Christopher Manzione is a New York City-based visual artist and sculptor who founded the Virtual Public Art Project (VPAP) in 2010. The organization focuses on the ways in which the digital world and our physical realities interact. His recent work, the ActivatAR app, animates NYC subway metro cards into fully realized aesthetic and spatial worlds. The app has featured the work of many artists, including Barnett Cohen and Michael Rees.
Manzione talks to SciArt in America about the history of VPAP, the ideas that inspire the artists he has collaborated with, and what is next for the ActivatAR app.
By Pamela Segura
PS: Tell me about both the history and ideas behind the Virtual Public Art Project (VPAP).
CM: I started the Virtual Public Art Project in March 2010 after having completed my graduate studies the year before. At the time I had just left a six-month stint of jumping from art residency to art residency. I found myself for the first time without a studio and my computer became my place [and] space to make [art]. I continued to make sculpture on my computer and taught myself how to do so. After a while I was left with a library of new work. I started looking for possible ways of getting these works out of the computer. At the time, 3D printing or CNC milling was expensive and not something I had access to.
Around this time, I came across William Gibson’s book Spook Country, in which he talks about GPS connected backpacks that allow the user to visualize digital content through connected goggles, like a head mount [display device]. This content, while not only able to be viewed in 3D, was also specific to the users’ physical locations in the world. This sparked for me a way of thinking about how I might be able to start creating or presenting my works, which were locked inside my computer. At this time I started looking into Augmented Reality (AR) and different ways that it was being used. Up until 2010, most of AR setups required a desktop computer. The user would be looking at [his or her self] in a screen and would be able to hold or manipulate a virtual object by waving around a QR code-like image.
Then, I came across an augmented reality smartphone browser app that allowed for content to be placed and accessed depending on the users’ GPS location. This was exactly what I was looking for. This allowed me to place my sculptures in the world at specific locations and at any scale. This also required the viewer’s presence and interaction with the physical site to access these works. This was important to me as I was creating these works with the idea that they were no different or of any lesser value than any physical works I had made before. So being able to see them through the phone’s screen as if I was looking through a magic window into another layer of space that held these objects, but at the same time allowed me to interact with the physical “here space” was truly a revelation. This turned my relationship with my own digital content, and for that matter all digital content, on its head.
When I created VPAP, I made it with the idea it would be a space [and] channel to host and show virtual works of art across the world. Since its inception, it has hosted over 85 artists within ten group shows and multiple solo artist shows nationally and internationally. Some of these venues are Boston ICA, Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, Breadboard Philly, and the Surry Hills Festival in Melbourne.
PS: Why merge the physical-real world with computer imagery? Why, moreover, do you find this discourse and engagement necessary?
CM: The ability to interact with our environment and overlay digital imagery opens a new way of thinking about the world around us. We have created networked technologies that have had a great impact in how our world is shaped and our daily interactions with each other. We have so much digital content including artwork sitting and waiting to be released into the world around us. Some AR we are used to—like the digital overlay of the yard-line on televised football games. Some things scare and excite us a little more—like Google Glass. By starting to create art works in these spaces I hope to introduce new ways of thinking about what art or a meaningful experience with digital media can be.
PS: Let’s talk about your latest app, the ActivatAR. What inspired this specific project?
CM: ActivatAR aims to activate imagery already in the world by using image recognition. The NYC metro card is the only imagery that will continue to be used over and over much like a gallery space in your pocket. This is quite different from VPAP because of the way image recognition works by using the camera on the phone to look for specific imagery. Once the camera finds a specific image, it uses it to access the art works that are associated with that image: videos, 3D models, audio, animations, or full 360 environments. These dynamic works become sticky to the image itself making the digital content feel as if it’s with you.
PS: Why did you choose the New York City metro card as your "exhibition space"? I find that there's something deeply humorous, ironic, and even empowering about this.
CM: I wanted to use something that would allow me to host artist projects on material that was small enough to fit in your palm and ubiquitous enough that I could reach a large audience. I like to think of the metro card as a door into these spaces being created on top of them.
PS: Tell me about your association with Barnett Cohen [an ActivatAR featured artist]. His work, Sometimes Glorious, really plays with our experience of linearity—be it through our perspective of history, the ‘self’ in history, or even just a typical day.
CM: Barnett Cohen writes, “Linearity is a form of narrative that presupposes a cause and effect that I seek to undermine in Sometime Glorious. Linearity or narrative, when applied to sex within the heteronormative culture in which we must live, remains predictable. Find a mate, have sex with that mate, and make babies. Of course, there can be pleasure involved in the act of procreation but it runs adjacent to the organizing biological, cultural, social, and historical principles of having children. While Sometimes Glorious is not directly protesting against the narrative of procreation, it yanks sex out of the heteronormative model and suggests that sex or desire are fluid, are open, queer. In the piece, I embedded sexual possibilities within the architecture of the piece, in its materiality. [For example] the latex curtains, the silicone puddles on the floor, the chairs, the lighting, and the music [so] that the work might literally arouse a viewer. Penetrative sex between a biological man and a biological woman is imperative to heteronormativity and the narrative of procreation. With Sometimes Glorious, I created a space in which I invite or rather seduce the viewer to expand his or her or their personal spectrum of desire. That it can now exist in the palm of a hand, be turned off or on, forwarded or shared—all thanks to Chris—makes perfect sense to me.”
PS: Can we expect another metro card exhibition?
CM: Oh, yes. I have a lineup of artists creating works for the metro card. I plan to host a new work everyone 1-2 months. Also, ActivatAR will also be using other imagery and printed material to host shows so keep your eyes open for some “bigger” projects in the future. Oh and, lastly, we’ve got an Android App coming soon.