A description of Augmented Reality as we know it today first appeared in 1901, when L. Frank Baum’s sci-fi novel called “The Master Key” was published. In this book, Baum describes the workings of a so-called ‘Character Marker.’ The marker consists of a pair of electronic spectacles that, in real-time, overlays data in the form of letters onto the foreheads of people to mark their character (e.g. ‘E’ for Evil and ‘G’ for Good).
Fast-forward to a little over a century later and Augmented Reality (AR) has turned from a science-fiction concept into a practice that is on its way to become a 50 billion dollar industry with 2 billion mobile AR users per month in 2022 (Arpost.com). Big tech companies are quick to jump on the bandwagon and are starting to invest in this technology. In 2017, Apple and Google both released Software Development Kits (SDKs), the ARKit and ARCore respectively, that allow developers to easily build and distribute their own AR-experiences (Slate.com). Augmented Reality has seeped into many fields of society such as gaming, commerce and entertainment. Now, it is invading the sacred institutional walls of the traditional museum.
Hijacking art galleries
At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, a group of artists is using AR to take over a gallery space without the actual permission of the museum itself. It is called MoMAR and it is a self-claimed “unauthorised gallery concept aimed at democratising physical exhibition spaces, museums, and the curation of art within them (MoMAR.gallery).” The creators developed a free, mobile AR-app for Android and iOS. In order to view the ‘guerrilla’ art, visitors point their mobile device at the artworks in the Jackson Pollock room.
The first exhibition in March, titled “Hello, were from the Internet,” for example included an overlay with the lay-out of an Instagram story that read “PAINTERS BLOCK!!!” By overlaying their own artwork on top of the curated works of Pollock, it can be argued that MoMAR is challenging the role of the museum’s curators as gatekeepers of the art. It is hereby virtually “hacking,” without actually violating the law, the traditional environment of the museum.
Interestingly, the developers of the MoMAR app highly encourage other artists to execute similar AR-exhibitions all over the world. Artists from China to Serbia have voiced enthusiasm for the project and hope to execute AR-invasions in museums in their own cities. MoMAR is open-source and provides an extensive instruction of its software so artists and enthusiasts may produce their own AR-apps.
Looking at the aims of MoMar, it appears so that MoMAR is actually using AR as a means for activism. It purposely chooses to place the AR-exhibition inside of a high art institution. The project constitutes, even if not physically, a direct protest against the exclusive character of the traditional museum. This is reminiscent of the art-strategy of détournement (literally ‘hijacking’) that the activist organisation of the Situationists deployed in the 1950s. The artist or activist here uses an existing media artefact, alters it and in this process gives it a new meaning (Geroimenko 8).
This is not the first time that a physical exhibition has been augmented. For example, in 1991 a project called “masterpieces without the director” offered its own cassette tapes to visitors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as an alternative to the official audio guide provided by the museum itself. However, the rise of AR has introduced the new phenomenon of virtually “hacking” physical art spaces. This first occurred on a big scale shortly in 2010, when Sander Veenhof and Mark Swarek took over multiple museum floors at the MoMA with the aim of challenging the notion of (control over) public and private spaces. These instances of AR taking over museums without their collaboration pose some serious questions that will be even more significant for the art industry in the near future because of the growing accessibility of AR development. Who owns the virtual space? And what action can a museum undertake if a third-party virtually trespasses their walls without their consent?
Who controls virtual space?
As a critique of the museum, the creators of the MoMAR app argue that the act of “opening art to the public simultaneously closes its definition to the commons; explicitly defining both space and art as exclusive and invulnerable (MoMAR.gallery).” They thus protest the way the museum visitor has traditionally been reduced to a merely passive observer of the (very limited amount of) art that passes the gate of the museum’s curators. Using AR, however, opens up new possibilities for reinterpreting places (Liao, Humpreys 1430). AR technology has an impact on the space that it operates within. At the opening of MoMARs gallery, for example, around 50 people gathered in a gallery room that is usually way less crowded. An extreme case of this basic physical effect caused by AR is Pokémon Go, an AR game that has caused huge disruptive gatherings around public spaces such as monuments.
It is clear that the physical space now contains many more dimensions than before, and even though the ‘old’ geometric dimensions are still dominant, they are no longer more important than any other dimension (Manovich 223). However, physical location still places a certain value upon virtual objects, if the location is controlled by gatekeepers in the form of curators (Geroimenko 42). In a certain way, the artists of MoMAR are redefining the gallery space, but their works are still viewed “with the aura of objects canonised by a high art location” (Geroimenko 42).
The future of AR and the museum industry
Art & New Media researcher Pau Waelder even calls the possibility of redefining gallery space using AR a mere utopian vision (56). However, museums did recently begin to actually embrace AR as a means of enhancing the visitor experience. The modern museum visitor is always looking for stimuli and simultaneously demands information, entertainment and active participation (Neuberger, Egger 245). A Digital Revolution report from 2014 tells us that already 69% of people brought a mobile device with them to the museum (Ding 2). Currently, unauthorised AR-artworks can thrive in museum environments, because there are no legal limits when it comes to the control of a virtual space. This question has only just began to be explored in court. However, it is possible that strategic forces will try to limit and possibly even censor some of the production of virtual space (Liao, Humpreys, 1432).
In order to survive in the digital era, a museum could actually benefit from unauthorised AR-projects such as MoMAR. Or even better, contracts could be established between artists and museums in order to set rules about what may or may not be augmented.
It is highly likely that AR will further transform curated art spaces because it is lawless, low-cost and free of physical limitations. Right now, everything seems possible. Time will tell if public space is there for the take, or if there is going to be a war over that space. The boundaries between virtual and physical space are becoming more and more blurred and this will have ethical and juridical but also socio-cultural implications in a lot of different areas.