Activating Space: Augmented Reality and Postmodernism

Meredith Hoy
Asst. Professor of Contemporary Art
University of Massachusetts, Boston

In 1984, Frederic Jameson famously wrote of postmodern architecture in his analysis of the Bonaventure Hotel. The postmodern hotel, he argues, “aspires to be a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city; to this new total space, meanwhile, corresponds a new collective practice, a new mode in which individuals move and congregate.”1 Writing before the age of ubiquitous computing, Jameson imagined the social world of this new postmodern space as a kind of “hypercrowd,” in which people operate as if in an extension of the urban

environment, a double of the surrounding city. 2Likewise, the conception for the exhibition AR2View proposes the space of the Hilton Hotel in New York City as a place of congregation, of movement and encounters. The exhibition coheres around the idea of the hotel as “a system of generic meeting spaces and temporarily social

and personal places,” and asks artists to respond, using Augmented Reality interfaces, to the particular site, both as an architectural and as a social construction.3

Augmented Reality, briefly, can be defined as a technology that deploys electronic systems within the physical world in order to affect or mediate the experience of that world. The “augmentation” of reality is performed by overlaying computationally generated information, whether graphic, sonic, or textual, onto the physical world, often using the interface of a mobile personal computing device, such as a tablet or cellphone. Users survey a scene before them using the camera view of an enabled device, which responds to geolocative triggers, such as GPS coordinates, generating a virtually modeled “object” that hovers in the foreground of the screen.

The theme of AR2View calls into question the paradigm, proposed by Jameson, of the postmodern architectural and social space configured by the Bonaventure Hotel. The projects in this exhibition prompt the question of how postmodern spaces can be renegotiated under contemporary technological conditions, specifically the imposition of virtual objects in real spaces, viewed through a screen of an enabled mobile device. The exhibition reveals the extent to which the intervention of a technology such as AR alters the way space is navigated, the way people in space interact with one another, and the way the virtual augmentations can work against

disorientation and disengagement. The projects contained within the exhibition explore how AR technology amplifies or disrupts the postmodern situation described, but not endorsed, by Jameson. In what follows,

Augmented Reality will be brought into dialog with the paradigm of the postmodern, and its social and political potential will be shown to contrast with the apolitical stance of the postmodern.

The Bonaventure Hotel, according to Jameson, performs as an extension of urban space. In Jameson’s distinction between Modernist and Postmodernist architectural constructions, the Modernist building becomes a monument to utopia, a structure that sets apart the activities within the building from those taking place in the surrounding urban environment. The postmodern building, by contrast, refuses to demarcate itself from its surroundings, instead integrating itself into the rhythms and passages of the city that envelops it. For Jameson, LeCorbusier’s modernist construction “radically separates the new Utopian space of the modern from the degraded and fallen city fabric which it thereby explicitly repudiates.”4 “The [exemplarily postmodern] Bonaventure, however, is content to ‘let the fallen city fabric continue to be in its being’ (to parody Heidegger).”5

Whereas complete virtual environments set themselves apart from an existing environment, AR elements superimpose themselves on a real spatial fabric, bringing to light unthought or unspoken dimensions of that space. Augmented Reality projects, then, resist a Modernist utopia, a territory set apart from the social and political complexity of the world, instead integrating themselves within an existing environment in a way that forces the user to consider what a given space represents, how it is normatively used, and how it might be “detourned” or repurposed to pursue specific goals. AR projects do not support the disengagement of the postmodern, but they operate within an idiom of extension and amplification, as does postmodern architecture, rather than supporting the exclusion and separation of Modernist architecture or virtual reality.

Whereas the location of the annual CAA conference might provoke a sense of disorientation, the conference itself can be seen to mirror the paradigm of the polis passed down from Plato. In an age of digital communication, the conference sustains an older model of collaborative communication. Calls, proposals, organizations of panels, meetings, and exhibitions, are all conducted in electronic space, but toward an ultimate end of face-to-face meeting and dialog. The postmodern city, in contrast, is a politically disengaged space of accidental, fleeting encounters, run-ins with passers-by, shop windows, traffic; it is not a space of prolonged collaboration or dialog. The conference revives an ancient model of a political and social democratic utopia, and in this sense conflicts with the fragmented, decentralized experience of postmodern space. Modernist structures, in Jameson’s account, attempt to build a coherent, rationalized spatial experience, an experience engineered and directed by, for example, the grand entrance. Modernist buildings encourage the formation of social groups through the creation of common spaces, even creating a sense of commonality in individual living spaces by reproducing architectural features uniformly between dwellings. Unlike the Modernist habitation, the Bonaventure has no clearly demarcated entryways or porticos, creating an unresolved, labyrinthine system that promotes disorientation, destabilization, and more aimless movement through the hotel’s interior.

