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A Times Square Augmented-Reality Project Makes the Real Surreal
Microsoft and artist Mel Chin collaborated on an art installation that was part physical, part virtual, and completely essential.

There was a shipwreck in Times Square—or at least there appeared to be. What looked like the wreck of a 19th-century clipper ship sat in the heart of the square in New York City, only a few feet from the TKTS ticket-sales booth. At its front was the figurehead of a young woman, but behind that the ship’s ribbing looked more like that of a whale.

The work, called Wake, was one of two projects by American artist Mel Chin on display in Times Square from July 11 through Sept. 5. The figurehead was modeled after Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” who was all the rage in this country in 1850 and 1851 when P.T. Barnum put her on a national tour. The wreck was a recreation of the USS Nightingale, which hauled tea, passengers, and slaves during its runs. The artwork is called Wake partially because Lind is actually an animatronic sculpture and regularly wakes, looks up at her surroundings, and gives a small sigh.

The second piece that was on display is called Unmoored, and it took a little help to see. Using an augmented-reality (AR) viewing device, viewers could see Lind’s ship lift up into the air, then magically become whole again before sailing off high above. Soon, other ships—141 of them, all based on actual boats involved in climate research—filled the Times Square sky and soared through the crossroads until the lanes became too jammed and they stopped. An audio track gave the viewer the feeling of being underwater, as if New York City had been hit with a calamity and was flooded. Part of the piece’s goal was to bring awareness of climate issues. Chin was asking the viewer to wake up, as well.

While Chin is a multimedia artist, AR is a new area for him. This project was made in collaboration with Microsoft, and actually started with a critique. In a discussion with Microsoft, Chin asked employees if their technology could do anything he couldn’t do. While he didn’t mean for the comment to lead to a project, that’s what happened.

Wake was one of two projects by artist Mel Chin on display in Times Square this summer. The figurehead on the ship was modeled after Jenny Lind, an opera singer known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” and the shipwreck itself was a recreation of the USS Nightingale. [Image courtesy of Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts.]

“It started with a series of discussions and introductions,” Chin explains. “It was more where they were intrigued by my critique of phones and devices: My understanding was that these devices like cell phones and laptops have reduced human empathy, not increased it. And one thing that studies show is that a phenomenon has the capacity to bring people together and create empathy. However, that phenomenon is usually tragic, like a shooting in Florida or hurricane in America. So therefore, the question was how do we put phenomenon within the device itself? And that could be in the shape of a work of art.”

The elements of Wake and Unmoored came together in different parts of the world. The AR developers supplied by Microsoft were based in Moscow. The ship’s massive ribs were carved at the University of North Carolina–Asheville’s STEAM Studio, with students and teachers completing work supervised by Mel Chin Studio.

Artist Mel Chin created both Wake and Unmoored, and is shown here at the project’s unveiling in Times Square this June. [Photo by Troy Dreier.]

Microsoft was on hand for the pieces’ unveilings and created a special viewing booth for the first 3 days of the exhibit. For a richer AR experience, people could visit the Microsoft HoloLens booth next to Wake, open from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and use a HoloLens for their viewing. During those 3 days, 700 people tried the HoloLens. After that, viewers relied on their phones and the free iOS or Android apps created for the project.

A Union of Technology and Art

The project is an odd fit for Microsoft at a time when AR is almost entirely used for gaming. But the company has an initiative called Microsoft in Culture that looks for provocative cultural partnerships to take part in.

“Arts and culture is one the primary verticals that we go after. We also do collaborations and partnerships with sports and music and entertainment, and actually just social-good entities,” explains Ryan Gaspar, director of brand partnerships at Microsoft. “So this falls within that construct and is true to our mission. It’s all about empowering the vision of the individual or the organization, and in this instance it was Mel’s vision and bringing that to life through our technology and collaboration.”

Two things about this project attracted Microsoft. First, it liked the idea of creating a conversation about climate change in Times Square. And second, it liked that this piece couldn’t have existed without technology. It never would have seen life otherwise, so it’s a combination of Chin’s creative vision and Microsoft’s tech, Gaspar says.

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