Augmented Reality Revolution

Mark Skwarek, ART-BASEL-LOBBY-1_3.jpg, 2012, augmented reality intervention [courtesy of the artist]

As US government financing plummets in seemingly every area of public interest (excepting wars on terror, drugs, and other abstractions), and everything from space exploration to prison management falls into corporate hands, the future of municipal open spaces both physical and digital—such as the public square, and the online forum room—seems bleak. Artists armed with new apps designed for smart phones and tablets are reclaiming these points of congregation, using augmented reality technology to reveal unsavory realities and, perhaps, to project bright possible futures.

“As embodied beings, everything we do has to be done somewhere. No one is free to perform an action unless there is someplace where she can perform it.”1

The long-held sanctity of public space has begun to disintegrate. Public thoroughfares have fallen prey to what is now known as “café creep.”2 Many areas that were once public have been partially or completely privatized, sold, or lent to private institutions, changing the way these spaces can be used. In the face of this erosion of shared, communal space, groups of artists and activists have turned to the digital realm as a platform for dissent, where the concerns of the people can be seen and heard. Work in augmented reality (AR) shows particularly great promise in changing the way we view and interact with public space: unlike other digital media, AR projects itself into the physical world. Through mobile technology, users can let AR overlay digital content onto physical markers, making additional layers accessible to viewers using their smart phones, tablets, or other devices. These projects can be site-specific—that is, accessible only to individuals at the physical location where the digital work is moored—or triggered by a specific image. AR applications such as Layar, Blippar, and Aurasma allow users to engage with dozens of tags: advertisements, personal messages, and sometimes art. Many AR tags are attached to ubiquitous logos or images such as dollar bills or Starbucks cups—hidden symbols lurking in our pockets, crumpled and discarded in the street, waiting for us to see them through this new lens. By layering information and disrupting accepted narratives associated with particular locations, artists working in AR have pioneered a new form of spatial and temporal remixing, allowing us all to compose and collaborate on new realities, built upon the old. In this way, AR is capable of restituting a public dimension to privatized spaces.

In 2011, while members of the newly formed Occupy movement were encountering significant hurdles in their attempt to demonstrate on Wall Street—not the least of which were police barricades around areas of the financial district—a group of artists was launching a project called AR Occupy Wall Street.3 The organizers of this project—including artist Mark Skwarek, one of the founding members of Manifest.AR—were reluctant to leave the physical heart of what had become a national issue, and thus staged a series of digital interventions sited in and around the area’s financial institutions. These AR artworks were designed to provide a visual manifestation of the protestors’ opposition to what they believed to be the social injustices born of the culture of Wall Street, and to digitally reclaim the space that was made inaccessible to them in the physical world.

A VR image of the Art Basel 2012 lobby in Miami Beach.

Mark Skwarekbasel_head.jpg, 2012, augmented reality intervention
[courtesy of Mark Skwarek]

One such work by Elvira Kalviste, titled Bull Caging (2011), put a virtual cage around Arturo di Modica’s 1989 Charging Bull, a bronze sculpture located two blocks south of the Exchange. Skwarek’s own ProtestAR (2011) meanwhile placed life-sized images of individuals holding handmade signs around the area. The work offered anyone who wanted to be involved in the protests—even people who were not or could not be a part of the physical occupations taking place around the country—a chance to participate digitally. By sending Skwarek photos of themselves holding their own signs, participants could be integrated into the digital environment, as part of an AR picket line. These projects may be a bit heavy-handed in their approaches, but, like the Occupy movement itself, they are also energetic, ultimately hopeful, and determined to take root and to grow in the cracks of the existing system.

Of the various series of uninvited artworks that have been superimposed onto private properties and onto the insides of exclusive institutions over the last few years, many have been initiated by Manifest.AR, an “international artists collective,” according to the group’s website, “working with emergent forms of augmented reality as interventionist public art.”4 In 2010, they staged a rogue exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the Conflux festival for contemporary psychogeography, a conference held annually in New York since 2003 and devoted, according to its website, to the “investigation of everyday urban life through emerging artistic, technological and social practice.”

A surreal digital collage featuring several mythical creatures.

