Augmented Reality

Even though I’m not an artist, I conceive of my projects like artworks: the content needs to reflect intelligently on its form, not pretend it doesn’t exist. From the beginning of my work here, I decided that the point was not just to write about topics relevant to a Camera Club on a blog but to try and use the formal proposition of a Camera Club with a blog to try and understand contemporary photography. So I want to ask the simplest version of this formal question: what relevancy does camera-based photography have in the contemporary art of today?

The term contemporary art (not Contemporary Art, the periodized movement) means a responsibility to respond to emerging aesthetic conditions. Recently these conditions have been overdetermined by digital virtual innovations meaning that contemporary art has been easily elided with “new media” art. The fundamental assumption of most “new media” art is that to respond to virtualized digital environment, it need take place within that environment. It’s obvious why camera-based photography has struggled to find its place in this narrow definition of the contemporary: a camera is a device that both exists in and (usually) requires a physical environment.

I have a problem with this definition of contemporary/”new media” , not (just) because it leaves no place for photography but because it risks implying that digital aesthetics is an autonomous space that spontaneously creates its own conditions and has no bearing on our material world. This seems to be why the earliest digital art communities were typically geared towards virtual utopian projects: they imagined their world was literally a no-place cut-off from the “real” world. A newer generation of artists allow for the “real” world to influence the aesthetics of the virtual world, but not the other way around. Artists like Cory Arcangel or the collective are preoccupied with producing digital equivalents to moments in the history of art or material culture. This type of art basically follows from the computer-science discipline of “Virtual Reality”, which is specifically interested in the recontextualization/reproduction of a material, “real” world phenomenon into a digitized/virtualized form.

In order to open a space for photography and a dialog between real and virtual, I’m suggesting a new critical approach, also borrowed from computer-science, called “Augmented Reality”.

Augmented Reality, or AR, is a relatively new direction for interfacing with digital computing. Instead of imbedding the user into the immaterial, virtual environment of the computer, AR projects parts of that virtual world into our  physical world. An AR equipped device simultaneously captures a live image and renders into that image some computer-generated artifact. Using different forms of gesture and spatial recognition, the device lets the user and their environment interact with the computer-generated rendering as if it were physically present in the user’s space. It’s essentially an interactive hologram that can only be seen when you look through the screen of your device.

As I see it, the formal principles of Augmented Reality, extracted from their use in videogames and cybernetics, can be an incredibly useful critical tool for contemporary art, especially photography. As a formal critique, AR means thinking about the ways in which the digital world intervenes in the material world; how the social, political, and aesthetic innovations of digital communities change the way the material world works and how we look at it.

It is a well worn critical insight that the advent of cheap viewfinder cameras changed the way we looked, even when we weren’t holding a camera, and I believe the same thing holds true for the effect of digital computing on material culture. Johnathan Crary makes a similar point specifically about vision in his book Techniques of the Observer, when he writes that a wide range of emerging technologies, “are relocating vision to a plane severed from a human observer.” While this is basically true, it only talks about vision and  in a way that seems rather technologically deterministic to me; “severing human observers” has a sort of violent Skynet undertone to it, as if suddenly these new technologies are enslaving us.

A digital billboard crashes on a foggy night in the Ukraine (photography: felliniesque, reddit, click for link)

I think the benefits of thinking in terms of AR is that it provides the opposite perspective; it reintegrates technological innovation back into the fabric of human life, and in doing so reveals the origins of the former in the latter.

This is important because technological determinism (of which most “new media” indulges in) is a kind of technological fetishism that works to replace relationships between people with relationships between technologies. Digital culture subjects us to all kinds of outrageous social, political, and economic limitations that we would never accept in “real” life but that we take for granted when they are presented as the byproduct of technological systems. For example, would you consent to the USPS selling the right to look at all your mail to advertisers so that they could read it and figure out what specific products you were likely to buy? I doubt it, but that’s exactly what Google Mail does. Would you continue to trust a company that surreptitiously hid a chemical in your medicine to make sure you stayed dependent on their products? Sony BMG admitted to doing something similar in 2005 when it was discovered that they had purposely infected users’ computers with malware as part of a digital rights management scheme. Would you buy a new car from a dealer who threatened to sue you if you tried to resell it? Microsoft tried that one.

Augemented Reality is a strategy to question and set in tension the principles of digital culture by (re)introducing them into the material world from whence they come. In doing so, AR lets us critique not just new ways of seeing,  but changes in the aesthetics of politics and social behavior as well. So, what does AR photography look like?

Andrea Galvani, Deconstruction of a mountain #2, C-print on aluminum dibond, wood white frame, 108 x 130 cm (click for link)

In his series Deconstruction of a Mountain, Andrea Galvani photographs natural environments and then reinserts his prints back into the environment to be photographed again. For Galvani, the act of photography is understood as a feedback loop; an iterative process that travels back and forth across virtual and real space, becoming more and more complex as it picks up traces of the logic of each, like a tone that gathers distortion as it courses through an audio-loop. The structure works according to the principles of Augmented Reality wherein there is an interface or exchange between real and virtual spaces. The literal placement of  digital photographs into their physical site moves in one direction (virtual–>real) while the final photograph moves the image in the other direction, back into the virtual space of digital photography (real–>virtual). This interface subjects the history of nature photography to the decontextualization and manipulation of digital photography just as it subjects digital photography and printmaking to the romanticism and site-specificity of nature photography.

Tim Hyde, Untitled (Monument) MV03, 2008 (click for link)

In a series of untitled photographs from 2008, Tim Hyde collages together several fixed-frame shots of a man holding a piece of cardboard to create a single coherent but impossible photograph of space. A poetic proof of  the inter-dependence of space and time, Hyde’s photos compress time to produce various geometric constructions that recall 3D models in both their blank texture and paradoxical shapes. Hyde takes advantage of the formal possibilities of Augmented Reality to virtually manipulate real space but without recourse to the actual technology–Hyde physically cuts and pastes the photographs himself. As such, his photographs speak to the potential for the analog “real” world to learn new strategies from virtual innovation and experimentation. This touches on the potential social and political import of AR theory: the liberatory tools of digital communities like Facebook or Twitter, so vaunted in the recent Arab Spring, are potentially available to communities that are totally without access to such technologies; what we need is creative translators.

Jim Sanborn, Horse Valley, Utah IV, 1995, 30″x36″, (click for link)

A relatively early pioneer in Augmented Reality photography, Jim Sanborn, has been making large-scale nature photographs that incorporate computer-generated patterns of projected light since 1995. Referencing the computer assisted drawings (CAD) drawings used by topographers, Sanborn’s Topographic Projections series document light projections onto landforms that can be measured in square miles. Instead of mapping these virtual contours digitally in virtual space, Sanborn moves the operation into real space unsticking the content (a contoured mountain range) from its usual means of production (auto-CAD). The works open an uncanny gap between what an image appears to be (a digital manipulation) and what it actually is (a photograph of a luminous phenomenon).