Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The new frontier of augmented reality apps comes to urban art.
If you want to paint a public mural, you will need at least several of these things: money, connections to someone who has money, a building, or permission to use someone else’s. Oh, and lots and lots of paint. For all of these reasons, public art is a lot harder to come by in most cities than its commercial counterpart: billboards, fliers, and advertisements.
"Now we have a situation where the only way you can put up something in public space is if you can pay for it or convince a landlord that you’re worthwhile because of the laws that dictate use of private property," says Jordan Seiler. He created the rogue art group Public Ad Campaign, which reclaims advertising in the public realm for street art.
The old-school way to do that would be to literally paint over advertisements. But last summer, Public Ad Campaign partnered with the Los Angeles-based group The Heavy Projects to try a new twist on the idea, using mobile-phone applications to project virtual art onto real-life ads, creating an "augmented reality" that mashes together traditional images with digital information.
This week the two groups – they’ve rebranded their collective endeavors under the cheekily named HeavyPAC – are taking the concept even further.
"What we really wanted to do is now put art directly onto buildings," says BC Biermann, who founded The Heavy Projects. "Augmented reality allows us to cross private-property boundaries with street art."
The video below demonstrates HeavyPAC’s latest app, called Re*Public, which uses augmented reality to layer whole murals on top of buildings. Seiler and Biermann are testing the idea with three buildings in New York and Los Angeles (so far, while they do that, the app isn’t publicly available). If they can get funding to expand the tool, they envision creating virtual mural walks in multiple cities that would reconceive of the role of public art and who gets to create it.
The app doesn’t rely on GPS to identify buildings, but rather on a technology that essentially recognizes and reads the features of a building in the same way your smart phone can read a QR code. This means the virtual art can shift with your perspective as you walk up and down a block so that, as Seiler puts it, "the mural has the uncanny ability to feel like it actually exists."
This also means that two-dimensional art can be projected into what looks like 3D on the surface of these buildings.
Re*Public sits at the forefront of a new breed of civic projects blurring the physical and the digital. Seiler and Biermann are out to "democratize" public spaces, creating greater access to art for the public, and greater access to public canvases for artists. Down the road, this idea may even change the relationship between our public spaces and the visual clutter that currently dominates them – all those billboards and advertisements.
"We see public space as the last bastion of unfiltered advertising, especially in New York or L.A. or larger urban centers, where you get bombarded with uncontrolled messaging," Biermann says. Most of the advertising you see on the Internet, or on TV, is at least partially controllable. You can click away from it, or change the channel. In a future where we’ll all be walking around in augmented-reality Google glasses, you may actually be able to select how you want to perceive your city streets, too. Maybe you want to tune into the augmented-reality channel that gives you billboards for new rom-coms and hair-care products. Or maybe you want to walk through a Time Square blanketed in public art.
"All of that is possible, and it’s all user-filtered," Biermann says. "We see this as a first step to educating people that there’s this other option that’s coming."