For hundreds of years, “professional” art was considered to be that housed in museums and galleries, handpicked by elite curators. It can be argued that such a system, which is slowly morphing to stay relevant, is responsible for bringing the term “starving artist” into our everyday vernacular. Up until the 21st century, most artists had very little control over who saw their work and when.
Then the Internet arrived, and along with it, freedom and opportunity. What started as a smattering of websites featuring photos of artwork and a way to get in touch with the artist inevitably led to the formation of online communities where art could be shared and sold. For example, Etsy and DeviantArt.
Video sharing sites such as YouTube and Vimeo popped up for digital art. People whose home videos never used to see the light of day now become YouTube stars, begging the question: how many of the millions of videos and other digital projects being shared online are actually art? Who gets to decide what’s of value? And how is new technology, which has opened doors for artists worldwide, affecting the famous museums that have traditionally been considered to be authorities?
As part of the Conflux festival, the MoMA in New York became host to an uninvited exhibit that I think exemplifies the strong effect technology is having on hierarchy in the art world. I explored the “secret” augmented reality show last weekend and it sent my mind racing with thoughts about what’s possible and tolerated at the moment, and what’s bound to follow it.
We AR in MoMA is an augmented reality takeover of the Museum of Modern Art, viewable only through the savvy lens of an iPhone or Android Smartphone. Organized by Brooklynite Mark Skwarek and Holland’s Sander Veenhof, the collection of art invaded all six floors without permission, tacking on a purely digital seventh floor for good measure (the seventh floor is only viewable looking up from the sixth). Not even the outdoor sculpture garden was safe from reinterpretation by participating artists. After downloading the required application, I visited every floor. Overall, I’d say the artists who worked with Skwarek and Veenhof varied in skill level a great deal (some pieces were flawless while others appeared to be very small or pixilated). Of course, this might be intentional as part of the message, the message being that, hey, they got their stuff into the MoMA without permission.
Also noteworthy is that the MoMA has not let on that they’re upset about the invasion, which is said to last from October 9 until “forever.” Instead, the museum tweeted about it from their official Twitter. It seems that curators and officials are wise enough to see the invisible exhibit as a bold sample of where digital art is headed. In an increasingly transparent world, museums, just like corporations, need to become equally transparent in order to hold our interest in the long run and remain worthy of our trust. Rather than doing away with the uninvited art, the MoMA embraced outside interest and participation to everyone’s benefit, including their own.
That said, they could have embraced it more by putting it in the programs along with other special exhibits and making sure the museum staff were all well aware of it. With the existence of sites like YouTube, Vimeo, and, yes, even Facebook, art is changing. We, the people, choose what it is, where we view it, and in what order.
One of my favorite aspects of We AR in MoMA was being able to check out the same digital art in different settings. To explain how it works, Layar (the app) prompts a user to choose a museum floor. It uses that information and GPS technology to uncover the digital experience meant for that location. It was fun to see pieces on their assigned floors, but it was equally if not more entertaining to co-opt the already subversive art and pair it with whatever physical art or person you choose, changing the meaning of both.
For the most part, the components of the AR exhibit serve as playful commentary on modern art, sometimes specifically playing off of intended viewing locations. Among my favorite pieces were Banksy Re-enactment (A digital representation of Banksy supposedly at work on one of his graffiti masterpieces), Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos (a section of the U.S./ Mexico border where migrants passed away trying to enter the U.S., meant to be seen overlayed in the MoMA courtyard) and a giant statue of a horse mounted on top of a Campbell’s Soup can as a nod to Warhol’s redefinition of art in the sixties. Some floors offer two experiences, which you can flip between. Often, the alternate experiences included videos, which unfortunately were forever “loading” on my phone.
Such tech issues are sure to become history as the future itself loads, however. What will it bring? It’s easy to imagine a world where people walk around, changing their surroundings at whim and unlocking new art as they analyze what’s in front of them. The line between digital and physical (will we refer to the physical as “native?”) is sure to become thinner.
The MoMA’s measured promotion of We AR in MoMA speaks to the confusion surrounding the abrupt changes already happening around the perception of art, but the fact that’s it’s been allowed and promoted at all is something to celebrate.