintings by American 19C masters at the Met, Park gave particular consideration to those with strong presence of water in their respective compositions, upon which to overlay digital compositions of her own that weave together images of Central American migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border via rivers. Here, the dramatic bend of Cole's river casts an inverted reflection, an aerial view of the part of Rio Grande river with Trump's proposed border wall. AR text, videos, and images of migrant rafts spill over the painting's (and America’s) gilded borders.


 

Gallery #767, American Wing

Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream” (1899) is usually read as to depict the vulnerable facing peril, with the sharks lurking in the water representing imminent danger. ​In Homer’s shark-infested water, Park reads the cruelty of men preying on the vulnerable. The lone figure in Homer's boat now casts a reflection on the ocean surface of a boat jam packed with refugees. 

 

The Gulf Stream ocean current originates off the Mexican Gulf Coast. As of the work’s making, the coastal land here is fraught with kidnapping gangs and smugglers (the real sharks) that prey on the migrants en route to south Texas. As if sharks, images and headlines reporting on the rampant crimes targeting migrants encircle the boat(s). 

Gallery #764, American Wing

In "The Champion Single Sculls" (1871) by Thomas Eakins, Max Schmitt looks out over his shoulder after a race. The mood has the kind of euphoric, contemplative calm and clarity of mind that comes after physical or sensory exertion. Park’s AR composition over this painting brings to mind the amount of noise incited by the media that polarizes and paralyzes the country today, and the difficulties we face trying to make sense of it all. When sensationalist noise obscures our vision, how do we find voices of cool headed reason? 

As a whole, this installation spanning across these three galleries lays out a view of America's national landscape as it stands today -- the country the artist came to live in, whose artistic history she studied, whose present day struggles she observes.

Implications:

The work presents a form of creative production in which principles of various fields that rarely interact with one another -- mass media, contemporary aesthetic production, digital technologies, museum administration, game design, and art historical research -- can converge and create an aesthetically, conceptually, and functionally holistic audience engagement. The binary between painting and mechanical reproduction dissolve, as do the functional divide among various departments housed in encyclopedic museums. From a museum administration standpoint, this production imagines, in a contained scale, what an interdisciplinary collaboration between curatorial (both Contemporary and historical) and Digital departments, facilitated by AR, in an encyclopedic institution may look like, the interdependency of disciplines inherent to this work's construct.*****

Further, the project brings to the art community a series of questions worth considering. As an independent production (euphemism for ‘neither by commission nor with permission from The Met’), the AR installation also poses questions, much like the questions being raised at the borders, about unsanctioned projects such as this seeking access to institutional spaces. Who owns the virtual experiences within the physical walls of museums? From the content makers’ perspective, what’s a responsible and respectful way of “plugging in”? Will museums at some point “firewall” their respective spaces from unsanctioned virtual projects? What may be ways to incorporate AR not just in contemporary galleries but in historical galleries? Park's work argues that meaningful marriages between AR technologies and art can extend well beyond the narrow timeline bracketing Contemporary Art. 

Viewing of the work requires ROAR app. (free; iOS & Android) 

 

 

 

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Notes:​

  • *The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole, The Gulf Stream (1899) by Winslow Homer, and.Champion Single Sculls (1871) by Thomas Eakins.

  • ** A term of classification for a foreign person who is a permanent resident in the United States in which he or she resides but does not have citizenship. 

  • ***What is also striking about this project is the manner in which a set of problematic historical paintings are not dialectically opposed (or even removed from consideration) but rather unsettled. This is achieved by detouring the museum’s in situ means ideological propagation – didactic labels and publications – by means of employing a virtual AR app. This lets the public view the painting’s historical “colonial unconscious,” as it were, thereby surfacing the artworld’s contemporary unconscious as well. This nuanced approach is lacking in many likeminded art activist and art projects, hence American Landscape(s) AR’s critical, methodological strength. - critique from Project Anywhere

  • ****Michael Kimmelman, The Accidental Masterpiece On the Art of Life and Vice Versa (Penguin Books, 2005), 176.

  • *****  "Moreover, the means by which American Landscape(s) AR achieves this – a two-pronged approach of public intervention, through digital augmented reality technologies, and private documentation, through digitized collage paintings – creates new knowledges within both these imbricated genres, one technical the other aesthetic. Specifically, the project at once reinvests and reinvents history painting within the very means that Walter Benjamin sought to criticize painting: mechanical reproduction. I would therefore argue that this project deconstructs the polemical binary established between painting and mechanical reproduction – dominate since the 1980s – through which digitalize mediums have uncritically and hegemonically reigned supreme  by way of painting’s presumed endgame. Moreover, this deconstruction is achieved (squarely within Benjamin’s own stakes and terms) through allegorical methodologies in narrative production. In American Landscape(s) AR, the contemporary viewer’s heart, therefore, has the potential to beat as fast as the historian-artist who critically presents them (again, Benjamin’s imperative put forth in his Theses on the Philosophy of History.)' - critique from Project Anywhere