Time Out Singapore: John Craig Freeman

In Window Zoos & Views – an exhibition of augmented reality public artwork that’s part of Digital Art Weeks in May – John Craig Freeman uses technology to remind us of the horrible past and warn us of the earth’s scary future. Gwen Pew talks to the Boston-based artist.

John Craig Freeman

John Craig Freeman

23 Apr 2013: Window Zoos & Views is an exhibition of augmented reality public artwork that’s part of Digital Art Weeks, an event founded in Zurich, Switzerland, six years ago and debuting in Singapore for the first time. One of the featured artists, Boston-based John Craig Freeman, 54, has participated in three other DAW and is showing two works.

One of them, ‘Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands’, displays black-and-white footages of historic mass uprisings, in the most unlikely venue:Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park. The other one, ‘Flotsam & Jetsam’, gives us a peek into the future when the sea level rises due to global warming: hover your tablet or phone at precise GPS coordinates along the entire length of Orchard Road or from Hill Street to Outram Park Station, and you will see shipping containers, boat wrecks, driftwood and plastic refuse superimposed over the terrain.

Tell us a bit about your artistic background.
I am a public artist with over 20 years of experience using emergent technologies to produce large-scale public work at sites where the forces of globalisation are impacting the lives of individuals in local communities. My work seeks to expand the notion of public by exploring how digital-networked technology is transforming our sense of place.

Where have your works been shown previously?
I have produced works and exhibited them around the world including in Venice, Istanbul, Xi’an, Belfast, Los Angeles, Beijing, Zurich, New York City, Taipei, São Paulo, Warsaw, Kaliningrad, Miami, Bilbao, Havana, Atlanta, Calgary, Buffalo, Boston, Mexico City, London and San Francisco.

Are you a full-time artist or do you have a day job?
I am currently an associate professor of New Media Art at Emerson College in Boston.

When did you first become interested in augmented reality?
Since 1990 I have been pursuing an interest in emergent technology as art practice and public art as intervention – intervention in both institutions of high culture and intervention in government policy and the institutions of the nation state. My work in augmented reality is the most recent manifestation of this interest since 2010 and represents a contiguous evolution in form from various experiments in place-based virtual reality of the 1990s and 2000s.

What is it about augmented reality that fascinates you the most?
In the past 20 years we have witnessed the migration of the public sphere from the physical realm, the public square, to the virtual realm, the Internet. In effect, the location of public discourse and the site of national identity formation have been extended from the town square into the virtual world. Augmented reality allows us to overlay the virtual public sphere onto our experience of the physical world. Whereas the public square was once the quintessential place to express and share our thoughts, it is no longer the only anchor for interactions in the public realm; geography has been relocated to a novel terrain – one that encourages exploration of mobile location based public art. Moreover, public space is now truly open, as artworks can be placed anywhere in the world, without prior permission from government or private authorities – with profound implications for art in the public sphere and the discourse that surrounds it.

Was it difficult to break into the field?
No, it was a natural evolution.

Would you consider it more of an art or a science?
The work I do is certainly an art form first, albeit experimental and reliant on computer science.

Do you have a favourite work that you’ve done in the past?
‘Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos’ is an augmented reality public art project and memorial, dedicated to the thousands of migrant workers who have died along the U.S./Mexico border in recent years trying to cross the desert southwest in search of work and a better life. Built for smartphone mobile devices, this project allows people to visualize the scope of the loss of life by marking each location where human remains have been recovered with a virtual object or augmentation. Based on a traditional form of wood-carving from Oaxaca, the virtual object consists of a three-dimensional geometric model of a skeleton effigy or calaca. Calacas are used in commemoration of lost loved ones during the Mexican Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead festivals. In the tradition of Día de los Muertos, the Border Memorial project is designed to honor, celebrate and remember those who have died and to elevate this issue in public consciousness and American political debate. The project is intended to provide a kind of lasting conceptual presence in an otherwise ephemeral physical environment and cultural discourse.

What were some of the challenges?
Politically engaged in art in public space, which is quite common in Western countries, ask the question, who will assert dominion over the virtual space around us? It exposes the need to develop a new ontology, a new understanding of what is real, and a new epistemology, the criteria by which we determine how we know. Recent discoveries in physics are related to the emergence of virtual and augmented reality. We had just assumed that we understood what was real for hundreds of years. New understanding of time and matter; multiple dimensions based on string theory; and quantum mechanics have pulled the rug right out from beneath our understanding of what constitutes what is real.

You also mentored some students at the Singapore Polytechnic for this project – what was the experience like?
Very exciting!

How would you explain the idea of augmented reality to people who may not have properly come across it before?
Augmented reality is virtual reality developed for, and located within the physical world. The public can simply download and launch a mobile application on any late model iPhone, iPad or Android mobile device and view this alternative reality through the devices’ camera. The application uses geolocation software to superimpose virtual objects at the precise GPS coordinates, enabling the public to see the objects integrated into the physical location as if they existed in the real world.

What does it take for someone to get into the field of augmented reality?
There is a relatively low technical threshold for anyone with basic Internet skills to create augmented reality. To make meaningful, site specific work however, takes significant art, art history and theory as well as technical training, including 3D modeling, computer programming and database management.

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