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A Times Square Augmented-Reality Project Makes the Real Surreal

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While Chin already employed 3D artists who worked on Unmoored’s look, Microsoft supplied artists and developers to flesh out the concept, storyboard the experience, and create the final six-minute AR animation.

Getting those six minutes was a yearlong project, starting with introductory conversations to see if the two parties wanted to work together and if the collaboration felt mutually beneficial. They then defined the scope of the project and the particular role Microsoft would play in it. While Gaspar declines to put a dollar value on the project, he points out that Chin had access to Microsoft developers, engineers, and other employees, as well as those at a partner agency that helped with activation and development. “It’s not about the value of the dollars. It’s really the invaluable resources that we bring to the table,” he says.

As for results, Gaspar says he hopes viewers wake to Chin’s message about climate change, and also appreciate the magic in mixed-reality video.

Transformations in the Art World

A public art project of this magnitude has many parents, and at the unveiling, many people, including a New York state senator, a member of the New York assembly, and the commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, stood in line to get their turns at the microphone. Two groups, however, were paramount: No Longer Empty, a nonprofit that curates public art exhibits in New York City, and the Queens Museum, which also displayed an exhibition of Chin’s work this summer. Listen, a marketing and advertising agency that specializes in audio events, managed the creative and technical production for Unmoored.

“You put on this headset and all of a sudden the digital world and the physical world are matched in a way that you’ve never really experienced before,” said Sarah Ibrahim, director of production at Listen, at the unveiling. “To make a piece like this, you need a large team of people that are doing all manner of different things, so we had amazing researchers and Mel’s amazing assistants helping us with clarifying the vision for every detail of the piece.”

For Manon Slome, chief curator and co-founder of No Longer Empty, using technology in artwork is a way of advancing art as a whole. While it might seem like a sudden change for viewers—bringing modern age technology into art—she says this kind of progression is nothing new.

“The way I look from a historical point of view is that the technology is going to allow art to have a whole step forward. There’s many times in the history of art that art has moved forward because of advances in technology and optics,” Slome explains. “I think that for an ongoing generation of artists and certainly artists that are born into this technology, and the way kids are so adept with it, it’s going to be an ever-more-powerful tool and a very democratic tool in some ways. Democratic not in the production because, as we found, we couldn’t have done those pieces unless Microsoft had come behind it—it’s a fortune to do it—but to bring it to an audience, it has a certain democratic impulse to it because it’s something that is readily available.”

This retouched image shows the augmented reality experience as visitors might have seen it. [Photo courtesy of Microsoft.]

Chin is in good company in adding next-generation technologies to his pieces. As Carol Stakenas, executive director at No Longer Empty, points out, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art runs an art and technology commissioning program that explores ways artists can layer technology into their works as a way of bringing viewers into the experience. She also notes a strong interest in mixed reality in public art commissions and international contemporary art biennials.

While Slome sees technology as a way forward in art, she also believes artists need to treat it carefully to avoid using it as a gimmick. She finds that she appreciates physical objects more than images on a screen.

The difference between the real and the unreal is at the heart of Unmoored, and that’s where its magic is found. AR here doesn’t bring viewers into a strange new world, but adds a layer of strangeness that pulls them into the world they’re already in and shows them something they might not have noticed before.

Unmoored is something that you can hold your phone or use the HoloLens and experience. It is a surreal experience embedded to connect us with our reality,” Chin says. “It is not about convincing you to believe in climate change or not believe in climate change. It is there to provoke a question like ‘How will you rise?,’ and that is the most important contribution I think we all can make.”

[This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "A Times Square Augmented-Reality Project Makes the Real Surreal."]

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