Rachel Clarke actuates this disoriented mode of perambulation and interaction in her project “Nowhere.” Her vision of the hotel conference space reveals the disconnection and potential alienation of the site, showing how the architecture itself works contrary to the utopian mode of collaboration and face-to-face interaction ideally catalyzed within the social world of the conference. The postmodern space of the hotel creates friction in this ideal social model, confronting the viewer with a dazzling labyrinthine “hyper-space, where one is required to walk through seemingly endless long wide corridors, go up and down in brightly-lit glass elevators and escalators, and through tunnels and by-passes to yet more rooms and halls of connected activities and events.”6 The conference space mimics the simultaneous sense of connection and fragmentation evoked by the network, its tunnels and by-passes leading to nodes of intersection and interaction, interspersed with stretches of anonymity and apocalyptic conditions, while other projects, such as Pat Badani and Desiree Agngarayngay’s “Power Potential,” cause users to deliberate and narrativize spatial navigation.

AR elements complement and extend the space upon which they intervene, instead of replacing it, as in the case of the modernist structure or the virtual reality environment. In a 2011 manifesto for AR Art, the collective ManifestAR echoes this resistance to modernist utopian replacement or separation, proclaiming that “AR is not an Avant-Garde Martial Plan of Displacement, it is an Additive Access Movement the Layers and Relates and Merges. It embraces all Modalities. Against the Spectacle, the Realized Augmented Culture introduces Total Participation.”9 Against the modernist avant-garde, which ultimately displaces art from everyday life, AR art layers virtual objects against the real to merge art and life at both a technological and theoretical level. Technologically, objects are superimposed upon the environment via the computing device. Theoretically, the elements provoke thought, action, or the formation of narratives in the interpretation of a given spatial configuration.

In “Psychasthenia Studio,” for example, Joyce Rudinsky and Victoria Szabo create a piece combining text and AR elements that explores the process of testing for psychological disorders. They seek to show how “modern life contributes to the maladies it otherwise purports to cure.”10 In one scenario, the user approaches an elevator. As the doors open, s/he confronts a man standing with his palms against the walls of the elevator, sweat beading his brow. A set of multiple-choice questions asks the user to respond in one of a variety of manners, ranging from empathy to disgust. The user’s own “pathology” will be diagnosed from his or her response. This piece reveals a complex nexus of psychological states, from the anxieties of the man in the elevator to the user’s own, potentially pathological, treatment of him. The particularities of the environment act as the trigger to this social situation, configuring the precise set of circumstances that lead to the man’s own internal experience and the technologically mediated interaction between him and the user or “player” of the Augmented Reality game.

Augmented environments like this one work to illustrate the complexity of a given spatial texture. Projects like “Psychasthenia Studio” operate through the strategy of defamiliarizing places that have become unremarkable through repetition and habit. The elevator, for example, is a utilitarian space often hidden from view in a central shaft of a building. It is a vehicle for transition. But, this project also reveals it as a site of psychological pressure—not simply as an invisible or unremarkable aid to movement between floors but as a zone of unspeakable anxiety: of claustrophobia, fear of heights or of falling, of social discomfort. Space is not, here, merely a physical envelope, but a producer of psychological states and social interactions. As Lefebvre has claimed, space mutually shapes and is shaped by social practice; space must be understood in active, practical terms.

AR technology encourages a praxis-based approach to spatial knowledge. Its incorporation of mobile computing means that the body is activated in a process of movement and spatial exploration. This can take place in an eminently literal sense, as users move through space, using their enabled mobile device to scan a given location for the presence of AR objects. Or, it can take place notionally, as in the case of Pat Badani and Desiree Agngarayngay’s “Power Potential,” in which the image of a chandelier in the New York Hilton triggers a 54-second video taking the viewer on a voyage through 46 floors in the hotel. In this video, unlike in other AR works such as Freeman’s, which require the user to navigate space, mobile device in hand, scanning his or her surroundings as AR objects loom into view on the screen, the experience of spatial travel is suggested rather than actuated through physical movement. Yet watching the video precipitates the sense of spatial and temporal rupture catalyzed by postmodern architecture. The video centers on the figure of the “luxury chandelier,” both as a catalyst of “mood and atmosphere” and as an indicator of electrical consumption.11 As each chandelier flashes into view, accompanied by the dinging of an elevator bell, the viewer is taken on a journey, but without being given a distinct sense of orientation. There is no kinesthetic or proprioceptive sensation of movement up or down, nor numeric indices of the levels through which the elevator passes. Only the bell and the flashing of chandelier lights reveal spatial and temporal passage. What might seem to be a disembodying visuality instead calls attention to the body, the physical memory of how it feels to travel vertically in an enclosed box and to emerge on a new level with new visual features.

