At galleries and museums, art is increasingly competing for attention with the needy screens of visitors’ cell phones, but at the Echo Park storefront gallery Smart Objects, staring at your cell phone is the only way to appreciate the art. Their current show “Armory Captures” is an experiment in using free technology to broaden and democratize the art-viewing experience.
“The original impetus behind the project was to curate a show with artworks that were unavailable to me due to their historical significance, market value, and geographical location,” gallery director Chadwick Gibson told Hyperallergic via email. Using the free phone app 123Dcatch, Gibson made 3D scans of about 80 works from the modern wing of the 2015 Armory Show in New York. He began by taking 8–20 photos of each work from different angles, which the app uses to generate a 3D model. He then placed custom AR tags (similar to QR codes) on the gallery’s walls and floor, each one linked to a specific 3D model of an artwork. When gallery visitors use their phone or tablet to scan the tags with another free app, Augment, the corresponding 3D model pops up on their screen. Picasso, Lichtenstein, Frankenthaler, Miro — the greatest hits of the 20th century in the palm of your hand.
It is significant that these aren’t just high-rez images, but actual 3D scans that reflect the objecthood of these artworks. One of many Augmented Reality apps, Augment was designed to show users what certain products or objects would look like in the real world. It does not simply place static images into an environment, but rather presents 3D models that respond to your movements as a real object would. This means that as you move around each tag at Smart Objects, your view of the artwork changes on your screen. This is especially effective with the few sculptures on view, as you are able to walk completely around these tags, getting a 360-degree view of a classic Calder for instance.
Some might see this as an attempt to gamify art by adding on unnecessary bells and whistles. From another perspective however, it could potentially deepen our artistic engagement. The technology has a ways to go (there were a few glitches reminiscent of the Apple Maps fiasco), but it could significantly change the way we view art. If you could see a perfect 3D facsimile of an artwork in your hometown, would you need to fly halfway around the world to visit the museum where the real thing hangs? More importantly, it could provide access to thousands of works in private collections that are off-limits to most people. Instead of distancing us from our experience of art, it has the potential to bring a wider audience into contact with art they might never have seen.