Art & Technology #7: Augmented Reality
Digital Technology Instigates an Artistic Revolution —from Virtual to Augmented Reality
It is no secret that the lifelike reality of Renaissance frescoes was achieved through perspective. But according to Hubert Damisch, well known for his discourse on the subject, linear perspective is not the end-all of creating lifelike visions. In fact, a frame composed as of clear silhouettes and sharp lines can become as unnatural as fake plastic flowers. A well-crafted artificial flower might convince the eyes, but it cannot replicate the vibrant vividness, and at times may seem falsely macabre. As a result, perspective painting requires a separate, heterogenic factor in addition to the strong lines and geometric configurations. Damisch refers to those factors as “the cloud (nuage).”
However, “the cloud” is not just a metaphorical expression. Correggio, a painter whom Damisch pays close attention to, clearly presents “the cloud” as something more. Correggio was a Renaissance painter unwaveringly faithful to linear perspective; yet he always painted clouds in his frescoed domes. Clouds not only affect the heavens, but also layer an indefinite depth into the frames of well-balanced perspective. Many recognize perspective as a technique popularized during the Renaissance, a mechanism for realistic visual imagery but that in itself is not a necessary condition. At times, the opposite characteristics are needed: images of clouds, nebulous, ambiguous, and unhindered by gravity.
Virtual Reality to Augmented Reality
What we learn from Damisch is: to achieve realism through imagery, a certain degree of deception is absolutely necessary. The same applies to films. Films were most successful commercially during the era of Classical Hollywood cinema when everything on the silver screen was produced to feel as real as possible. Moviegoers were drawn into an illusion of reality. Some might claim that Classical Hollywood cinema was consistent with the Illusionism of the Renaissance. But even his claim has a pitfall. Hollywood films create realistic illusions not only through a virtuality that is indistinguishable from actuality, but also through ambiguous devices that lead the viewers to perceive it that way. Devices such as titillatingly well-crafted narrative structures told from a first-person omniscient perspective, fading in or out, close-up shots, and superimposed scenes. These devices are no different to Damisch’s cloud. The virtual imagery presented on screen and its indistinguishability with reality is ultimately through illusion. In the 19th century and even now, art has a tendency to pursue such illusions.
From Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two great painters of ancient Greece who drew with legendary reality, to Solgeo, the seminal artist of the Shilla Dynasty, and now 3D movies, there exist a tendency to seek imagery that exists within this ambiguous state. This tendency is in turn the need to create imagery that blurs the boundary between the virtual and actual, summarized as the longing for virtual reality. Zeuxis’ painting of grapes that even birds couldn’t tell were fake, and Parrhasius’ curtains that Zeuxis couldn’t recognize were painted are both manifestations of a need to create virtual images that approach the actual. Today, this dream of virtual reality is increasingly being fulfilled through digital technology.
Dreams of virtual reality are also related to Platonism, which dominated Western thought until the 19th century. Plato saw reality as an illusion. Reality was merely a replication of a transcendence called an idea. And art was just another replica to that replication. The purpose of art is to identically copy a reality that resembles an idea, striving to emulate the idea itself. So in a sense, emulation is the mission of art. Creating virtual imagery that appears real. On that note, it does appear that the virtual-reality paradigm of art is in fact Platonism translated into art.
In their coauthored text Remediation: Understanding New Media, theorists Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin define and draw a line between Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Most people consider both VR and AR to be one of many fruits picked from the tree of digital technology, and do not look closely enough to see that they are quite different. On that oversight, Bolter and Grusin deliberately delineate the difference between virtual and augmented reality. According to them, VR seeks to manifest virtual images into reality, while AR is about virtualizing reality. Bolter and Grusin distinguish that the two are antagonistic movements. But this distinction is far more meaningful than they originally thought. A cursory look at VR and AR only recognizes them as a kind of digital technology, but VA is actually about creating the most realistic, indistinguishably realistic virtual world, whereas AR is about using digital technology to augment reality. Augmented Reality is that which does not appear directly to our eyes, but is a digitally enhanced iteration of it. It is the manifested reality of that which is not visible to the human eye. In other words, Augmented Reality is the utilization of digital technology to expand upon the information present in reality.
Art, transcends virtuality and reality
However, AR and VR are not confined to the digital technologies that make them possible; they embody the opposing paradigms that emerge when juxtaposed.
