23 Feb 2018 | Emily Friedman
XR Takes on Monet
Augmented Reality Virtual Reality

Augmented and Virtual Reality are set to revolutionize the art world, as artists begin to explore XR as a new medium and means of promoting their work, and museums incorporate XR into exhibits and programming to enhance the art viewing experience. These emerging trends raise several questions: What separates artworks in AR/VR from software applications or other forms of media? Are VR artists true artists or just glorified developers? Are contemporary VR artists going to have to prove the artistic merit of their work as photographers did in the 19th century? Can XR help museumgoers better appreciate artworks and bring art to wider audiences; or does the use of digital realities somehow cheapen the experience, taking away from the cultural value of (and aura around) great masterpieces?  

The comparison between the early days of photography and the early days of XR art we’re living in is an apt one. Then, critics claimed that photographers merely documented reality. Despite the technical and artistic decisions involved in producing a photograph, the art world hesitated to embrace the medium as a creative one. Like photography (and tubes of paint) in the 19th century or industrial fabrication in the 20th, new technologies have periodically forced society to rethink artistic conventions around what constitutes art and how art should be made, conserved and displayed.

While augmented reality layers digital material on top of the real world, virtual reality tries to simulate life itself. Art, on the other hand, traditionally reacts to or represents the real world; with some degree of distance – whether stylistic (abstraction,) metaphorical (museum setting) or physical (frame) – between object and subject. Viewers can clearly recognize a work of art for what it is, even if only because the work is consciously removed from reality (like a performance art piece) or because it resides in a gallery. But what happens when we go from contemplating a work of art (à la Ferris Bueller & co. at the Art Institute of Chicago) to being fully immersed in it? From visiting dedicated spaces and institutions for viewing art to freely accessing the same online; or, as Snap would have it, viewing a hologram of a giant Jeff Koons sculpture wherever we are by merely holding up a smartphone? Does the artist lose control over the meaning (and value) of her work when she can no longer control the circumstances in which it is experienced?

As for the viewing experience, what happens when we use XR devices to look at, experience and interact with art? Museums have been experimenting with the use of augmented reality to enhance exhibits for several years now. Back in 2014, for instance, the de Young museum in San Francisco incorporated Google Glass into a Keith Haring exhibition. Most institutions are pursuing AR via mobile app, to engage and educate visitors by adding context to works of art—the kind of extra-information precluded by the size of standard gallery wall text, including info about the artist and the time period in which a work was created as well as noteworthy visual details.

An audio guide can provide this information, sure; but an AR app turns it into a digital layer on top of the artwork itself, establishing a stronger connection. It’s a new approach to storytelling, following on the heels of iPads and QR codes in galleries, and empowering curators to increase the amount and richness of information that can supplement an exhibit. Museums are even reconstructing altered or damaged artworks in their original state in XR, allowing a view that could never be seen in real life.

Consider a 17th-century Dutch still-life painting in which the artifice and meaning of the work lies just under the finely rendered surface: A typical visitor walks right past the canvas, maybe briefly noting the impressive realism but not stopping to look more closely. There are some artworks like a Pieter Claesz breakfast scene that do require assistance (i.e. background information and visual cues) to appreciate beyond pure aesthetics. The same might not be true of a Leonardo or a sublime Rothko, but I would gladly wear AR glasses to look at a Cubist painting. And as for VR, a large museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a collection too vast to display all at once, might create virtual reality exhibits showcasing works from its archives that never get to leave storage due to limited gallery space or physical condition. You can sign me up for a virtual tour of the Met’s basement, as well.

But do museums have to adopt XR or risk becoming obsolete? Are their traditional engagement strategies and educational tools falling flat among audiences accustomed to a high level of tech permeating nearly every aspect of life, from AI assistants like Amazon Alexa to the proliferation of AR apps thanks to ARKit and ARCore? And how far will virtual reality art go in mimicking real life? If Jordan Wolfson’s VR project in last year’s Whitney Biennial is any indication, artists are already pushing the medium to extremes.

If augmenting art exhibits with XR becomes standard practice in the museum world, today’s audio guides will be replaced with museum-owned smart glasses and headset rentals. And if contemporary artists continue to create in XR, museums and galleries will have to invest in the technology to enable consumption of their work. What does it all mean for the traditional art gallery, already going extinct in the digital age? Will there be virtual art collecting? How do you ensure you are buying a truly one-of-a-kind VR artwork, and is the hardware included? Will there be virtual art museums? Why visit a museum if you can access its collection virtually from your living room? What would Da Vinci think if he knew anyone could view the Mona Lisa on the subway or at the gym? And why would the Louvre even want to make its prized possession – one of its greatest attractions – available in any other reality that does not bring crowds of tourists through its doors each day to snap selfies with La Jaconde IRL?

These questions and more are ones we will certainly grapple with as artists and consumers of culture for years to come.

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