By Mark Favermann
Could there be a more appropriate way to celebrate the father of landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday?
Alpha 60 on The Emerald Necklace: Future Vision Now, presented by Boston Cyberarts in Boston’s Emerald Necklace though September 30.
In 2022, a walk in the park is not just a walk in the park. Taking its name from Alphaville, a prescient 1965 French New Wave science fiction neo-noir film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Alpha 60, an augmented reality (AR) exhibition curated by media artist Michael Lewy, includes 21 individual “pieces” by 19 international cutting-edge artists. These visions are strewn throughout Boston and Brookline’s Emerald Necklace. Could there be a more appropriate way to celebrate the father of landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday?
Alphaville’s plot concerns a supercomputer, which outlaws all free thought, art, and poetry, taking over a town. Alpha 60 uses technology to oppose that dystopian prophecy. Artists were encouraged to create works that reflected the imagination at its most democratic and accessible. The exhibit’s aim was to underscore — in a 21st-century manner — the continuing relevance of Olmsted’s philosophy and ethos regarding public parks.
Artist/curator Lewy came to the task with impressive digital art chops: a Boston-based artist, he has exhibited widely and works in a variety of media, including augmented reality, virtual reality, photography, and video. His piece in the exhibit, Beta 64, is a multi-episodic augmented reality narrative. Borrowing thematically from Alphaville, it revolves around the film’s alien supercomputer which, among its other sins, has turned artists into monsters.
Other artists took different approaches. A few of the more provocative directions:
In Planet of Glass, by Chris Faust, the artist uses Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace as a place to create an alternate world. In the late 19th century, the painting canvas was the conventional window on nature — it was seen as wild, spiritual, and sublime. Faust drew on this notion to create a portal through which to view a fantasy geography, a crystalline world with a floating island and twin suns. The image evokes the sets and matte paintings redolent of sci-fi film classics, Star Wars and Forbidden Planet among them. The artist wants viewers to see this piece as an exercise in transformative meditation, a speculation on the looks of worlds beyond our own.
Science Nonfiction, Wuhan, by John Craig Freeman, is an artwork that uses virtual and augmented reality to explore how we experience history. The images look as if they are part of a highly refined, photorealistic computer game, but the piece was produced on location. With over 30 years of experience in using emergent technologies, Freeman seeks to expand conventional notions of public art by exploring how digital networked technology can transform our sense of place and its history. His work has been exhibited globally.
An Island, by Brooklyn-based Carol Hayes, was initially envisioned as a kind of fairy tale land. Hayes was inspired by the 1981 song “Land of the Glass Pinecones,” by the Boston band Human Sexual Response. The work was going to feature glittery pine trees and sparkly palm fronds. But the further her creative process progressed, the more the image resembled the kitsch of a too Christmas-y winter wonderland. She abruptly changed direction and ended up with a multicolored island oasis. So the piece sets up a surprising contrast with the New England landscape of Jamaica Plain, MA.
Very Simple, by site-specific artist Liz Nofziger, surrounds the viewer in a ring of text extracted from Godard’s dystopian Alphaville. The image resembles a mini-tornado, a small storm made up of thrashing magnetic tape writhing around in a circle. Viewers are immersed in the sound of the crackle and hum of a needle on a record, sampled from a recording of the LP Dance Hall of Shame, a 1990 “silent record” that protested music censorship.
Awkward Instance, by Brooklyn-based artist/educator Will Pappenheimer, proffers several paranormal apparitions that slowly become distorted human forms that begin to dance. These “beings” have stolen human skins and motion but have not put them back together properly. The mismatch could be understood as a “glitch”: a contemporary reference to digital processes that are unintentionally or intentionally scrambled. Interesting aesthetic or sensory results can sometimes be the result. Glitches are also seen by some critics as telltale signs of the limitations of computer-oriented utopian dreams. Are these “awkward” figures performing dances of life? Of death? Or perhaps something in-between?
Restless Object,by Ashley Eliza Williams, draws on an image of an oil painting of a lichen-covered form suspended in space. The artist is speaking to the environmental and human issues generated by migration caused by climate change, ocean devastation, and habitat loss. She touches on the journeys of those who are forced to move because of ecological challenges. Her work explores relationships: between pieces of art, between objects, and between the work and the viewer. She is also concerned with interspecies communication, conversations between living and nonliving things. Williams is also driven by a desire to mitigate ecological and human loneliness. Can a vocabulary be developed that allows us to understand a cloud, a tree, or a rock?
Duty-Free Paradise Project, by Hawaiian-born/Boston-based artist Lani Asunción, is part of a project that focuses on the Dole House, which is located in Jamaica Plain. It was the home of the “Pineapple King,” the American industrialist who developed the pineapple industry in Hawaii. The Dole family was also deeply involved in the 1898 coup that overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy. A new provincial government — with Dole’s cousin Sanford as president — was established. Asunción is looking at the connections between Hawaii’s and Boston’s past and current American history. She is interested in reframing conventional perceptions of our country’s past and present through digital media tools, including augmented reality.
Alpha 60 is a demonstration of 21st-century surrealism, a strangely beautiful assertion of the power of the unconscious and dreams. As with nondigital surrealism, these dream-like scenes contain symbolic images that make use of unexpected, illogical juxtapositions, bizarre assemblages of ordinary objects, individual or personal iconography, and distorted figures, along with biomorphic shapes and, in some cases, visual puns.
Other featured artists in Alpha 60 include Tom Buckland, Judy Haberl, Heather Kapplow, Alessandro Keegan, Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, Eric Sutton, Richard Saja, Chris Rackley, Lina Ramona Vitkauskas. Sound Design by Nsputnik was incorporated into several pieces.
An urban designer and public artist, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. His human-scale urban designs encompass streetscape element beautification, site-specific public art and enriched facades. Also, an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant to the Boston Red Sox. Writing about urbanism, architecture, design and fine arts, Mark is contributing editor of Arts Fuse.