An AR art wonderland lurks inside Apple’s new London store

Behind the glassy façade of Apple’s newest London store lies an AR art wonderland

Artists Tin Nguyen and Ed Cutting have created ‘United Visions’, an augmented reality world for Apple’s Brompton Road store that brings the chaotic inner world of poet William Blake to life

As if there wasn’t enough in the way of day and night terrors to be getting along with, Apple has marked the opening of its new London store by Blakean demons into the world. Virtually anyway.

The writhing augmented reality spectres and serpents – with their raging internal hell fires visible – are the work of Australian but New York-based tech-art duo Tin Nguyen and Ed Cutting, collectively Tin&Ed.

Tin Nguyen and Ed Cutting, Tin&Ed

Magicked up by the just-launched United Visions app, available now on the Apple App Store, the AR art piece is a tie-in with a Covid-delayed William Blake exhibition at the Getty Museum in LA, originally planned for 2020 and now bumped to next October. Having used Apple products exclusively for the development of the app, an early preview at the launch of a new store in Blake’s home city seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

Tin&Ed are currently members of New Inc, the art and technology incubator run by the New Museum, have created digital, AR and old-fashioned physical art for the Rockefeller Center, Space10 in Copenhagen, the Sydney Opera House, and an interactive digital piece is currently at The Barbican as part of its ‘Our Time on Earth’ exhibition. They insist that Blake is the perfect artist to get the AR treatment.

‘Blake had these visions and hallucinations and that is such a perfect marriage for AR,’ says Nguyen. ‘AR is about taking what is in someone’s head and bringing it into the physical space in a way that’s really immersive, that could be real and there but maybe only you can see it. It’s a very hallucinatory medium.’

The pair worked with the Unity3d game engine and digitally sculpted Blake works from the Getty, Yale and Tate collections and animated them using motion capture technology. The exhibition’s pandemic delay gave the artists extra time for research and development and to refine the digital conjuring but also to redefine their ambitions for the exhibition and the form itself.

‘We made thousands of prototypes of this thing but even with the rudimentary prototypes you could still feel something, this presence and this entity and the gravity of that,’ says Cutting. ‘It’s such a new medium so we’re still working out to how to tell stories with it.’

You suspect that for Blake, a visionary poet, painter and printmaker, these angels, demons, and strange hybrids were a constant and very real presence. The United Visions app is a perfect insight into his dream-fevered imagination as these apparitions form and unform, with limbs appearing out of walls and forked tongues out of thin air, all in a way that’s specific to your environment. ‘It’s spatial, multi-sensory and fully immersive and reacts very differently to every space, whether you’re in an Apple store, the Getty Museum or at home in your kitchen,’ says Nguyen.

Central to that multi-sensory assault is an otherworldly soundtrack by Grammy-winning hip-hop producer Just Blaze who recruited his four-year-old son to read Blake’s poem The Tyger, and Dominican spoken-word artist Oveous Maximus who turns other snatches of Blake poetry into an incantation.

For Tin&Ed, the piece also points to our ‘mixed reality’ future. ‘We’re super interested in this hybrid space that mixes the physical and the digital,’ says Nguyen. ‘We all have these digital identities now and that is how we are engaging with each other and it’s important for us to understate how the physical and the digital merge and become a new space.’

As Tin&Ed say, at the moment most of us are experiencing AR on smartphones and tablets but that will change. The pair say they will keep updating United Visions as AR technology advances (and we imagine that some kind of Apple mixed-reality specs are almost certainly on their way).

John Giurini, assistant director at the Getty, describes how the United Visions project is also a taste of things to come. ‘Museums in general, but particularly museums that deal with older art, are going to have to become more creative in terms of how they draw in audiences. AR is a way that younger generations are interacting with their world so you either get on the train or let the train pass you by.’ §

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