Who owns the virtual space in your museum?

Yesterday I crashed my first ever ARDevCamp @ the Powerhouse Museum. Despite being late (buses do not replace trains very effectively) and missing some of the morning talks, the afternoon provided plenty of inspiration and lots of think about. True to form, I used my spidey senses to find some incredibly interesting people to sit next to, and got into some great conversations – some of which will no doubt inform this blog over the next few days.

One of the most interesting questions that arose at the Camp was about digital space and augmented reality (AR). Rob Manson from Mob Labs spoke a bit about the question of who owns the digital space – an issue that will no doubt become more important as more companies and individuals start tapping into the AR potential, particularly for advertising (if this stuff interests you, it’s worth reading this article on Mashable). But it’s also an interesting question for museums to think about.

Last October Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek staged a guerrilla AR intervention at MoMA as part of the Conflux Psychogeoraphy festival. The exhibition not only took over the current six floors of MoMA, it created an AR sculpture garden on the “seventh” floor. Check out the video for a sense of the event.

WeARinMoMA seems more akin to performance art than anything else, in part because of the time-limited nature of the performance. But I’m interested in how museums – and I’m probably thinking about art museums in particular – would deal with more of these kinds of interventions. What if Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek decided that they wanted their exhibition to be permanent?

The Stuckists (talking about the Tate) argue that:

An act by an individual which interferes with an existing artwork is termed an “intervention” and the individual termed an “artist” if they are endorsed by a Tate curator or are dead. The same, or similar, act by an individual interfering with the same artwork (or even interfering with the interference to the artwork), if they are alive and are not endorsed by a Tate curator, is termed “vandalism”, and the individual termed a “criminal”.

So what would happen if someone painted an AR beard on the Mona Lisa? Would the Louvre try to prevent the intervention for being vandalism? It does not harm or interfere with the actual work, although may impact upon its interpretation. Could an artist be prosecuted for digital vandalism?

Or conversely, would the AR addition to the painting be recognised as an important part of the painting’s provenance? Could visitors delight in seeing the painting through another artist’s eyes, and comparing that to the original then and there? Would the interpretation be documented and preserved in the artist file? And how would it be done? Would there simply be videos and photos as per a performance, or would the documentation include recording lines of code as well? Could the AR art be collected, and if so, how? Does the long tail of this end with a curator of AR in the museum?

This guy floated over the Powerhouse @ ARDevCampSyd

The AR might not only take place within the Gallery. Yesterday a giant virtual Lego man stood above the Powerhouse Museum, welcoming visitors to ARDevCamp. This could be a great way for museums seeking redevelopment funding to get people enthused about the project, by projecting the architectural models over the physical building.

But what if the layer had been promoting a commercial product instead? While I can see all kinds of awesome applications for this for artists seeking a little notoriety (like emblazoning their own name on the wall of a Gallery), they might not be the only ones interested in claiming the digital space around museums and galleries. What if Coke decided to as well? Or a political party?

Of course, these are all hypothetical situations and will likely never eventuate. The questions that arise out of real world AR interventions in digital space are likely to be far more nuanced – and far more interesting. But these questions demonstrate just how little we can prepare to respond to technology until we know how it’s actually utilised. While the legal and ethical debates around these issues might be fun to think about, it won’t be until there are cases actually in the courts that the actual implications will become clear. After all, laws are made in response to actual events not hypothetical ones, and individual cases often require individual responses. But until then, it’s interesting to consider just who owns the virtual space in your museum – and around it.

12 thoughts on “Who owns the virtual space in your museum?

  1. Interesting post on a really important topic. There’s 3 points I’d add to this.

    First, the digital sphere is effectively infinite. Yet the attention of users/viewers/humans is a very finite and limited resource. So many people can add AR content over ANY areas or objects they like…but unless they have a way to promote this and get people to try it out then it’s really just a silent and meaningless collection of data. This is one place where the existing space owners have an advantage.

    Second, there’s no real cost or risk involved in overlaying AR content. Using tools like http://buildAR.com anyone can create a Layar Layer. For instance it only took me about 15 minutes to setup the ARDevCamp Layer that placed that giant lego man over the Powerhouse Museum. I think @dabhaid makes some great points about this in his blog post on the topic http://augre.net/post/3723007546/cant-force-this For instance with graffiti, I think there’s an extra level of significance added by physical artists who actually put their balls on the line by taking real world risks to add their art to real world walls.

