When most people think of technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality they tend to think of video games, but there are plenty of other ways to experience these modern mediums ranging from QR codes scanned on your phone to art installations in galleries. An example of the latter is on display now through December 3 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Entitled ReBlink, the exhibition is the work of Toronto-based digital artist Alex Mayhew, along with a team of OCADU students and assistance from his business partner Ian Kelso. Mayhew has digitally reinterpreted – or, as he prefers to say, re-mixed – several key pieces within the gallery’s collection of Canadian and European paintings so that they can be viewed augmented reality.

All visitors need do is download an app on their phone or tablet, then hold up the screen in front of specific painting to watch them magically break free of their two-dimensional canvases, often in surprising ways. They’ll see the paintings’ classic subjects in a fresh and modern light, perhaps with an arm protruding from the frame holding a camera and taking pictures of gallery patrons, or standing like a colossus among the planets and satellites of our solar system.

Post Arcade had an opportunity to briefly chat with Mayhew and his partner Kelso via email on the eve of the exhibition’s debut. They discussed the motivation for the work, what visitors will experience, and the growing accessibility of tools and technology that make this sort of digital art possible.

George Agnew Reid’s painting “Drawing Lots” is one of several classics that have received augmented reality treatment at the AGO under Mayhew’s guidance.

Post Arcade: What led to the creation of this exhibit? What ideas are being explored?

Alex Mayhew: The painting above (George Agnew Reid’s Drawing Lots) was the main inspiration for this show. Being burnt out after completing a very big digital entertainment project, I took solace at the AGO just looking at the old masters: a kind of calming antidote to the chaotic experience of contemporary city life. The George Reid painting is a place free from computers, where people simply play and talk with each other. I found a deep connection with the painting through a reflection of the present from that image of the past. Yet I saw so many people — particularly younger visitors — just glancing at the work for mere seconds and then walking away. I later learned that the average time someone actually looks at a painting in a gallery — and this includes the masterpieces, like the Mona Lisa — is just sixteen seconds.

I had dabbled with early augmented reality before when I made the Time Tremors AR Treasure Hunt for the AGO in 2013. But so much had changed for the better and I wanted to push things beyond the surface that I felt was only being scratched up to now.

That is where the inspiration for ReBlink came from.

I became so enamoured with the idea for ReBlink that I decided to build a working prototype completely on spec – without the AGO even knowing I was doing it. I then showed it to Keri Ryan, the Associate Director of Interpretation and Visitor Research at the AGO, and luckily she saw the potential and pitched it to all the key decision makers. The AGO is a wonderfully progressive institution, but this was something very different even for them. I believe the key motivator for the AGO is the ability to get visitors, particularly younger audiences that consume media and images so voraciously, to pause, slow down, and really engage with the work.

It is all about the juxtapositions of realities. By looking at the past with a present day lens you can provide a link to the past. And in turn the past can then provide us with an understanding of the present. Augmented reality, and especially mobile AR, is the perfect platform to trigger this kind dialogue.

I then teamed up with my business partner Ian Kelso and we enlisted star students and graduates from OCADU. Technical Director and Artist Hector Centeno and lead production artist  Saffron Bolduc-Chiong were absolutely key, as well as talented 3D modellers David McKenna and Yifat Shaik.

The show’s overarching theme is “past versus present.” Or, more aptly, “the past through a modern day lens.”  Perhaps this is particularly apt because of Canada 150 as it presents an opportunity to reflect. The specific themes that I felt could help make that contrast include images of self, the effects of technology on our lives, the loss of innocence through media, scientific advancement, pollution and our consumption of food.

A visitor takes in the augmented reality version of a painting at the AGO’s new ReBlink exhibit.Impossible Things

Can you describe what attendees will see?

Ian Kelso: I love to just stand and watch people’s eyes as they take in ReBlink experiences for the first time. There is an absolutely real sense of magic to seeing each painting come to life. We call these particular AR experiences “re-mixes.” Just like with music, the augmented work is strongly rooted in the original, but is “modernized” in a deliberate way to give visitors a new layer of context, one that they can perhaps better identify with.

Some of the experiences also play with a sense of presence. For example, in the re-mix of Cornelius Krieghoff’s 1850 Village Scene in Winter we are transported from an idyllic and peaceful landscape of a tiny Quebec settlement to a dystopian environmental disaster area where a masked guard in a hazmat suit stands sentry in front of the painting and leers at you wherever you go in the gallery. It’s kind of scary, yet kind of awesome at the same time!

The AGO will have iPads in the main gallery where five of the works are on display. To experience the others, some of which are my personal favourites, visitors will need to bring their own smartphone or tablet. The ReBlink app is available for download for free on both iOS and Android. Because the paintings are so huge, and because the images are so high resolution, the download size is quite large. With most fast home connections though it should only take minutes. Speeds on the free public WiFi at the AGO can be fast but they can also be variable depending on traffic.

Why were these specific paintings chosen?

Mayhew: Keri Ryan and I explored the AGO collection and decided together. Decisions were based on which paintings had the most ‘interactive’ potential and where there was a particular contrast with present day life.

Toronto-based digital artist Alex Mayhew and business partner Ian Kelso at the AGO. Senait Gebremeskel

What do you think the original painters would think of augment reality? 

Mayhew: We have no way of telling what the original artist would feel. The most contemporary work in the series is The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John which was painted almost 100 years ago. Certainly the Marchesa Casati herself would have loved the attention. She is famously quoted as having always wanted to be “a living work of art.”‘ When you see the augmented reality re-mix, you will see we have kind of granted her that wish!

Some people may take offence to the way we have “altered” and played with these masterworks. We can say that every piece we created came from a place of love. We highly respect the themes and aesthetics of the original pieces and we crafted our interventions with meticulous attention to detail whilst trying to stay true to the spirit of the original.

Kelso: I think it is safe to day that none of the artists of the original paintings in our exhibition would have had even an inkling of the kind of the technologies that we take for granted today. But I’d like to think that any creative person would be very excited with the new and powerful forms of expression and communication that AR and VR are capable of. I started my digital career at the dawn of the commercial web in the early 1990s, and I was truly thrilled to just go to work each day where something new always seemed to happen. I spent several years as an Internet evangelist telling everyone who would listen that “a new age is coming!” Over twenty years have passed, and I suddenly have this feeling once again.

Do artists working in AR, VR, and MR need to be highly adept with technology, or are there accessible tools that allow less savvy creators to explore these new mediums?

Mayhew: There are accessible and easy-to-use tools. Anyone can create AR within an hour using tools like Blippbuilder or Aurasma. However, for more complex projects like ReBlink, technical knowledge is absolutely necessary. So the answer is to team up with a very clever and talented developer or learn how to code.

Kelso:  As with the introduction of any new digital medium, the basics will become more and more accessible. Anyone can now build a video game using tools like Scratch. But you won’t likely use those tools to suddenly create the next Zelda or Minecraft or even Pac-Man overnight. And for the next few years I think we are going to see continual transformation and disruption. There will be many new hardware standards, constantly improving but competing mobile frameworks, more powerful engines and lots of AI integration. All I can say is that the digital artists and developers we have been working with coming out of OCADU, are amazingly able and prepared to take on the challenge of integrating all of these variables to create something brilliant.

Source: Financial Post