Vancouver is getting an outdoor festival of augmented-reality art

AR is everywhere these days, and it's becoming a staple of pandemic entertainment. Will these digital sculptures draw you downtown?

AR is everywhere these days. Will these digital sculptures draw you downtown?

Dreamy. A sneak peek at Saida Saetgar's contribution to VMF Winter Arts. (VMF)

Saida Saetgar was developing ideas for a new art installation, trying to imagine what people might want to see right now. "I was thinking about how we are all sort of trapped in our homes," says the Vancouver-based artist. And from that observation, she decided to pursue a concept that revels in pure fantasy, building a pink and lavender balcony that appears to hover in space. It's meant to look like a portal, she explains. "We don't have a lot of opportunity to travel. And this is like travelling into a different realm, a realm of dreams. It's kind of like an ultimate escape."

And, it should be noted, this surreal creation of hers is entirely digital. It's an augmented-reality sculpture that can be viewed via smartphone — one of 24 original AR pieces that will debut at VMF Winter Arts Feb. 12 – 28.

The event is an offshoot of the long-running Vancouver Mural Festival, which has experimented with various pandemic-proof concepts over the last 11 months. When the city's storefronts were boarded up in springtime, they gave them a morale-boosting makeover as part of an initiative called #MakeArtWhileApart, and their annual street-art extravaganza was re-imagined this summer, foregoing the usual block-party programming but nevertheless bringing fresh art to nine neighbourhoods.

This little dude is Positivasaurus. Look for this AR piece at VMF Mural Fest. (VMF)

Like those events, VMF Winter Arts is meant to be experienced from the street. On launch day, a map of 17 downtown locations will be revealed through VMF's free app. And upon visiting those sites, festival-goers will need to track down QR codes. (They shouldn't be hard to spot: they're printed on eight-foot-tall markers.) Scan any given code with a smartphone, and a 3D digital sculpture — like Saetgar's, for example — will appear on the screen. 

The technology's not new, but it's become an increasingly common feature of pandemic-era entertainment. As part of Calgary's Chinook Blast, a festival which runs to Feb. 28, AR artwork will be appearing in store windows throughout the Inglewood neighbourhood. Some of the programming for Toronto's recently wrapped DesignTO festival also included AR storefront displays. In December, anyone walking London's Southbank could have discovered an all-star exhibition featuring site-specific works by Olafur Eliasson, KAWS, Tomás Saraceno and more. The Acute Art app, in partnership with Dazed Media, organized that particular festival, and the featured works were later available to view from home. That lockdown-friendly approach was also adopted by Toronto's Nuit Blanche in 2020, when they curated a full program of AR installations meant to be enjoyed from anywhere. 

To view the digital installations at VMF Winter Arts, festival-goers must scan QR codes that will be posted at different locations around downtown Vancouver. (Photo: Gabriel Martins/VMF)

Andrea Curtis, the executive director at VMF, says that launching a new AR festival was a natural fit for the organization. Their app saw plenty of use through 2020, she says. "It was successful in helping people find murals on their own time and safely," says Curtis. "We decided we wanted to explore additional ways of connecting people with art, possibly with the use of technology in the winter months."

Plus, she says: "Augmenting murals is something we've been wanting to do for a long time." And she notes that past festival artists, like Extra Crunchy, have used the technology to sprinkle their paintings with 3D pixie dust. 

This mural by Extra Crunchy was created as part of VMF's 2020 edition. For VMF Winter Arts, it's getting a bonus AR layer. (VMF)

Like that Extra Crunchy example, some of the works included in VMF Winter Arts will jam with pre-existing murals. (Local artist Krista Hilge is adding a digital "extension" to a wall by Margaret August, for instance.) Other artists on the roster include Casey Koyczan, Syrus Marcus Ware and Mediah. On the whole, Curtis says the programming wasn't curated with a specific concept in mind, but one emerged organically. "The theme really did become about resilience," she says. "It did become about getting it done in the face of adversity."

But before the artists could get this particular assignment done, several of them needed to hone some brand new skills. Saetgar, for example, had never dabbled in AR before joining the festival. "I had zero experience. Really. Zero," she says. VMF, however, hired a team to help participating artists execute their vision. It was a valuable learning opportunity, she says, and she's keen to continue working in the medium. 

"I think it's the ultimate metaphor for the merger between digital and physical space that we're currently experiencing," she says, and to her, an AR festival is an especially timely idea. "We're always online," says Saetgar, "and I think the pandemic accelerated the trend that was already happening, a trend toward merging with the digital world."

Casey Koyczan's contribution to VMF Winter Arts: Caribou 3020. (VMF)

After the festival wraps, the works themselves will continue to live online. (They're already available, in fact — just search the filters on VMF's Instagram profile.) But loading them up in your living room kind of misses the point, says Curtis. 

"What people do when they come to our events is they wander around and they get to explore and find art," she says. And she has the same vision for VMF Winter Arts, which will be activating underused locations around the downtown. "People are probably going to see a number of little plazas that they hadn't really noticed were there before," she says, and her ultimate goal for the festival is to encourage folks to get outside — "to go and explore the urban spaces of their city, to connect to art that way."

VMF Winter Arts. Feb. 12 – 28. Various locations, Vancouver.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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