The notion that AR technology activates an embodied, social, and practice-based spatiality is not immediately obvious. Given that a primary feature of AR-enabled devices is that they are often operated by an individual user, one might think that it is a technology that isolates and distances the user from social activity. The interaction with AR artifacts is frequently a personal experience, creating a particular locution of an AR “event” for a single user of a personal device. Moments of social interaction can unfold within this context, as artifacts come into view on the screens of computing device wielded by individual users. But this coming to light requires action on the part of only a single agent, enabling a spatial engagement and a development of a personal narrative about the site that can be experienced individually and then shared between users. Unlike spatial phenomena such as “Happenings” in the 1960s or “Flash Mobs” in the 2000s, which relied heavily on the formation of participatory groups, the mode of interactivity in AR supports an individuated experience of the physical world, augmented by the interposition of computationally modeled objects that appear when viewed through an enabled personal device. This does not mean that social practice is not invoked by AR environments, but that sociality must be investigated through the lens of the personal mobile computing device. The interaction between, in the terminology of ManifestAR, the “networked virtual” and the “physical real” is mobilized in order to “overlay, then overwhelm closed Social Systems lodged in Physical Hierarchies.”12 AR objects interrupt the visual landscape in order to provoke thought and action.

The phenomenon of “total participation,” the mode of awareness and action brought into being through the intervention of AR elements on the existing landscape, requires an acknowledgment of contemporary spatial and social experience as ubiquitously mediated by mobile technologies.12 Participation is, in these cases, manifested through the action of placing virtual elements within the field of real space, provoking thought, discourse, and potential social or political action. In a technologized world, social participation does not develop solely through immediate channels, such as pure face-to-face interaction, but is filtered and extended by the augmentations made possible by computing instruments. The augmentation of real space catalyzes social discourse; the partial imposition of the virtual carries significant effects in physical, social sites.

A critical reflection on AR projects might suggest that the technology itself renders objects that sit awkwardly within their real spatial context. The virtualization, in AR, is incomplete, and the augmentation is clearly overlaying real space rather than blending with it. But in a sense, it is precisely this lack of integration that subtends the political possibilities of the work. In the words of ManifestAR, “Augmented Reality is a new Form of Art, but it is Anti-Art. It is Primitive, which amplifies its Viral Potency.”12 Instead of lulling users into a seamless virtualization, numbing them to the mediated quality of technological intervention, AR elements reveal themselves as contingent and unstable. Without the mobile screen, they are invisible, their potentiality unrealized. When seen through a mobile device, they judder into existence, looming into view, rupturing the interior or exterior landscape. AR elements disrupt. This is their viral potency. They are potentially anywhere and everywhere, reminding the user that every space contains a subtext, for example the consumption of electrical energy underlying the dazzling display of chandeliers in “Power Potential,” or the notion that any space can become a platform for social uprising, in “Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands.” Even projects that do not speak a directly political language, such as “Nowhere,” which foregrounds alienation over social action, launch a critique of disengagement and aimlessness, advocating for an act of re-orientation on the part of the viewer.

The AR projects described here work against the disoriented, fragmented, and disengaged space of postmodern architecture. In certain cases, they amplify the dizzying overstimulation instigated by postmodern space, and in other cases, they use private experience—the view of objects on a mobile device—to foster social activism. In both cases, these projects critique postmodern space as a politically disengaged zone of frenzied, disoriented movement and vertiginous experience. Augmented Reality technology can be used to describe the alienation felt within the kaleidoscopic, stimuli-laden contemporary condition, or it can be alternatively mobilized to combat political and social disaggregation and non-participation. The personal computing device, which has been criticized as a tool that produces social alienation and distantiation from real social and spatial contact, becomes a catalyst for awareness or activism. Ultimately, AR enables political critique and action, mobilizing computing technology to move beyond the disengaged, fragmented and apolitical stance of the postmodern.


1Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham; Duke University Press, 1991, 40

2Jameson 40

3“Call for Participation: AR* to View.” Accessed January 13, 2013

4Jameson 41

5Jameson 41

6Clarke, Rachel. Project Proposal for “Nowhere”

7Feiner, Steven, MacIntyre, Blair, Höllerer, Tobias, Webster, Anthony. “A Touring Machine: Prototyping 3D Mobile Augmented Reality Systems for Exploring the Urban Environment.” Personal Technologies, Vol. 1, Issue 4, 1997, pp. 208-21, 208

8Freeman, John Craig. Project Proposal for “Orators, Rostrums, and Propaganda Stands.” Accessed January 13, 2013

9ManifestAR. “The AR Art Manifesto.” Accessed January 13, 2013

10Rudinsky, Joyce, Szabo, Victoria. Project Proposal for “Psychasthenia Studio”

11Badani, Pat, Agngarayngay, Desiree. Project Proposal for “Power Potential”

12ManifestAR. “The AR Art Manifesto”