Last week, Snap Inc. announced it was hiding Jeff Koons sculptures all over the world. But the enormous metallic balloon animals only exist in augmented reality–and you can only see them through Snapchat. For instance, the company “hid” one of its Koons sculptures at a geo-tagged location in Central Park. When people looked at those coordinates through Snapchat, they could see the sculpture.
Activist artist Sebastian Errazuriz–founder of the technology-driven practice CrossLab–is nervous about the virtual art show’s implications. “Snapchat’s project represents the first real milestone into generating geo-located content,” he says. “There’s nothing apparently scary about a shiny balloon dog that you can photograph and see as if it was real life; nevertheless people should be concerned about the fact that it represents the first step of an AR geo-tagged invasion.”
Within 24 hours, Errazuriz and his team had created an identical virtual sculpture, vandalizing it with graffiti and placing it in the exact same geo-location as the Koons sculpture in Central Park, through CrossLab’s AR app.
The way we interact with other people has fundamentally changed over the past few years. More and more, we communicate through social media, keeping in touch via platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Errazuriz believes that soon, we’ll use AR just as much. The problem he sees is that right now, corporations make the rules of AR space, which is directly tied to physical space. Even though we’re the ones using these spaces, we don’t have a say in how they operate. The risk? We will see things we don’t want to see, be sold things we don’t want to buy, and be regulated and surveilled by corporations.
AR represents a new frontier of what Errazuriz calls “virtual public space,” and he thinks the public should be taking a more active role in defining it–just as it does physical space. “This virtual space where we are slowly migrating into is owned by corporations and as such they will continue to dictate, sell, and monetize the content that is exhibited in that digital public realm that we all share,” Errazuris says. “It’s important for the user to push back and demand some level of participation. If this space is truly ours, we should be able to express ourselves and reject content that we do not want to see. It’s enough to be monitored and bombarded in our computer and phone screens. The moment corporations own the AR content we see and experience on our daily commute and daily lives, then its a completely different level of control.”
Errazuriz thinks that cities should treat geo-tagging rights like air rights. For example, if a developer wants to build a tall tower, the company has to pay for it and can’t build taller than the rights allow. Similarly, he thinks that cities should regulate geo-tagging and charge companies who want to put content in specific locations. Jeff Koons can’t just build a sculpture in Central Park without permits, public review, etc.; Errazuriz believes virtual sculptures should be treated the same way.
“If companies want to tag their GPS AR content to public space and force us to see ads that they sell to other companies, then they should first rent those GPS coordinates from the public,” Errazuriz says. “We should be the ones that evaluate their proposals and choose to grant or not the GPS ‘air rights’ to that virtual public space in exchange for a rent that is used for the public good.”
Errazuris has a cynical view about where VR and AR are heading, one based on the idea that Snap wants to impose a particular, singular vision. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Snap founder Evan Spiegel communicated a more open perspective, one that was about Snapchat enabling users to create their own worlds rather than dictating what they see.
“The fact that we can bring these ginormous sculptures really anywhere in the world is just the beginning of inspiring young people everywhere to create with our cameras,” he told Walter Isaacson. He later went on to say that when people encounter the balloon dog, he wants them to interact with it however they want–including drawing over it, just like Errazuriz did.
“I think one of the really important differences with Snapchat is that when you open into your own experience, you feel encouraged to express yourself,” Spiegel told Isaacson. “One of the challenges we see on other services, when you open straight into media, or media created by other people, or media that’s deemed to be popular, you start with this layer of judgement rather than your own experience. And I think that can be really limiting because it’s almost paralyzing to think that anything you create is going to be judged by millions and millions of people.”
So are we a headed toward a dystopia, one where our virtual spaces are as cluttered with advertising and corporate messaging as Times Square is with billboards, as websites are with banner and pop-up ads, and as social platforms are with sponsored posts? Or are we entering space that’s 100% ours? While history points to the former over the latter, Snap tends to lean into behavior that its users want. There might still be time for us to determine what the rules of “virtual public space” are.
In the meantime, Errazuriz and his team at CrossLab will continue to develop apps, AR experiences, bots, and digital artwork that provoke us to think about how our relationship to technology and culture is evolving.
“Making physical sculptures or physical installations can no longer carry the urgency, power, or transformative potential that people have through the technology in their pockets,” he says. “The understanding is, if we want to influence thoughts and ideas, and invite people into those dialogues, we need to shift in that direction.”