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The Invasive Species Exhibit Wriggles Into the Art World Using Augmented Reality

Redshift Ι April 12, 2018

Site-specific and speculating on a possible future, surreally biomorphic and also digital, artist Felice Grodin’s Terrafish installation is proudly in-betwixt and in-between. This digital model, part of the Invasive Species exhibit at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), doesn’t exist in real space: It uses augmented reality (AR) as a new medium at the fore of art and architecture.

The show offers “a [merger] between the physical and virtual world,” says Jennifer Inacio, the exhibit’s curator. Terrafish—one of two site-specific AR works—is an imagined future ecosystem. The otherworldly vista is a network of neon pink, honeycombed masses punctuated by tall, pulsating stalks that visitors wade through (via their iOS devices) on the museum’s expansive courtyard terrace.

Grodin previously practiced within the field of architecture, and her rigorous sense of proportion shows. She began by making 3D models of the PAMM space in AutoCAD, working from construction drawings supplied by the building’s engineer. Grodin and PAMM worked with Cuseum (which specializes in digital-engagement technology for cultural institutions) to create 3D models in 3ds Max, integrating the models into the museum’s multimedia app with Apple’s ARKit. The show will be the focus of related STEAM educational programming during its run.

Grodin’s AR installations were developed from previous works, including hand-drawn illustrations rendered with the digital sharpness of someone who’s spent years plotting plans and sections in AutoCAD. These can be abstract, suggesting a cross section of cells, mysterious organs, or organic growths that stealthily change into cityscapes. Or they take on a graphic, 2D quality, like a map or diagram, and trailing paths begin to look like skittering insect legs.

With the jump to AR, the drawings transition to a sort of 2-and-a-half-D, formed by extrusion and layering. That’s the case with Mezzbug, Grodin’s second AR installation, placed in PAMM’s mezzanine-level theater. It’s a purple-and-blue-gradient creepy-crawly the size of a large van, with legs that twitch when you touch your screen.

Grodin simultaneously scouted locations at the museum and developed the installations, “looking for two puzzle pieces that come together.” For Terrafish, she seized on the museum’s signature feature: its 45-foot-long hanging gardens, designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc in collaboration with the museum’s architects, Herzog & de Meuron.

Terrafish’s neon viscera pulse with a respiratory rhythm. The contrast between the natural flora of the garden reaching down and Grodin’s slickly digital, animation-like shapes reaching up is striking. “It’s almost like they’re trying to reach out to the hanging gardens for a food source or to become a part of the architecture,” Inacio says.

It’s also huge. The stalks are 49 feet tall, and the base is approximately 100 feet wide—Grodin’s largest piece. She is in the process of designing two more installations for the exhibit. No other art museum has commissioned work in AR with this level of rigor and site-specificity before.

Terrafish was inspired by non-native jellyfish populating South Florida’s waters and evokes the specter of climate change and humans’ disruption of nature. Invasive Species acknowledges the mutability of ecosystems, pondering climate change as a generative force which might introduce new fauna into existence. “It’s about how this place could potentially evolve or mutate,” Grodin says. Climate change is a curious question here, not a dire warning, says Inacio: “The uncanny works that the artist created are meant to pull viewers into the serious discussion of climate change, but in an engaging and interactive way.”

Inacio and Grodin wanted these installations to be as publicly accessible as possible, placing Terrafish outside the museum gates. The exhibit is also timely, as experiencing mediated environments through smartphones becomes more common and new AR platforms reach a broader swath of consumers.

Invasive Species and its ilk are a new kind of art experience that can be extrapolated in complex and practical ways. “[AR] will become the new gold standard based on the viewer’s demand for it,” says Cuseum CEO Brendan Ciecko. This could take the form of nuanced architectural installations in the future, but it’s also easy to imagine any new public building showing off AR wayfinding at its ribbon cutting.

Grodin sees her installations as successors to past eras’ courtyard sculptures and architectural collaborations. But by adding AR, her work becomes far more interactive and mutable. It’s a step toward making architecture itself more responsive, a goal for many architects since the advent of Modernism, from dreams of modular buildings to Archigram’s mobile cities.

Edgy pioneers, such as Britain’s Archigram or the Italian Superstudio,depicted plastic architecture models as aggregations of old and new; composite images of the outdated collaged with the bold new ideas. This is largely Grodin’s approach as well. Such progenitors would have been enraptured by AR’s ability to erase boundaries between experimental “paper architecture” and brick-and-mortar buildings. Through the screen of a smartphone, you can insert the simulated into the real with new levels of immersion and access.

But ethical quandaries on the use of AR in art abound: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Inacio installed Grodin’s compositions set off from other artists’ pieces to avoid any problems of overwriting existing works in the virtual world. Consent from living artists is an issue, particularly if using AR radically recontextualizes an existing work. But what about placing a medieval stained-glass window in its long-collapsed nave, or other imaginative applications? Inacio says adding a layer of AR could add a new and possibly conflicting meaning to the original work.

That was the case for artist Sebastian Errazuriz, who used his own app to disrupt a Snapchat collaboration with sculptor Jeff Koons in an act of “symbolic vandalism.” The collaboration placed geotagged digital models of Jeff Koons’ sculptures in specific locations, and Errazuriz tagged Koons’ digital model, graffitied over in his own app. As much as AR and social media offer artists new frontiers for aesthetic expression, they also provide fresh tools to question creators’ imperial authorship.

Whenever the art world adopts a new medium, the medium itself becomes the focus rather than the subject matter the artist is directly addressing. (When you discuss Georges Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, first comes recognition of a watershed moment in cinematic expression.) “When does it get folded into the world of contemporary art? That’s when the veil is gone,” Grodin says. And for artists working with new technologies, their best work may begin when the medium is allowed to comfortably—or uncomfortably—recede into the background.

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