When Google finally starts selling their Google Glasses to the public in 2014 and people start to really explore the hidden layers of augmented reality data, they might be surprised to find that the virtual world is littered with graffiti. That’s because artists like John Craig Freeman have been creating virtual public art where no graffiti artist dared to create before, right in front of everyone.
In the past twenty years, Freeman has created a great number of public artworks including roadside billboards that take several miles to unfold. More recently his work has taken a virtual twist with the technology boom as he explores the uncharted territory of augmented and virtual reality to develop and showcase his public works of art.
I’m very interested of how art works in the public space outside the walls of a gallery. I felt like there is something more art can do. Augmented reality comes out of the tradition of public art, I use technology to do it and I use augmented reality as an extension to that work I’ve done in the past.
Freeman is a member of group of artists called Manifest.AR, who have taken graffiti to a new level. Instead of putting their works on walls with spray cans, they have plastered their stories and their social commentary onto the sticky space in between the real and virtual, right under everyone’s noses. Their virtual works of art can be seen only through a number of augmented reality applications that are available now until December 8 on most smartphones including the iPhone and Android . Freeman will be joined with several other members of Manifest.AR at the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose, helping people set up their phones and sending them out to find some of their works.
One of the pieces that Freeman will be directing people to is ‘From Lewisburg, PA to Silicon Valley’, a public art project Freeman worked on in collaboration with two New York based artists, Lily Xiying Yang and Honglei Li who together produce work as Lily and Honglei. The piece was inspired by the tragic suicides of eight Chinese Foxconn employees in 2010 at the plants where a number of Apple products are manufactured. When Lily and Honglei created animations of people falling out of the sky, Freeman took the animated bodies and virtually placed them in front of the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA and the Apple store in downtown San Francisco.
According to Freeman, the suicides are part of much larger story that can trace its roots back to the 19th century, in Lewisburg, PA. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape of Lewisburg and labor laws were being reformed in the North to protect the working class from the new realities of an industrial workplace. But instead of complying with the labor laws the textile companies moved further and further south in search of cheap labor. That migration hasn’t stopped either. In the last several decades, globalization has shifted jobs and factories across the globe to places like Southeast Asia and China, all in the never-ending search for cheap, unregulated labor.
I’m seeking to deconstruct the kind of social and political construct that makes Silicon Valley possible. I’m trying to draw the connection from Silicon Valley to our consumer products and the actual cost.
Much of what Silicon Valley has produced operates like what one CEO with a penchant for turtle necks called "magic." Most consumers couldn't begin to tell you how a smartphone works, just that it does, and the same can be said about most technology we use. But according to Freeman the most magical part of Silicon Valley is not the product that we covet, but the perfectly orchestrated ballet that goes into producing these products. Sure we all know about the researchers who find new ways of making chips, and the software developers who write the code, along with the designers who craft the interfaces, but there is so much more. There are the miners who claw the raw materials out of the bowels of the earth, and the alchemists who shape the the minerals into the composites that component manufacturers stamp into chips, boards, screens and screws, and the line workers who put them together. Then of course there are the sailors, drivers and handlers who ship the millions of tons of materials around to make this one product appear like "magic" in your store or mailbox. Literally tens of thousands of people move in concert, slavishly dancing around the globe in order to entertain us for $199 and a two-year contract. The Valley's impressive ability to obscure the human and environmental costs of keeping the orchestra running is what fascinates Freeman. His work tries to challenge the policies and social norms that are embedded in our technologically driven society, all while utilizing the same technology and networks enabled by these same policies and norms. It's a closed loop (or maybe a vicious cycle), and there's some beauty in simply realizing that.
The naked and unaided eye cannot see Manifest.AR’s work. It is only through the lens of a smartphone and an augmented reality app that any of the layers designed by Freeman and the artists at Manifest.AR can be seen. Though some can only see the limitations of this medium, the augmented reality evangelists see nothing but pure creative bliss. You can do anything with any place, like raining animated bodies down on your local Apple Store.
You can’t rely on what we thought was real now because there is a whole new level of reality that is emerging, virtual reality, and its developing around us and as artists we need to play the role of inventor.
Freeman believes artists, like the technological innovators of Silicon Valley, shouldn’t shy away from exploring and creating in the virtual world, especially because it’s uncharted territory. Apple may own the land at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, CA (Apple headquarters), but no one controls the virtual space.
The freedom to create and display without ever having to deal with a gallery owner or museum curator is one of augmented realities most powerful and controversial properties, and it’s one that Freeman and Manifest.AR exploit particularly well. Freeman hopes more artists will take advantage of this technology, occupy the virtual space, and send a message.
(Augmented reality) challenges institutions because we are saying that we don’t need curators, we don’t need the museum itself. We can put art anywhere in the world that we want. Talk about risk taking. The curatorial team and the artists that I’m involved with (at ZERO1) are all people that I have deep respect for and I’m happy to be participating alongside them.
*Image found here.