Hovering above Westlake Park, a giant silver figure saunters in place, her hips and belly swelling and contracting as ribbons of red and black swirl up and down her body. Named #GLITCHGODDESS by her creator, the internationally acclaimed artist Marjan Moghaddam, she is a sight to behold. But is she really there?
The answer is yes … and no.
#GLITCHGODDESS is an augmented reality work of art, viewed on your cellphone as a three-dimensional image superimposed on the real environment. You can visit the iconic corner in downtown Seattle (formerly the Macy’s building) where a huge inflatable of #GLITCHGODDESS alerts you to the digital option. Use your cellphone camera to scan a nearby QR code that will bring up the AR art through the Instagram app, allowing you to simultaneously look at your screen and your surroundings.
Unlike virtual reality, which requires specialized equipment and fully immerses you in a digital world, AR can feel both real and surreal as fantastical figures shimmer before you or as layers of information or sound add to your experience of an actual place. Of course, the second you look away from your phone, it’s all gone.
#GLITCHGODDESS is part of AUGMENT, a “mixed reality urban experience” that will take place Aug. 12-28 mostly in South Lake Union, on both sides of Ninth Avenue North between John and Thomas streets. According to the event organizers Future Arts — a women-led, Seattle-based nonprofit — AUGMENT will be filled with “outdoor installations and mixed reality food + drinks that will transform urban spaces and welcome the community to experience meaningful interactions through digital storytelling.”
AUGMENT will feature international artists such as Moghaddam, an Iranian artist who lives in New York; Nadine Kolodziey of Germany; and the Jamaica-born, Vancouver-based artist-designer Tafui. Local creatives include Gabriel-Bello Diaz, Quin Kennedy, Christoph Sagemuller and Yes Segura.
Some of these artists work extensively in augmented reality while others are new to AR and have been paired with experts to add digital layers to their paintings or mixed-media work. Real-life inflatables, signage, mixed-media installations — and, yes, even the food — will be expanded with AR.
“Home Here,” by Portland-based artist Nina Vichayapai, is a fabric wall garden based on nonnative plants. It is also the inspiration for a series of frozen pops, called AR+Pops, which will have flavors like blackberry, a tasty but invasive species. The QR code on each frozen pop stick will activate a 3D AR form that will grow around the treat as you eat it.
Your phone (or a borrowed one, checked out from an event volunteer) also allows you to gaze up at a school of holographic salmon swimming in the sky above you (as part of “currents” by Boston-based artist Alina Nazmeeva), or to see a “re-wilding” with digital plant life that once lived below the concrete under your feet — along with learning plant names in the Lushootseed language (as part of “Ancestral Future: Indigitized Landscapes” by local artist-designers Diaz and Segura).
Seattle artist Michelle Kumata will present her large-scale mural “Emerging Radiance,” which is augmented with animated and audio storytelling created by Tani Ikeda, a Seattle-raised, Los Angeles-based Emmy award-winning director and AR artist. Audiences can scan codes on the mural to learn about Japanese American farmers who transformed unusable land in Bellevue before being incarcerated, with thousands of others, during World War II.
Kumata, who is new to AR, says that the technology is about “telling stories in a different way.” When the farmers’ voices are activated through AR, “it’s like they’re there. It’s really powerful and really effective in engaging people, from small children to elders. Everyone’s just captivated.”
Themes of access, history, identity and nature weave through AUGMENT, inviting visitors to explore relationships among past, present and future and among nature, culture and technology.
The event takes place in tech territory — where Amazon and other tech employees live and work — and that’s no accident. Future Arts chose this location in order to bring art and technology together. Yuliya (Julia) Bruk, one of Future Arts’ founders — along with Anna Czoski, Laara Garcia and Debra Webb — says that because of their varied backgrounds in the arts, tech and science, and business and hospitality, Future Arts can “provide a trusted, connective tissue between art and tech, entities that often don’t know how to talk to each other.”
This trust is crucial in Seattle with ongoing criticism of companies like Amazon, which have pushed up housing and commercial rental prices, making it difficult for artists to afford spaces to live and work.
It should be noted that Meta (the recently renamed Facebook company) is one of AUGMENT’s sponsors, and the event relies on Spark AR technology (originally developed for Facebook) and the Instagram platform.
For Bruk, it’s all about community and recognizing that seemingly disparate communities often overlap. Bruk worked in Amazon’s global marketing department for eight years, while also co-founding grassroots groups like Interstitial, which brought art to audiences through various means, including pop-up video art kiosks in parks.
“Future Arts really bloomed from years of talking to people at tech companies and in the arts community,” Bruk said. “My goal is to go into the belly of the beast and understand it, so we can work together. That beast is just a bunch of humans who want and crave community.”
Future Arts co-founder Garcia, as one of the original partners of Gold Bar on Ninth Avenue North, was instrumental in bringing local business owners on board. AUGMENT will be a last hurrah for some of the businesses in that low-rise section of the block, which is slated for demolition in the fall.
On the other side of the street is a newish, 12-story building, owned by Scott Redman, CEO of Sellen Construction, and a known supporter of the arts. Most of the building (named 9th & Thomas) is leased by Amazon, but the ground floor is dedicated to community and eatery spaces that are open to the public, and will serve as a key location for AUGMENT.
Tracking cycles of change, networking and cross-pollination is fundamental to Future Arts, which formed during COVID-19 in response to the need for new ways to safely experience art.
Co-founder Czoski, an interaction designer and new media artist, points out that “learning from nature is one of our biggest values. Our desire is to support ecosystems and not to be a monoculture.”
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