Alert the critics: The cutting edge of New York City’s art avantgarde can now be found at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. Amid the blistering doldrums of summer, Apple has offered [AR]T Walk a guided tour of their new augmented reality exhibit. Co-curated with the New Museum, the tour is being offered in five other cities around the world: London, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, though the latter has been suspended indefinitely due to the political instability.
The star-studded slate of contributing artists appears as if it has been plucked straight out of a curator’s dreams: Nick Cave, duo Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, John Giorno, Cao Fei, Carston Höller, and Pipilotti Rist were each commissioned to make their first augmented reality work for the show.
Though all the pieces are the same in every location, the tour here in NYC, a local Apple employee informed me, is the best of the lot. This is because “it’s in, you know, Central Park.” And he was right; the combination of the park’s natural quietude with the explosive thrum of the cityscape nearby is an electrifying backdrop for art that a few mere years ago would have been relegated to the world of dreams.
Before you go running off to the park, know now that you won’t be able to see [AR]T Walk on your own. Lamentably, Apple maintains a draconian hold over who can and cannot access the art. Though augmented reality is the imposition and coexistence of digital content atop physical space (as opposed to virtual reality which is entirely a fabricated world) access to the virtual elements of [AR]T Walk are only accessible on a commercially unavailable, tricked out iPhone. There is no other way to view the art on your own sans Apple.
The company’s control over viewership is so totalitarian that the tour guides are actually instructed to ask their participants whether they believe these works could be called public art (my tour guide, in fact, said that the average answer supplied in his groups is no, and that they are worried, perhaps belatedly, about the corporatization of public spaces in AR).
There are some pitfalls in [AR]T Walk that forbode how privately-owned, publically-installed digital art could be utilized to feed the already powerful American corporatocracy. Though the tour is free, Apple requires pre-registration with personal contact information for a slot in one of its ten person tours. Also, each tour begins and ends inside the ‘gift shop,’ their cubic, glass and chrome store on Fifth Avenue.
[AR]T walk begins like a Genuis Bar appointment: a cheery Apple t-shirt-wearing greeter checks you in on an iPad and escorts you upstairs to wait for the rest of your group to arrive. My lead guide, Ryan, was a dulcet-voiced millennial who gave off the impression of a San Francisco prepster with the energy of a cruise ship ‘Fun’ manager. He was joined by his taciturn right-hand man, Alexis, whose main job was to outfit us in some sparkly new tech: an iPhone 10S Max and a set of Studio Beats Headphones. This new uniform was indistinguishable from the many civilian park-goers; we never looked out of place, as there were always those around us taking pictures of the lakes and trees.
The experience of viewing art in [AR]T walk is unique in that it is inextricable from the tour itself. This is in part due to the functional, technical requirements necessary to access the virtual world, but mainly because there is a mandatory talk back after every piece is viewed. The tour guide serves as an augmented reality medium; he unlocks each piece for the group manually on a master iPad, he chooses when each work ends, and then he places substantial pressure on the group to discuss feelings about the work.
On my walk, Ryan asked our group the following: “what adjectives did you choose to describe your experience?” “do you feel lighter?” “how did looking inside the tree make you feel?” “how did it feel to navigate virtual space working with a partner?” “did you have an impulse for creating destruction or order?”
The tour itself is best thought of as part peripatetic lecture, part illusional collective consciousness, and part therapy session.
The most successful pieces in [AR]T exploit the experience’s precarious balance between viewing art in a boundless, public space and viewing art in its most solitarily form, on a phone screen connected to headphones. These works incorporated visual splendor that popped off the tiny rectangle screen with aural crescendo and kinetic movement.
Rist’s show-stopping International Liquid Finger Prayer is an opalescent manifestation of the Pynchonian scream across the sky. A slinky, serpentine rainbow dances around buildings, fountains, and clouds to form the words of a breathy poem incanted simultaneously by Rist. “Mother,” she screams. Once more, louder: “MOTHER.” Her words are transient, sometimes inscrutable, yet undeniably urgent. “Reduce, reuse, & recycle,” she trills with many rolling Rs. This piece is melodical liquid, a pure energy infusion, a call to action.
Djurberg and Berg also shine with This is It, an interactive work that effortlessly translates the duo’s characteristic crudeness into AR’s modern gloss. A commentary on the nature of viewership in immersive reality, the experience begins with the viewer as autonomous protagonist on a quest for “It,” and ends with the viewer as voyeur of an existentialist fairytale. The magnificent score, a multi-tonal ohm punctuated by a militant baseline, blooms synchronously with the narrative and elevates the piece to a pleasurable totality of stimulation that is simply unachievable in any other medium.
As with any tool, augmented reality is a vehicle for expression that can be utilized to varying degrees of success. Cao Fei’s Trade Eden is a relic that commemorates the tired, anticapitalist critique of the 20th century. This piece is a useful reminder that just using a cutting edge medium is not enough to make an artwork itself a boon of progress. It’s antipode, Through created by Carsten Höller, is a warning to beware of unfettered experimentation. Though Höller intentionally calls his work a “confusion machine” and “an experiment,” his augmented reality partner game fails to prove why confusion in AR has any value except elucidating how this tech should not be used again.
To note, there is also a hidden politicization present in [AR]T walk. Like looking for easter eggs, I spent my whole tour searching for what would make Apple begin their walk by stating that the opinions of the artists are theirs alone. In addition to Rist’s environmentalist war chant, Cave’s Accumul-Istic Quest is a tasteful championing of diversity and inclusion. Politics is undoubtedly in its most cathartic form however in John Giorno’s Now At The Dawn of My Life, which is littered with juicy, contrarian nuggets of text. There is the subtle: “EVERYTHING IS DELUSION INCLUDING WISDOM,” and the overt: “REJECT FAMILY VALUES.”
It is easy to imagine a world in which [AR]T Walk devolves into a crass novelty. All too often, immersive art gets lazy and relies on a cultural nostalgia for the sci-fi fever dreams of yore. Rest assured, there is no pulp here and very little evangelizing puffery of Big Tech. There is enough art in [AR]T to satiate a hungry critic through to 2020.
Close this article, register for [AR]T. The future is here and it’s beckoning.
Mayne is a recent graduate of Brown University and a new culture critic based in NYC. Her print debut, a review of the Met’s Camp exhibit, was published in The SEEN Journal this month.