Arts

Tired of digital gimmicks? YOUar looking at a spoof of virtual galleries

The pandemic’s forced everything online. What’s an artist to do? Launch a totally satirical virtual gallery.

The pandemic’s forced everything online. What’s an artist to do? Launch a totally satirical virtual gallery

AR you having fun, yet? A visitor to panke.gallery in Berlin views "Melting Bronze," an AR sculpture by Jeremy Bailey. (YOUar)

This time last year, anyone with a smartphone could've sampled digital lipstick (via Sephora) or pushed augmented-reality furniture around the living room with an app like Ikea Place. Concerned your new Picasso won't fit above the bathtub? (Or the more likely scenario: just want to see what it would look like?) Christie's auction house launched an AR tool in 2017 that allows users to effectively hang a masterpiece before they bid. But seven months into a global pandemic, yesterday's virtual novelties are being touted as essential services. Or they're way more hyped, at least, as people grasp for any facsimile of a Before Times experience.

Art and retail ventures have seemed especially quick to embrace such tech, keen to reach consumers in lockdown. In June, for instance, Montreal's Papier art fair went virtual, offering an AR viewer (Collecting—the App) to "enhance" the at-home affair. Nuit Blanche Toronto, another online-only event, included a curated program of AR sculptures. Vortic, a virtual platform launched by Oliver Miro (son of the famed British art dealer Victoria Miro), hosted a sort of digital gallery crawl this past summer, using its app to present exhibitions from a network of London galleries. And though it was founded pre-pandemic, the Acute Art app has spent the last few months releasing AR projects by some of the world's starriest art stars: Kaws, Olafur Eliasson, Marina Abramovic. 

To be fair, none of these examples have broken through to the general public with the impact of, say, Pokémon Go — but since the early days of COVID-19, Jeremy Bailey's been tracking the trend with interest. In September, the Toronto-based artist launched his own initiative, YOUar. Part online exhibition, part "ecommerce platform," it functions like some of those aforementioned examples, while gently skewering the demand for all things virtual.

Introducing YOUar. (YOUar)

"Seeing great Art has become inaccessible, unsafe and inconvenient," reads the site's homepage. "YOUar uses Augmented Reality (AR) to bring affordable, breathtaking museum quality sculpture to you, in your home or anywhere else you take your compatible iOS or Android device." Artists take home 100 per cent of the sales, and that element of YOUar's mission is 100 per cent sincere, Bailey explains. The platform's current roster includes Canadians Cat Bluemke, Jonathan Carroll and Jennifer Chan, among others — and is actively taking pitches from others looking to join their ranks. 

Though everything's free to view, the AR sculptures are finding buyers. Chan's limited-edition piece sold out within 24 hours of launching. Priced at $33, it's called Green Card Trampoline and it depicts the Toronto-based artist bouncing on the titular item. "Most of us who have long digital practices, nothing ever sells," says Chan. "So I was surprised."

Jennifer Chan. "Green Card Trampoline." (YOUar)

Bailey's own contributions are 3D riffs on the sort of "museum quality sculpture" you would find at, well, a museum: signature works by Henry Moore, Richard Serra, Alexander Calder, etc. They can be enlarged to virtually burst through walls and ceilings, or shrunk to the size of a Franklin Mint figurine. User's choice. And for maximum absurdity, each piece includes a digitized version of the artist himself, or rather the persona he's adopted for nearly two decades: "Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey," a thirsty tech/art guru in a Jobs-ian turtleneck and cut-offs.

Bailey's been exploring the same question since the outset of the aughts: what does it mean to "perform for the internet?" "And ultimately," he says, "augmented reality is the funniest expression, or illustration, of that idea." Some of his earliest YouTube videos are satirical software demos, where floating 3D shapes react to his movements in real time. "The word [augmented reality] existed, but it wasn't in popular use when I started doing work," says Bailey, chuckling. In hindsight, the stuff seems like an MS Paint forebear of Snapchat lenses. 

As AR entered the mainstream, though — picked up by Snapchat, then Facebook and Instagram — Bailey says he backed away from the medium. But that changed this spring. "It's been fascinating because there's been an explosion of interest," he says. "There was this mass rush to get businesses online. That's what everyone was talking about. Shopify stock was going through the roof." (Incidentally, that particular company released a report in September that trumpets the AR effect on sales; virtual try-on tools drive a 94 per cent higher conversion rate than plain-old product listings.) 

Jeremy Bailey. "Steel Shapes Painted Red." (Courtesy of YOUar)

But the AR push struck him as pure hype. "It's a bit silly, right? A lot of the ideas promised to solve problems that no one had" — a classic tech trope. His favourite example is Ikea's furniture preview app. "I don't know what the usage rate is for those products," says Bailey. (The answer likely varies retailer to retailer, though just last month, the Harvard Business Review suggested AR usage is growing. One pandemic example cited in that story: GLAMlab, an AR makeup tester for the U.S. cosmetics chain Ulta, saw engagement boom seven times over.) 

Still, he says: "looking at it as an artist, I'm thinking, 'Oh my goodness.' There's a hundred years of history and technology behind this, and what a sad way to use what could be such expressive technology — to deploy a better shopping experience."

Beyond retail, Bailey was tracking the pandemic trends in AR art, too. "I didn't like the platforms," he laughs. "Acute Art is probably the one I think of as the largest." In addition to viewing free AR works, users can collect digital art through the app. A collaboration with Kaws, announced in late March, originally offered a limited-edition piece for $10,000 plus virtual sculpture rentals ($7/week or $30/month).

"My version would be it should be free, and it should be open to more artists to participate, and it should be fun," says Bailey. "Whereas they're like, it should be precious, and it should replicate the same sort of stodgy view of the artworld."

Screen grab of Jeremy Bailey's "Curvy Corten Steel," on view at panke.gallery in Berlin. Works from YOUar appeared there Sept. 26 to Oct. 24 as part of the exhibition CHeCK oUT our show. (YOUar)

YOUar, in one sense, earnestly functions as an antidote to what's already on the market. From a sales perspective, it's a disruptor (to use the start-up cliché). Its artist-first model eliminates the usual gallery middleman.

But it also pokes holes in AR's pandemic promise: that virtual experiences are a substitute for the IRL thing. Dropping a digital Donald Judd in your living room, for example, is meant to be pure jokes. Some things are better left in an open field in Texas.

As seen in the virtual wild. "During Abduction" by Cat Bluemke. (YOUar)

Like Bailey, the participating artists reference classic works in their sculptures. (Chan's the only exception.) And they've inserted 3D portraits of themselves, too.

"When you're buying a work, I think it's really important to reflect on the identity of the artist that you are inviting into your home," says Bailey. "And for me that's one of the tensions in the work that hopefully is interesting to folks. To invite a Black body or an Asian body or a white male body or cisgender body into your home is a very hopeful act. Like, we should invite all of the bodies into our home."

Shawné Michaelain Holloway. "emphasis on the Y (or the first time I gave my girlfriend head was in Indiana).obj." (YOUar)

The next phase for YOUar, says Bailey, is growing it. "I'm in phase one. We're going to expand the platform to be open to more artists in the new year."

"I don't think [AR] is going to go away until the pandemic's gone. It's a natural response to an obvious problem, which is, you know, anything physical feels dangerous." 

"Everyone wants to use it to sell furniture and better jeans," he says. "But what if it can also be creative, and it can be a way to consume art and consider art that would have otherwise been inaccessible?" 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now