    Lastly, I think there’s a great role for AR in terms of archiving the presentation of ephemeral objects in real places. Gallery and Museum exhibitions fit into this category and we’re trying to do this with http://streetARtApp.com Anyone with a compatible mobile device can now capture images of artwork and leave them as a permanent AR image. We’re working on adding a timeline slider and some other features so you can explore how a space and the art there has changed and evolved over time.

    And I completely agree with your closing comments that all of this is an interesting topic for discussion, but it won’t be until we deal with the nitty gritty aspects of individual cases that really impact people’s live that we will grow a real understanding.

    This is exactly the type of discussion we were hoping would come out of #ARDevCampSyd. I glad you could come along and I hope you can make it to our next event.

    1. Awesome comment. Thanks Rob! You are absolutely right that AR provides some really interesting opportunities in presenting (and archiving the presentation of) ephemeral objects in real places. I think the opportunities for artists and for museums are only just opening up with AR, and the timeline slider sounds great. Museums could probably use the same technology to track the changes happening within their exhibition spaces, to track how their own spaces have changed over time (And as an aside, I wonder when a museum will create the first fully-AR exhibition…).

      Your point about the digital sphere being infinite is a great one. I imagine, like in any actual space, there will be prime real estate in a few key areas, and then lots of noise. It’s true of so much on the Internet though – it’s not simply about having a cool website… people actually have to interact with it for it to be meaningful. But if the predictions on Mashable were to come true (with AR enabled glasses worn at all times), then the digital noise becomes a little more intrusive.

      Right now, I still cannot quite imagine the world where these are real issues. Yet so many of the issues that are prominent right now in technology were not even on the radar only a few years ago, so anything – and everything – is possible.

      And yes – it was a great event. I’m glad I got along.

  2. It’s kind of infinite, but mostly not from the UX/UE perspective.

    The problem with this sort of thing is that while people will be able to find points to attach AR to in spaces, depending upon the space, many will get very crowded, while others will not. NY MOMA, for example, might get zillions of artists putting in their AR work, where as the local county museum may get a lot less. The Sydney Opera House or the Golden Gate Bridge may get many many points, while other places will get less, etc…

    In UX/UE, I’ve referred to this as “the hundred things problem,” meaning that there is a certain limit to the amount of things that someone is willing to scroll through to get to their content. Infinite scrolling is a problem for some, particularly in a menu pull-down arrangement where there is no quick way to shortcut the search.

    In physical space, from a UX perspective, there currently aren’t very good tools (or are there any?) for AR to deal with many multiple AR objects in and around specific popular geolocations.

    Its going to be a mess. The display tools for AR (as far as I know) currently don’t have a way to filter the “hundred things problem.”

  3. To add, there may be some type of location blocks developed to keep “key AR real estate” prime. Also, there may come a time when sensors can tell you have a working phone and shut off certain capabilities (like detecting geolocation) within certain radius. Hard to know, but if its popular and there’s money to be made, expect that there will be an attempt to “gatekeep” virtual spaces….

    If you’re interested in museums, specifically, you might like my paper from 20 years ago on contextual virtual museums: http://sally.com/wiki/File:Museum_of_the_Future.pdf

    1. Wow Dave. Your post is awesome. Everyone should go and read it, because it certainly builds on my initial thoughts in the area, and makes some really excellent points about the nature of virtual space from someone who has experience with mobile media.

      My view was probably more coming loaded with cultural questions. From my experience, in many (most?) museums, control – be it over the environment or the objects themselves – is held onto very tightly. And so even though the AR experiences are, as you point out, opt in, they are also beyond the immediate control of the curators/gallery staff etc. And it was on that premise that I wrote my post. It was actually sparked by a throwaway comment that Rob made at the Dev Camp. He made a joke to one of the staff members from the Powerhouse about the giant Lego man, and whether they felt uncomfortable with him taking over their digital space. But as your post demonstrates, it’s not quite so simple as that…

      Now I’m going to go back and read your post again.

      1. Thanks Suse, I worry I take a too literal or too engineering centric view, so it’s great to get perspective from a more humanistic side. Looking forward to more of your thinking on AR.

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