MarkSkwarekpool_hopping_bULL_iSLAND_MEDIUM_2625__mark_skwarek copy.jpg, 2012, live augmented reality tour/performance [courtesy of Mark Skwarek]

In 2011, Manifest.AR infiltrated the Venice Biennale. One of the highlights of that installation was an early iteration of Tamiko Thiel’s since-ongoing series, Shades of Absence, in which life-sized golden silhouettes of artists whose public art has faced censorship are surrounded by large halos, composed of words that have been used to discredit their respective creative endeavors. A recent version of this project, titled Shades of Absence: Governing Bodies, was shown in Washington, DC in 2013 during the Manifest.AR invitational exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery. According to Thiel, the effort was “a monument to artists censored due to pressure from high U.S. government officials.”5 Artists whose silhouettes were incorporated into the piece include Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Paul Cadmus, and the NEA 4. This work is an ongoing installation tied not only to the Corcoran, but also to the US Capitol Building. In digitally claiming private spaces such as those of the Biennale as valid sites for critique and thus, as platforms for change, Manifest.AR challenges the branding of cultural institutions while questioning and subverting the exclusivity of the art world.

AR has also provided a means of anti-corporate campaigning. The technology’s image recognition capabilities present the artist/activist with the ability, essentially, to hack corporate identities and modify aspects of a corporation’s visual presence to reveal criticisms that have been made against them. Artists working in this vein use the ubiquity of certain logos both to increase the reach of the artist’s project, and to place work within a variety of global contexts. One example is Skwarek’s collaborative AR installation with Joseph Hocking, The Leak in Your Hometown (2010-ongoing), which allows users to see a computer-generated image of a large pipe with oil pouring out of it and billowing upward, simply by pointing their mobile devices at any BP logo—a clear reference to the BP oil spill in 2010, widely considered one of the worst environmental disasters in US history.6

Other artists have used AR to reimagine existing public spaces, or again, to reveal the suppressed truths beneath them. In PolyCopRiotNode, an ongoing installation by the collective Channel Two (CH2), menacing gray police officers dressed in riot gear (complete with gas masks) tower above the user, their arms partially outstretched as though preparing for action. The work has been placed in locations around the United States, including Washington, DC and Chicago—areas chosen by CH2 based on reports of police brutality. The unsettling presence of PolyCopRiotNode digitally pantomimes actual events in recent history, keeping easily repressed ghosts of contemporary social control active and in view. Artists Will Pappenheimer and Zachary Brady use AR technology to defy gravity, claiming the sky as their canvas. Through their recent installation Fishing in the Sky (2014), sited on the D-Street lawn in South Boston, viewers are invited to write or a draw a message to be displayed in real time as part of an outdoor curated exhibition by ArtLAB. As a result, exuberant skywriting and cloud drawings fill the sky, stretching out to the horizon. This opportunity to use the sky as a forum for expression is powerful and touching, providing citizens with the ability to affect even the most expansive spaces around them.

A VR image of the Art Basel 2012 lobby in Miami Beach.

Mark Swarek, basel_flood_1_1.jpg, 2012, augmented reality intervention
[courtesy of Mark Skwarek]

The necessity of viewers’ interaction with their immediate environment in order to see these works highlights the community-based performative aspect of AR. Although separated by half a century, this type of digital work shares a spiritual core with the happenings of the late 1950s and 1960s: at the heart of both traditions is a desire to merge art with life—that is, a recognition that, in the words of Allan Kaprow, “Art [is] not separate from experience,” and that “environment is a process of interaction.”7 Like the happenings of the mid-20th century, art in augmented reality is experiential. A participant’s physical presence is required in order to trigger the digital response; the act of discovery is a vital aspect of the work. AR art can exist anywhere, and anyone with access to a smart phone can not only view but also create new worlds, becoming an urban planner or public artist for whom public space is a drawing board, a communal forum for experimentation and engagement. This mechanism is a welcome foil to the bureaucracy inherent to actually designing and activating physical public space—processes that might be stymied by conflicting political visions or reflective of an urban elite’s desires. AR can thus mediate these difficult physical realities with digital representations of the hopes, desires, or fears of the “99%,” making the technology a potent medium not only for artistic expression but also for social change.

Public space, defined in its opposition to private space, has always been politicized; this aspect has in recent decades revealed itself to be as true of the digital realm as it is of physical locales. Augmented reality is not yet a part of most people’s daily lives, but as the technological ground begins to shift, and as we spend more of our lives online, it isn’t difficult to imagine a time in the near future when its use will no longer be so limited. The digital already bleeds back into the physical world; as the Internet becomes increasingly surveilled, censored, and privatized, the liminal realm of AR will become an all-the-more-potent political space in which citizens must confront these challenges to access.


1 Margaret Kohn, Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space (New York: Routledge, 2004), 172.
2 Jerold S. Kayden, Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000).
3 Colin Moynihan, “Wall Street Protest Begins, With Demonstrators Blocked,” The New York Times, September 17, 2011.
4 “About Manifest.AR,”
5 Tamiko Thiel, “Artwork Blog,”
6 Alan Silverleib, “The Gulf Spill: America’s Worst Environmental Disaster?”, August 10, 2010,
7 Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, LLD, 1993, 2003), XXV.