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Exploring London’s classic art pieces in AR

The Augmented Gallery, a new interactive art trail in London’s West End, was unveiled last week. This project uses the power of augmented reality (AR) to bring masterpieces out of buildings and onto the streets, accompanied with commentary by curators, educators and also comedian and art lover James Acaster. 

Outside the National Gallery where the trail starts, Stephen Mangan (actor and presenter of The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year show) pulled the red curtain to unveil a giant gold frame with a large code in the centre. Using the free ‘Art of London’ app, he revealed a to-scale augmented reality (AR) version of Anthony van Dyck’s ‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I’. The trail includes 20 works of art, running for a mile through the West End and ending at Fortnum & Mason with ‘Sunflowers’ by Vincent Van Gogh. 

Created by the Heart of London Business Alliance, several leading arts institutions collaborated to create this public AR gallery. The National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy of Arts, and Sky Arts shared artworks from their collections, bringing work out of buildings and onto the streets for the general public to enjoy. 

The pieces displayed include a mixture of classic and contemporary work, featuring portraits of Malala Yousafzai, William Shakespeare, and Sir Ian McKellen, and artworks by Tracey Emin, Titian and Ishbel Myerscough. 

The public can download the ‘Art of London’ app created by Playlines AR Studios, and explore the gallery themselves. Viewers can scan the code, see the art and listen to commentaries with earphones (subtitles are available). The artworks are life-sized and viewers can approach the code with their phone to see details. They can also save a snapshot of the art and share with friends. 

This project launches ‘Art of London’, marking a new cultural strategy for the West End and the start of a season for public art in the area. The Augmented Gallery allows the wider public to enjoy art safely in a COVID secure manner, and is open now until the summer. 

Speaking to Virtual Perceptions, Gisela Torres is a photographic artist and educator, and one of the voices on the ‘Art of London’ app. On incorporating AR and virtual reality with art, Torres notes “I think it’s an amazing idea. I’m in the process of researching for a project that I have because I think it’s the future. 

One has to think about moving forwards – particularly in this crisis, it’s important to look at other ways of communicating art in a more progressive and accessible way.” 

We also chatted to Robert Morgan, Creative Director of Playlines and the Lead Designer and Project Lead for The Augmented Gallery. This project developed out of a previous residency at The National Gallery in 2020, where the team worked to make art available to socially distanced patrons at home via AR – people in their own houses were able to hang masterpieces on their walls. 

This project was not without challenges – Ros Morgan, Chief Executive of the Heart of London Business Alliance mentioned this was their third attempt to launch this gallery. In the second attempt, all the codes were displayed and ready before the UK’s third lockdown was announced on the same day. 

Speaking about other challenges Playlines had to face, Robert Morgan stated that for most AR projects, “you’ve got one foot in reality and one foot in digital”. However, for The Augmented Gallery, there were new things to consider. 

“For a day like today, it’s a software launch but also a live event. It means we also have to deal with the operational reality of sticking things to walls in a big city. For example, we have to consider the software and also think of graffiti – it’s very easy and it happens.”

To tackle these potential issues, they’ve devised ways to have a quick reporting process, as well as curb access,safety and reminding players to maintain social distancing.

Morgan is hopeful this is just the beginning of using AR to bring art to the people.

“The appeal for us is allowing galleries to extend reach beyond premises and onto the streets, and not confined to their physical locations. That’s what AR unlocks – the ability to add more content to the digital dimension in a diverse way and more accessible to a wider group.

Even after galleries are open, this is an outdoor art experience available for everyone.”

The Augmented Gallery is a free to enjoy public art trail that can be accessed on all smartphone devices through the centralized app, available for iOS HERE and on Android HERE (or by searching ‘Art of London’ on your usual app store).

Disclaimer: Tom Ffiske helped with the PR and comms for Playlines AR Studios ahead of the unveiling. The Augmented Gallery is also of interest to reader of the Immersive Wire, though Tom did not want to blur the lines between PR and reporting as he worked closely with the team. To ensure an ethical approach, a freelancer was commissioned to attend and report on the day, with no guidance or editing from Tom to maintain an independent review of the event.

Christy Ku

Freelance writer and poet

Christy Ku is a London-based multi-creative, primarily a poet. Also a writer and performer, workshop facilitator, and co-creator of the Tea Total podcast.