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Augmented Art: Creating a Riot Grrrls App

by Claudia Hart

Riot Grrrls Zine

blog intro

The Riot Grrrls App is a custom augmented-reality application for smart devices, a class project developed by the School of the Art Institute’s Virtual Installation class this spring. Although pedagogical in intent, this particular kind of technology, when produced by young students—some still in their teens—can also result in a poetic piece that reflects the passage of time and the humanistic process of art history. Below, Claudia Hart, professor of Virtual Installation, expands on what augmented reality can mean for museums and the process behind developing the app.


I live in an augmented reality where any image can act like a QR code, taking you deeper into meaning and interpretation—if you have the right app. Image-based augmented-reality (AR) technology, such as Layar, a provider that offers both commercial software and a public app downloadable for free, permits any image to function like a QR code. How it works is simple: when you point your smartphone’s camera at an image, and the app allows the camera to read it as a graphical code. The app then sends that code up to the Cloud, which beams down a related animation stored there. You can see this layered animation over or resting somewhere near the connected image. Image-based AR relies both on active wireless and plentiful images, making a museum its natural habitat, particularly when it is placed in the hands of a visual artist.

I first explored how these apps could influence interpretation in museums in 2016, when my Virtual Installation class at the School of the Art Institute developed the Romantic App. Created in conversation with Gloria Groom, Chair of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), and her curating staff, the app engaged with the AIC's late 19th- and early 20th-century collection. In developing this app, my students and I took a media-archeological approach to intervene and bring to the fore the effects industrialization and developments in photography had on artists. This was inspired by the current aesthetic paradigm shift, which is on par with the 19th century: a move from painting to photography; photography to the internet age. By overlaying and integrating the work of young artists into paintings by artists from another time, I saw the profound way that AR apps can comment on the passage of art historical time.

For the next iteration of my class, I wanted an even more challenging subject. I knew that intervening in a museum with a contemporary position—read intervening in the works of living artists—could be a good challenge for my students. I looked into the MCA and found the perfect exhibition to augment: Riot Grrrls, a presentation of abstract paintings from the museum's collection, organized by Chief Curator Michael Darling. Riot Grrrls was a feminist and queer punk-rock movement during the 1990s that was known for its powerful zine culture. For me, the connection of contemporary digital-media apps to both the marketing and entertainment industries (re: mail-order catalogs and the wildly successful, albeit short-lived, Pokémon app) and the historical relationship of today's internet bloggers to nineties zines was inspiring. Our current digital paradigm shift was nascent in the Riot Grrrls movement! This exhibition was ripe for art pedagogy.

I contacted the MCA's Manilow Senior Curator Omar Kholeif, who generously connected me to Rosie May, Associate Director of Education: Public Programs and Interpretive Practices. She met with my class and we immediately proposed a Riot Grrls App zine-cum-blog and catalogue, and a performative demo and tour of the Riot Grrrls show using the app. As part of our research, May gave us scholarly papers on museum apps to read, and then opened up the entire infrastructure of the museum to us. Amazingly, everyone was open to everything.

In February, Michael Darling spoke with my students, laying out in the open his curatorial process and sharing his analytic decision-making with rigorous criticality. The students were thrilled and it opened the door for some of them to comment critically on museological processes in their projects. In fact, the first artists to work with augmented reality positioned themselves in relationship to institutional critique movement that included artists like Andrea Fraser, Martha Rosler, and Renée Green. “WeARinMoMA”(2010), organized by Mark Szwarek and Sanders Veenhof, was the first museum intervention by contemporary AR artists. The group producing it evolved into Manifest AR, an important new-media art collective formed in 2011, which developed critical augmented-reality interventions at museums and geo-political sites in an attempt to question and challenge institutions and world events.

A critical approach is actually embedded in the very structure of augmented reality apps. As a medium, AR lends itself to institutional critique as much as it does to the kind of historiological commentary made by my students in the Romantic App and currently being made by many of my students with their works for the Riot Grrrls App. Through the layering lens of an augmented app, we can see the process of art history itself, which accounts for a large part of its uncanny delightfulness.

I’m closing here, but over the next two months we will unveil the students’ works for the Riot Grrrls App and watch them evolve. Above you will find their initial proposals in “zine” form.

Members of Hart’s spring 2017 Virtual Installation class, in order of zine pages above: Francesca Udeschini, Christina Chin, Mack Krueger, Jasmin Kwak Han, Jonatan Martinez, Cassandra Davis, Rafael Riva, Beier Zong, Jay Thakker, Claire Cantor, and Alex Mendoza