Richard Humann’s “Ascension” an Augmented Reality work, is currently being premiered at the Palazzo Mora during the Venice Biennale. “Ascension” is a fascinating exploration of Augmented Reality combined with an introduction of new constellations for Venice’s night sky. I am excited that Mr. Humann agreed to do this interview with The Engine Institute because his work not only engages everyone who has a smart phone with new technology and also because this work changes the skyline of Venice in a unique way.
Here is the interview.
Richard, I have been excited to learn more about “Ascension” the work you launched in May at the Venice Biennale-57th Exhibition in 2017. This work represents a relatively new direction you have taken technologically, conceptually as well as figuratively, so I would like to take the time to know more about all of these aspects of the work and how or if it has change your focus.
CB: Can you tell me a little about the Augmented Reality (AR) experience and how does a person navigate/find the different designs?
RH: Augmented Reality superimposes digital images over the top of the real world that we see. Most conventional AR uses computer vision, which means that you have to find a “marker,” a poster, or a printout to trigger the augmented content. For “Ascension” I worked with Jay Van Buren, and his New York-based company Membit. They have developed an AR app that can work anywhere without a marker.
I created all the individual pieces in my studio, and Membit brought them to life in the night sky. To access “Ascension” when you’re in Venice for the biennale, you simply have to go to the (Apple) app store and download Membit for free. Open it up, and my project has been marked with #ascension so you’ll be seeing only the membits that are part of this work appearing as pins on the map. Use the map to (physically) walk to the location of the work—as they are scattered throughout the six sestiere’s (six districts) of Venice—then hold up your iPhone or iPad. You’ll see an image of where you’re supposed to look on the screen. You then just line this image up with the world and hit the button to reveal the “Ascension” constellation there in the sky above you.
CB: Can you tell me a little about the images and how they were selected? Are they based on traditional constellations seen in Venice?
RH: I began by doing research into the existing constellation systems that we look at in the night sky. Most of the constellations that we see when we look up come from the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They can date back nearly three thousand years in some instances, with images of the ram, the bear, or heroes such as the hunter or archer. Rather than play too literally on the ideas of the ancients, I instead tried to find the impetus of the reason that certain animals, humans, gods and creatures were chosen. The most overriding theme seemed to be that of greatness of some sort or another; an achievement over and above that of common man, even if the achievement existed only in storytelling or an amalgamation fact and fiction.
I began to think of our past 20th Century and the individuals, events, or ideas that stood out more than others in that 100-year span. I decided to create only 12 constellations for this exhibition in Venice so I had to choose very carefully. I began with the two world wars, WWI and WWII that kicked off the first half the past century. The next question was how to represent them? I decided to utilize a visual hybrid system of animals and humans, with symbolic clothing or objects to symbolize the spirit of the constellation at hand. This is unusual for my work as I am not a representational artist, in that my work does not manifest as visually based representational objects or images. It was very interesting to explore where it would take me though.
Getting back to the representational imagery for WWI and WWII, I used an image of the body of a dog, a beagle to be exact, in that the beagle is a hound that is known to sound the alarm. I created it so that the beagle had two heads at each end of his body, and for those heads I placed one as an oversized Rottweiler, and the other as an oversized German Shepherd. The two heads face in different directions, ready to attack or defend its territory at all costs. Other images are of the Beatles, represented by an octopus with the head of a revolver handgun. In the arms of the octopus are four flowers, each representing the band members. The list goes on. The constellation characters represent Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Princess Diana Steve Jobs, and even the car manufacturers of the mid-century.
They are playful and fun, and hopefully show the overall tenor of each of the personalities and their accomplishments. The star systems were then applied on top of the imagery, utilizing highlights of the form to place a star, and then connect them together to complete the constellation’s shape.
CB: You are not really a “tech” artist, what made you decide to work with Augmented Reality (AR)?
RH: I have created one other Augmented Reality piece, in Miami during the 2015 Art/Basel fair. It was fascinating to surround because there are essentially no limitations when working with AR; the size of the work, material restrictions, cost, in fact, there are not even the laws of nature to contend with, like gravity for example. I could come up with almost any idea that I could think of, and there would be a way to realize it within the Augmented Reality universe. It’s a very powerful proposition to extend to an artist.
CB: Are any of your previous works technically based?
RH: Well, other than the AR piece that I created for the fair in Miami, which was a massive spiral with words and codes stretching from the ground all the way into the sky, entitled “Harp of the Giant” I would say not really. I’ve done video, of course, and other pieces that require tech like a website specific work once, but I’m a conceptual artist, in that the ideaof my work takes precedents over the material that I use to realize it.
CB: Why did you decide to title the work “Ascension?”
RH: I titled the work “Ascension” because ascension is the act of rising to a higher plane, being lifted, or raised into the heavens. My installation raises a number of iconic figures of the 20th Century into the celestial heavens of Augmented Reality for all eternity.
CB: What challenges did you face in creating the project?
RH: Not as many as you might think, and a little more than I probably expected. Not because of the app or the technology, but because of the learning curve I had to surpass to create for it. It’s no different than applying paint to canvas, charcoal to paper, or hammer and chisel to marble. I just needed to become proficient with the tools and materials. AR is intangible; so my mind had to learn grasp the tools instead of my hands.
How did you balance both the art and science in the piece?
RH: For me, it was all about the art. My work, as the artist, was to create an art installation that’s new, different, and compelling using science and technology that’s just as cutting edge. For “Ascension” I developed contemporary star constellations. This might conceptually blur the precision of what science historically has defined our constellations to be, but the concept of the artwork was the driving force that was used to realize the work and augment what we know with current day idols.
CB: Why did you choose Venice to premier the work?
RH: I wanted to premiere “Ascension” during the 2017 Venice Biennale because the Venice Biennale is arguably the most high profile and important art exhibition in the world. Artists from countries all over the world are represented in the Giardini, the Arsenale, and throughout Venice for over six months, with hundreds of thousands of visitors coming to experience it. The European Art Centre and the GAA Foundation helped sponsor my show, which originates at Palazzo Mora on the Strada Nova.
Opening week for the biennale is a huge event in Venice, and was the perfect time and place to launch such a hard-fought project. I also have a close personal affinity for Venice, having been there many, many times over the years, as well as living there for two months at the Emily Harvey Foundation art residency program in 2013. Venice is truly a magical city, and Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but seeing the magic of Augmented Realty over the equally magical city of Venice makes it difficult to dispute.
CB: Would you consider working with Augmented Reality again in future projects?
RH: Yes, I would. I think it’s important to explore as many options as possible for an artist to help realize their concept and vision. Maybe it works, and maybe it doesn’t—but all art is, or at least should be—exploration. If it’s anything less than that, then it’s essentially just construction work.
CB: Are you happy with the results?
RH: Yes, I really am. In fact, it’s even bigger, brighter, bolder, and more encompassing than I had imagined it would be while I was creating it. You walk around Venice to see the individual constellations, but if you take a short vaporetto (boat) ride to San Giorgio Maggiore, and then turn to face San Marco and the Riva degli Schiavoni, you can see the entire “Ascension” constellation systems floating over the city. Just like my journey to Venice for the biennale, I believe it’s worth the trip.
“Ascension,” by Richard Humann
Through November 26, 2017
At Palazzo Mora, Strada Nova, 36121 Venice Italy
During the 2017 Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy
Curated by Seol Park
With support from Membit, the European Culture Center and the GAA Foundation