Culture / Technology
Augmented reality will transform the cultural experiences as we know it, art studio argues — here’s how
New country-wide AR exhibition brings high-quality contemporary art to places where it is often lacking.
23 May 2023

Architects Jakob Skote, Max Čelar, and Michael Brewster have run London- and Stockholm-based art and design studio Untold Garden during four years, exploring how technology can catalyze interpersonal relationships and enable alternative human experiences. Their works include physical installations, virtual sculptures, interactive performances, artificial natures, and experimental social networks where their experience-driven systems use cutting-edge machine learning technologies and scalable networking infrastructures.

— We had the feeling that architecture as a discipline had fumbled the digital revolution, and missed an important moment to make the discipline relevant in this particular future, Skote explains. Quite quickly after getting our exams we moved on to working with creative technologies in other fields, and eventually started our own studio.

Together with The National Association of Swedish Art Societies, the studio now presents Vävda rum (Woven Places), Sweden’s first country-wide exhibition in augmented reality, placing 10 artworks at over 1,500 geographical locations around the country, which all can be viewed in AR through an app. 

— The project combines Sweden’s proud tradition of large scale community-based art projects, with the country’s advanced tech industry. The Swedish gaming industry is often called ’det svenska spelundret’ (the Swedish gaming wonder), but the culture sector has been lagging behind in this regard. Vävda rum is an initiative to start more homegrown explorations of the intersections between art and technology, says Skote. He continues:

— At the same time it is an initiative to bring contemporary art of high quality to places where it is often lacking. Even though we are a large country, unfortunately most of the contemporary art scenes are concentrated to the major cities. By using augmented reality we can place great art all over the country, for a smaller cost than physical exhibitions and with a minimal ecological footprint. 

Each artwork, Skote explains, is developed for a specific site type, such as a square, a park bench or in ”the best spot to have a picnic”, to see Adam James’ work. 

— In that way, and through the interactions of the audience, the artworks alter the fabric of the urban space they are placed in, without being physically present. This is very apparent in for example Eric Magassa’s work. The piece is audio reactive and has the audience make sounds with their voice to be able to see the artwork. On a recent press viewing at Lilla Torg in Malmö, we had a bunch of journalists walking around shouting into their phones. A great scene.

— Each artwork is connected with all other placements of the same artworks, which opens for interactions between different places. Simply put, what I do in an artwork in Simrishamn (in the far south of Sweden, Ed’s note) can influence how it is perceived in Jokkmokk (in the far north), and vice versa. This opens small strange wormholes between different places, and hints at the post-spatial realities that these types of technologies are already opening up.

Which other artworks would you like to highlight?

— Åsa Cederqvist’s work, Giga-Annum, is a story about our relationship to water, structured almost like a guided meditation. It uses local water data from where the audience views the work to influence the narrative and the shapes that are visible in AR, and in that way creates unique experiences depending on if I experience the work in a place of drought, or the opposite. This is a novel way of bringing important numbers outside of the types of graphs and spreadsheets that are often inaccessible to laymen, while at the same time not getting stuck in the numbers but instead using this data as a material to craft something beautiful with. 

Åsa Cederqvist — Giga-Annum.

— The most radical work is probably Oscar Häggström’s piece, Jogg your mind, which brings you on an intense workout session with a virtual PT, all framed in the nostalgic aesthetics of childhood games. The time you spent in the work is logged and displayed in a leaderboard together with all other users, and at the end of the exhibition, Häggström will give the winner a special price. On one hand, the work is a satirical commentary on our hyper-optimized era, where every workout session need to be documented on Instagram and Strava to make sure everyone can see how ’Great’ we are. On another hand it turns traditional notions of what is art on its head, by asking how if it’s possible to compete in experiencing art — is the person that stands the longest in front of a painting the winner of the gallery?

Oscar Häggström — Jogg your mind.

— Our own work, Det långa sorlet (Interspatial echoes), is a site-type-specific social network placed on all town squares in Sweden, created with funding from Kulturbryggan. Basically a digital public space that you can only access from physical public space. Anyone can write messages and read others’. The words roll an flow like back and forth over the square, like a weather simulation of human speech, the noosphere made visible. The word cloud is powered by a custom physics engine by our friends at Paperbirds, using mechanics inspired by the movements of celestial bodies. Each message gains size and gravitational pull from how much attention it gets, changing the algorithmic and individualised logic of the standard social media feed into something that happens in public physical space.

Untold Garden — Interspatial echoes.

”If fake news was a problem, get ready for fake everything”

If you look at the current state of AI and AR in the art world, how’d you describe it? And how will it develop?

— AI is already rapidly transforming this space by allowing small-scale developers to do pretty advanced things. Take us, where we’re a core team of three people behind this exhibition platform. This will allow more people to build more things much faster. In the same way as generative AI is already transforming traditional image making into something accessible to anyone, it will change software development, and plenty of other fields as well. As we saw with the development of social media, giving everyone a megaphone isn’t always a good thing. Giving everyone the most advanced production tools will have a similar impact, but at a greater scale. If fake news was a problem, get ready for fake everything, says Skote. He continues:

— However, the interesting stuff is that AR is currently a niche technology used mainly for games and with few real-life use cases. This will change rapidly in the coming years as this technology moves out of our phones. We’re waiting for you, Apple! We will soon live with ubiquitous AR. This brings some fundamental changes to how we deal with information and data. Since the ancient Babylonia, data has been confined to various forms of two-dimensional rectangles, be they out of clay or a combination of glass and silicon. AR changes this by moving data into physical space. We are physical beings, we interact with and understand the world with our bodies. Our tactile and visual understanding of the world comes much earlier in our development than the textual and conceptual. By placing data in physical space, AR allows us to take in information in a much more tactile and corporeal manner. Walking around in spreadsheets, graphs and social networks, etc – this is just the low hanging fruit. As with any technological revolution, most of the changes are hard to conceptualize before they happen. How will this affect the way we read, the way we communicate, the way we understand the world? How will it transform our cities, our homes, our work places? We believe these changes will be of a similar scale to the internet, even the printing press, which is why artists and designers need to be at the forefront of this revolution, and not leave it up to the engineers to design this future.

According to Skote, we already see, or hear, a predecessor to this reality in the proliferation of voice controlled technology.

— With the aid of LLMs (Large Language Models, Ed’s note), he says, this technology will mature to a level where it becomes indispensable — I’m already dependent on the GPT-4 iOS shortcut. Our friends at Brilliant Labs have created a small clip-on wearable AR device called Monocle, that incorporates a camera and bluetooth connections. Give a powerful LLM like GPT-4 access to this thing, and you can ask the combined corpus of human history questions like ’what is this plant in front of me’, ’what does this car part do and how do I fix it’, or ’can you show me how this street looked a hundred years ago?’. Mobile technology and augmented reality constitute exciting new artistic mediums. With Vävda rum, we want to explore what an art form native to these technologies can be. A networked, interactive, augmented reality art. When photography was invented, it was initially used as a mere replacement for painting. It took time for it to mature into its own art form, fully embracing everything that makes photography unique. This exhibition embraces all that makes AR art unique, creating experiences that are only possible with this medium.