INTERVIEW: Gemma Weston @ Subiaco pARk – Augmented Reality

INTERVIEW: Gemma Weston, Curator for the Subiaco pARk Augmented Reality Exhibition
Words by: Freya Hall
Image credit: Arcadia, 2014, Minaxi May. Photo Courtesy the City of Subiaco.

Subiaco pARk is not a conventional art exhibition. It isn’t situated in a gallery, it isn’t physically tangible, and it isn’t even visible to the naked eye.

The artists involved in Subiaco pARk adopted Augmented Reality technology in order to create artworks that interact with the landscape, design and nature of Theatre Park. However, these works can only be experienced via an app on either a smartphone or tablet.

The juxtaposition of nature and technology that is evident throughout Subiaco pARk simultaneously challenges pervading preconceptions regarding the accessibility of art and pays testament to the burgeoning interaction between art and technology in the 21st Century.

I sat down with Subiaco pARk curator Gemma Weston to talk about Augmented Reality technology and her role in curating the exhibition.

What is ‘Augmented Reality’?

Augmented Reality, or ‘AR’, simply means to add digital content to a real environment that is experienced in real time. A good point of contrast perhaps is ‘virtual reality’, which is an entirely immersive environment removed from real space and time. AR instead depends on and uses what’s already there.

What was the motivation behind adopting this technology in the creation of a public art exhibition?

The City of Subiaco already commissioned the project before I became involved in it, so I can’t really speak for them, but I can see the advantages. For example, it’s very novel and uses technology that so many of us already have the skills and language to engage with. It also doesn’t have the same environmental impact as a full-scale, real-life sculpture park. AR also allows for experimentation, to test things out without the pressure of them being permanent investments.

Have you been involved in any Augmented Reality projects before?

I’ve curated exhibitions – my day job is as the curator of the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art at UWA – and prior to that I ran a gallery space in Northbridge called OK Gallery, but this has been my first encounter with AR as an ‘artform’.

However, I am really interested in the idea of site and context specificity, and how digital technology and the internet impact on contemporary art, so the project appealed to me on those fronts. I was interested to learn more about the medium as well – it seemed like one of those niche areas of digital technologies that exists ‘on the margins’ of current trends, and I was curious to see how it worked.

What was the experience like? How much time and effort went into preparing for this exhibition?

It was challenging both for the artists and myself because the end results (both the app and the works themselves) were so much further out of our control than what we’re used to.

This was the case, not only because they were designed by another entity (Felix Lab, who are based at UWA), but also because the functionality of AR is so variable – it will function differently depending on the hardware, whether you’re using a phone or a tablet, Apple or Android, or the operating system.

How did you select artists for this exhibition?

Because the tech part of the process was going to be managed by experts, I thought about selecting people beyond those who were explicitly interested in ‘digital’ culture. However, it was important that they would all be able to engage with the context, have some level of digital literacy, an understanding of how an app functioned, etc.

I also thought about who would be interested in the challenges of working outdoors, with that particular location and with the challenge of an expanded definition of both  ‘sculpture’ and ‘nature’.

The list of people I came up with wouldn’t necessarily make sense in a traditional exhibition, but the way that AR ‘flattens’ the materiality of their practices means that other connections, between theme and concept and methodology, can be made instead.

Can you tell us a little more about the artists who contributed to this exhibition?

Abdul Rahman-Abdullah (Moon Calendar II) is probably the most traditional sculptor of the bunch. He often uses animals and natural/cultural phenomena like the cycles of the moon in his work. Minaxi May (Arcadia) is also quite a traditional sculptor. She works with installation, accumulation and readymade consumerist objects in a very fun and playful way.

Dan Bourke (Relaxation Sessions) has a very keen interest in how representations of nature are manifested and circulated in print and digital reproductions. Loren Kronemyer’s (Understory) work is also concerned with representations of nature, and shifts beautifully between the disciplines of art and science – I think of her as a cross between a professor and a shaman.

Joshua Cobb-Diamond (Rebuilt Ruin) works between the disciplines of art and architecture and is very skilled in digital modeling. He put forward this great proposal for a futuristic ruin, and I loved it. Simone Johnston (We are all of us Always Moving) is interested in architecture as well, but in terms of how it creates relationships, memories and interactions.

Joanne Richardson and Kieron Broadhurst (21cm Underground: Virtually not Actually) have a number of schemes afoot, but they worked here as The Martin Kippenberger Appreciation Society. Martin Kippenberger is a German Contemporary artist with similar situationist tendencies.

What can people expect to experience at Subiaco pARk?

I think there’s something for everyone in this exhibition, and I hope that the works highlight aspects of the park that perhaps may have gone unnoticed otherwise.

I hope it’s less a matter of expectation and more about discovery and surprise. With new technologies I think people often expect this futuristic, otherworldly experience, but AR is very much of the world, and about being in it – I hope that the app offers a way to encounter the world, rather than escape from it.

Subiaco pARk is presented by the City of Subiaco as a Perth International Arts Festival event. The exhibition runs until Sunday 29 March at Theatre Gardens, Subiaco.