COORDINATES: The fascinating collaborative AR Art Project

After a long weekend of work (conference proposals, VR projects, etc.), we were delighted to stumble upon Nancy Baker Cahill’s AR art project. There’s nothing like augmented reality to transform your workspace even if it’s nothing more than stepping inside an art studio – someone else’s work environment.

The genius of AR is that it transforms space while keeping you spatial grounded. If VR is the full-blown HoloDeck, AR is the 21st-century version of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion in your hand.

You can get a two-dimensional sense of what it’s like to step into Cahill’ studio on Vimeo – though you really should download the app for yourself. Built on ARKit and ARCore, it’s incredibly well done. You can wander around her studio and even look at her art pinned to walls.

AR Art – a new model for public art

Initially, Cahill created the AR app, 4th Wall, to share her art and give viewers greater agency. From Art News,

In its initial iteration, the app enabled people around the world to see Baker Cahill’s works on paper and virtual reality drawings, which often focus on the human body as a site of struggle, as augmented reality—that is, transposed onto her viewers’ environment via their Androids, iPhones, and iPads.

But wanting to push into the public AR art space, the 4th Wall app added a new feature last month, “Coordinates”. This is where Cahill’s AR art project takes a fascinating turn.

“Coordinates,” . . . allows users to activate site-specific pieces by Baker Cahill and five participating artists—Tanya Aguiñiga, Beatriz Cortez, Kenturah Davis, Micol Hebron, and Debra Scacco—through their smartphones and tablets. With the exception of Hebron’s and Scacco’s works, all of the AR projects on “Coordinates” are based on already existing artworks.

While the new pieces are site-specific, unlike many early AR apps there are – thankfully – no markers. Arrows within the app direct you toward the geo-located artworks that expand in size on your phone the closer you get to them.

Coordinates AR Art public project
“Carm’s Crew” by Shizu Saldamando

As you might guess, with only five artists, there’s not many of the works around – though they are much more accessible than they would be as physical objects. It is a new model for public art that maintains curatorial control while opening access. Cahill describes Coordinates as a project

. . . created by artists that activate the historically, politically or culturally significant sites they have chosen. Coordinates, an AR project created from the desire to use technology as a subversive form of resistance, aims to inspire thoughtful dialogue and expand our understanding of public art.

According to her, another round of artists will make their appearance on the app in the near future. But you’d need thousands more to really have an impact.

The ethical dilemma of AR art

And thousands and thousand later . . . could there be too much of a good thing? Expanding access to public art is critical but what happens when it leaps out of the organizer’s control?

As Scott Belsky observed, it won’t be long before augmented reality objects can be placed anywhere by anyone. Just as YouTube has done for amateur musicians and fashion designers, it will open new opportunities for unrecognized artists and those previously excluded. But with AR art everywhere, will creativity flourish or disappear in a tsunami of quantity?

The problem is no different than what we face now with information – except that the challenge of filtering is limited to our screens. With augmented reality, filtering will become a spatial and environmental concern in our everyday lives. And right now, we’re nowhere close to even understanding the problem, much less coming up with a solution.

Nancy Baker Cahill’s projects are fascinating, positioning themselves as a transitional stage between art as physically grounded object and art as augmented reality. What follows will be even more fascinating as we begin to navigate new immersive environments flooded with multiple virtual layers of artistic, commercial and social activities.

Download 4th Wall for iOS or Android and take a glimpse of where we’re headed in the future.

AR Art from the Coordinates Project