Cao Fei, <em>The Eternal Wave AR: Li Nova</em>, 2020, augmented reality. Courtesy of Cao Fei and Acute Art.<br/>

On the AR.Trail
Daniel Birnbaum on the Future of Art and Reality

By Daniel Birnbaum

If John Cage was right, art is sometimes an early warning system, the function of which is to prepare us for the world of tomorrow. While works of art will not save our planet, artists can sometimes give us a glimpse of future possibilities. What kind of artworld will emerge as a reaction to the climate crisis? Do we need new kinds of institutions?

A case in point: A few years ago my colleagues at Acute Art and I placed Koo Jeong A’s ice cube – an augmented reality artwork made in 2019 that she has given the title Density – in St Johns Lodge, a hidden garden inside Regent’s Park in London. Nobody saw it, yet it was there. It reflected the lush green environment, it refracted the daylight, and in the evening it turned yellow. Soon we moved it to other places and other countries without anyone travelling or anything being shipped. It looked a bit different when placed in Basel, Berlin, Cologne, Montreal, Oxford, Porto, Seoul or Venice.

One tends to think of digital artworks as somehow floating in another space, a sphere which is everywhere and nowhere. That is not the case with Koo’s cube. It’s a rare object. You can only see it at the spot where it has been installed. If you take a photo of it and send it to someone it will look as realistic as the things (or people) surrounding it.

For me this modest work, a piece of precise digital engineering, opened entirely new realms for exhibitions and for art. It returned to Regent’s Park a year later – now as an official contribution to Frieze Sculpture.

Artists have always embraced new techniques, and yet one cannot say that the art world has always been enthusiastic about modern technology, even if the last century saw moments of techno-optimism, from Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism to Nam June Paik and the 1960s movement E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology). Today techno visionaries like Laurie Anderson and Cao Fei are exploring the poetic possibilities of the latest digital tools.

Another case in point: Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music, a 1993 book on the German techno pioneers opens with a dream sequence in which founding members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider are cycling in the Alps. They stop on a mountain pass and take out the tiny computers they always carry with them. With a special code they launch simultaneous concerts in cities across the world. In each of these towns a group of pre-programmed robots perform Kraftwerk’s music.

Futuristic dreams such as this are no longer quite as revolutionary. We all carry miniature computers in our pockets and have access to innumerable globally distributed cultural events. Today we wouldn’t need pre-programmed mannequins; augmented reality (AR) is so much easier.

Clearly the art fair and biennale models that have dominated the international art world for the last quarter of a century already seems unacceptable to ecologically engaged audiences and practitioners. Thousands of people flying to another continent for a weekend to buy and sell art – also transported there by air – may no longer seem like the ideal mode of exchange. Politically engaged artists and curators flying to distant biennials to participate in discussions about urgent issues, such as the climate crisis, seems even more ridiculous.

That form of globalism will end. But what will take its place? New forms of localism? An emphasis on grassroot initiatives? Yes. No. Probably. If we want to maintain our global conversations, we need to find new means to do so.

Could today’s immersive technologies – virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – change and expand the ways we experience art? I think the potential is enormous and that that these tools will be essential to new forms of international visual culture and exchange. Will they even change art itself, just like photographic methods and mass distribution once altered our understanding of what an artwork can be? Walter Benjamin’s influential 1935 essay on mechanical reproduction opens with a quote from French poet Paul Valéry:

‘We must expect great innovations to transform entire techniques of the arts, thereby affecting artistic innovation itself and perhaps even bringing about amazing change in our very notion of art.’

In recent years, VR works have often been included in biennials and museum exhibitions, but usually in ways that obey traditional institutional structures. Could one instead imagine virtual works distributed across geographies in novel ways, connecting locals audiences in ways that create entirely new exhibition formats? In other words, will these technologies change the structure of the art world and make possible new forms of global exchange for a future in which we will be less keen to jump on a plane?

We need a new curatorial toolbox, and I’m imagining that new technologies will help us navigate the changing landscape. With every new production we at Acute Art learn more about AR as a medium. After Koo Jeong A came works by Olafur Eliasson, KAWS, Alicja Kwade, Bjarne Melgaard, and Tomas Saraceno. A little later we launched projects with Marco Brambilla, Nina Chanel Abney, Julie Curtiss, Cao Fei, Precious Okoyomon, and David Shrigley. For AR.Trail, the largest AR exhibition to date, new works by three extraordinary Australian artists have been realised: Ron Mueck, Patricia Piccinini and Reko Rennie.

I wish to thank all staff at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Koorie Heritage Trust, and Federation Square for a wonderful collaboration.

Daniel Birnbaum is Artistic Director of Acute Art.