Augmented Reality (AR) is one of several technologies emerging for widespread use; culturally popularised to undoubtedly soon be woven into the fabric of everyday existence. It is defined as ‘a real-time direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment that has been enhanced or augmented by adding virtual computer-generated information to it’. Falling into the broader category of mixed – or mediated – reality, it combines real and virtual objects registered in 3D. AR also extends to diminished reality, whereby virtual information can seamlessly blend over a tangible object to give you the illusion of absence. It is intended to enhance perception of – and interaction with – the real world. Perception in this context includes sonic and haptic perception. As opposed to Virtual Reality (VR), AR does not wholly immerse the user in a virtual environment, but superimposes virtual objects and cues in real-time upon the real world via a viewing device. Being not restricted to a headset, or to light, it consolidates the senses more directly.
We must therefore open up a dialogue around how artists can use technologies like AR to challenge its everyday facilitations. Its artistic potential extends far beyond the visual image (its creation and its manipulation) to enter the remit of issues surrounding the network and informatics, bio-enhancement, and vast identity formations. As it stands, much of the scope of the discussion around AR is limited to visual acuity – i.e. the clarity of the image – and temporal synchronisation; both important issues for artists however critically limiting. With its growing quotidian use comes a responsibility to avoid a superficiality inherent to commerciality: a superficiality that overindulges the senses and leaves the imagination deserted and unfulfilled. Artists must marry these rapidly changing technological innovations and their aesthetic integrity, without it merely being ornamental or a spectacle. As a commercially viable entity AR is prone to technological uniformity and corporate homogeneity.
Artists, in particular performance artists, can use AR to challenge pre-existing conceptions of physical and virtual space. As the very essence of AR is mixing realities, we are no longer circumscribed to the screen in our experience of virtuality. The superimposed layers of media (the still image, moving image and text) ‘have various scales and dimensions within one master frame’ . This complex framing and layering creates a transgression between spatial perception and conception. Whilst we use mobile phones as AR viewing devices, the video image is framed by a screen yet the information layered on the image simultaneously lacks a frame.
AR technology operates through the necessary convergence of space and time; however, its spatial configurations are increasingly mobile. If we understand performance space to be both a stationary and mobile space, the technology creates a kind of paradox. It is a form of mnemonic spacing – it needs spatial stability to add the temporal layers – yet it is designed to be transportable. A performance that travels would have to consider how to use metadata to inform images to adapt to multiple spaces; however, a performance in a single location might contemplate avoiding the kind of technological uniformity seen in immaculate reproduction – losing the subtle fluctuations of live performance. The geo-tagging used in AR conceptualises and compresses space and time antithetically to create disembodiment and a lack of synchronisation.
This is problematic for performance because there often is an assumption and perceived reliance on other bodies, even if that body is a technology. How does AR construct a new subjectivity, in the threshold between physical and digital? This has been illustrated by cartographic screen displays that use maps crafted to contextualise space with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Whether you are walking down the street or driving a car you experience a disembodiment that subsequently occurs when perception is altered by the birds-eye view on the monitor – or if the technology experiences a glitch – as a result of physical and virtual desynchronization.
The extension of framing by technologies like AR has been discussed by theorist Mark Hansen through his consideration of ‘wearable space’. He writes that ‘clarifying the nature and extent of the coupling of body and space is particularly crucial at this moment in our coevolution with technology’: embodiment must be clear on what it generates informationally . He argues that as seen in architecture, digital deterritorialization centres the body in a spatial framing of information. Performance space serves to disrupt the repetition and rhythm of the virtual, addressing this challenge in mixed reality performances: the groundlessness of the digital helps to reconceive the relationship between the performer and the ground. Spaces for performance have changed and adapted since traditional theatre stage layouts consisted of audience facing performer in a two-block formation by using, for instance, circular arrangements in which audience surround performer (Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (2010) is a notable example of such a performance). AR technology forms another type of space outside the realm of gravity to blur/extend performer and space; one that sits between the physical and the virtual and in which the audience will experience a heightened weightlessness of the body.
Artists hold a power, and arguably carry a responsibility, to reinterpret ethical guidelines and moral codes. In particular – how we perceive identity. AR technology is readily available on smartphone apps such as Snapchat, so several assumptions are already made by large tech-companies about how users are expected to interact with it – the result is identity distortions through visual self-representations created by AR features and filters intended to enhance the image – in Snapchat’s case the selfie.
Artists can use the technology as a tool to construct and reconstruct several identities that emerge, interact and reform subsequently – It is in this repetitious cycle a technological gesture is born: ‘In order for any movement to become a gesture it must be ‘representative’…repeated’. A unique act must be repeated multiple times to qualify as a gesture .
By creating new images for consumption in augmented art, it is possible to reinterpret pre-existing identities formed out of uniform interactions with the technology. In 1920s, Gestalt (translating from German into shape and form) psychologists studied the perceptual organization of complex scenes in our visual field. In this field, particular regions are grouped together and segregated to establish meaning and content. They fundamentally identified ‘principles’ and mental cues that cooperated and interacted to coalesce our visual organisations . In its wider potential AR holds the capacity to enhance our cognitive capabilities and perception – if we are, for example, to use it for bio-senses that operate through interconnecting data. This could be materialised through bionic eyes that absorb a complete contextualisation of our environment, including the expanded spectrum of light that humans cannot usually see. Accessing other frequencies could take the unknown into performance space, engaging our senses with one another, and perhaps providing new information that would instigate the imagination.
This opens up several questions relating to anxieties surrounding technology that assumes human responsibilities, such as witnessed in debates around Artificial Intelligence (AI). Talk of bio-enhancing technology always treads lightly between positively enriching our lives, and interfering with the purpose of our integral neurological wiring. Any cognitive enhancement we gain from using a hybridisation of the digital and the physical in AR, may defeat the essential human fallibility of using solely memory-based imagination – this is then counteracted by the consequences of not using human visual perception. AR technology operates through central vision as opposed to peripheral vision, providing less accurate information on size and movement alteration. If we don’t use our peripheral vision enough – essential for depth perception and relative motion assessment – then we risk interfering with and destabilizing our internal bodily sensors. Unlike having naturally impaired vision, there are no adaptive cerebral strategies from any aggravating repercussions of digital enhancement .
When Sartre wrote about the imagination, he separated it from perception, saying that when we are devoid of the perception achieved through observing something, the imagination takes over. For performance, conjuring up images from their absence can often be intrinsic to a narrative. As we enter the age of desiring ultimate virtual illusion, it is important to ask ourselves whether, in live art forms such as performance and theatre, indistinguishable photorealism is something we desire or even need? Could AR visuals inhibit this process of imagination? There is, however, always going to be an ever-changing conception of realism with each age, in reaction to technological changes. In AR technology, the artistic integrity comes in its creation; its wiring, its design features and its ability to function as a creative performer.
Text by Rola Daniels
(Rola Daniels: writer, artist & art director with an MA in Contemporary Art Theory. Photos courtesy of Rola Daniels from the Series Theatreality: a fictional AR simulation app for performance, Rola Daniels (2017))
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