Art after the 20th century display such conflicting thoughts much more conspicuously. In fact, 20th-century art is virtually impossible to define with a single trend or paradigm. This is also quite apparent in Clement Greenberg’s failed attempt to define modern painting through the unified concept of ‘flatness.’ There is, however, an underlying current that can be identified: the flow of art from creation of virtual imagery to reveal reality itself.
Presenting reality itself is far divorced from creating virtual imagery, which mimics reality. An example would be Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon) which is often (incorrectly) attributed to be the precursor of Cubism. Because the Young Ladies barely resembles reality, it cannot be a virtual image in the traditional sense. Yet there is a deep irony that through the unrealistically painted images, Picasso sought to present reality itself. Visual or perspective unity is also completely wanting, upon closer observation. In fact, seeking any sort of visual unity would be an exercise in futility. Inspired in part by the wooden dolls from Africa, there is even a hint of eeriness on the faces of the dancing ladies. Through his painting, Picasso exposes how existing paintings artificially compose the frame to achieve an “illusory” unity. The artificial composition is merely a fictional mechanism that presents virtual imagery (paintings) as if they were real. Reality is unfocused, and lacks any sort of visual theme or unity. That is the point that Picasso sought to convey through his work; through visual disunity, he revealed the fragmented nature of reality.
Another example is abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, renowned for his action painting and dripping techniques. Applying paint to his canvases from all directions, his “drip” technique was far removed from the virtual as can be, as the work reproduces no reality whatsoever. Yet it reveals actual reality. The imagery is an expression of “vertical reality” presented to the gaze of the “standing man.” From that vertical perspective, an object stands in resistance to the gravity acting upon it. Yet this vertical perspective is merely that of Homo erectus, not the perspective of reality itself. Pollock’s work gives no resistance to any form of gravity, and the running, dripping, and trickling down of paint is preserved as is. Through it, Pollock allowed a horizontal perspective that was completely unlike the traditional perspective. Traditionally, such horizontal imagery would be considered devoid of realism, but in terms of being subjected to gravity, the imagery faithfully represented reality. Neither Picasso nor Pollock’s paintings resemble the kind of reality-mimicking visuals that we have become accustomed to. In other words, their paintings are not virtual images. Because of this, their works do not mimic actuality, refusing to drift along the paradigm of virtual reality and denying Platonism. Denial of Platonism is not conducive to creating unrealistic fantasy, however. What Picasso and Pollock wanted to present was the appearance of reality itself, free and unbound by our own myopic perspectives. They wanted to present a new reality previously unknown to us; an augmented reality.
A frequently posed issue in relation to digital technology and augmented reality deals with thequestion of virtual reality. This question is rooted in the concern that the advancement of digital technology will leave people floundering in a state impossible to distinguish the actual and virtual. It is a concern addressed by countless novels and films. But the irony of this sense of impending crisis is that the indistinguishability is also rooted in human desire. That is, the desire to create a virtual state that is identical to the actual. Digital technology seems to promise us the fulfillment of that desire. But it is exactly this attitude towards digital technology that is the result of an ideology that failed to break out of Platonist thought, and the distorted illusion that foils the efforts of artists in the post-20th century era. Big fish claims of creating digital technology that will segue the virtual into the actual are hackneyed sequels to the Zeuxis and Parrhasius mythos, the Renaissance painters’ illusionism, and the ideologies of Classic Hollywood cinema. Should digital technology even achieve a virtual reality that is indistinguishable to the actual, the reality is that it is still achieved on the premise of illusion. So in addition to virtually perfect imagery, an illusory device is needed to convince the viewer—the cloud. So the possibility of digital technology creating a virtual world indistinguishable to the actual is a perilous concept to entertain. This danger applies equally to the pessimists who claim a dark future for humanity based on their perception of the dangers of technology. They are approaching digital technology from the paradigm of the virtual, but there is a clear reason as to why we must look to this sort of advancements. It allows us to perceive reality in novel ways. Changing perspectives also mean changing from a distortion of reality to an augmentation to it. Digital technology proposes perspectives more radical than that of Picasso or Pollock, and makes them a reality.
Reality is infinite, and imitating something that is infinite is infeasible. The artists of the 20thcentury realized this, and did not try to imitate reality. What they did attempt to do was relieve us of our myopic perspectives and to present another truth. They were augmenting reality. The reason comprehension of digital technology must be reached from a contemporary art perspective is due to those very efforts to augment reality. ■ with ARTINPOST
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LED of ZKM in Germany
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