Silent Opera Over Venice: Richard Humann’s Augmented Reality at Venice Biennale

Jesse Strauch
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The connection between the potential of augmented reality (AR), and art is a simple one to make—sometimes it only takes a ‘T.’ Yet as Richard Humann settles back into his Brooklyn studio after his nine-hour return flight, he can’t help but smile knowing he’s onto something considerably more complex.

Left: Richard Humann, The Dogs of War (2017), Augmented Reality, variable dimensions

“I don’t remember leaving it this way,” Richard says, setting down his laptop bag, “It’s remarkable how much mess it takes to get artists to their exhibitions.” However, this mess brought more than Richard Humann to the sun soaked waterways of Venice, it likewise brought “Ascension”, the first AR installation to premier during the Venice Biennale, in conjunction with the European Cultural Center and the GAA Foundation.

Richard Humann isn’t the first to take on the challenges of bringing art into augmented reality. BC Biermann’s Heavy Projects have been playing in this world since almost the inception of smartphones and this fall Jenny Holzer will be incorporating an AR world in her Blenheim Palace show, though as Richard is quick to point out, it’s a misnomer to use the word “world” in conjunction with AR. “It might seem obvious, but one of the hurdles I had to really get around when creating Ascension was this notion that I wasn’t creating a world. That’s not its purpose. You’re really building a bridge, laying down connective tissue between physical and digital.”

Right: The Four Headed  Monster (2017), Augmented Reality, variable dimensions

While “Ascension” finds itself in prestigious company, it distinguishes itself from other AR pieces, even Humann’s own 2015 installation “Harp of the Giant”, in scale. “I remember being upstate watching the night sky. In Brooklyn you don’t really see the stars, you don’t really look up much, period; so I tend to stretch my neck a bit whenever I get out of the city… I was trying to recall constellations I learned in high school, with their 2,000 year old myths, associated heroes and villains, and I kept thinking what if we could start over, what if we could make our own constellations about our times?” While Richard fully admits that “…every kid who’s ever had even a slight interest in stars has had the same thought, hell I probably had that thought when I was that age too,” it was still an idea that stuck with him.

With that in mind, Richard Humann re-imagined our night sky, not as episodic stories of good verse evil, “I couldn’t do a carbon copy of how the Greeks did it, otherwise I’d essentially be making connect the dots of comic book heroes or over-the-top action adventure movie characters,” rather he decided to stay rooted in reality. To that end, “Ascension” made a mythology of America’s 20th century. Using visual symbolism and metamorphic imagery Richard Humann depicts pivotal events and individuals iconic to America’s entrance onto the world stage. From a two headed dog, one a Doberman Pinscher, the other a German shepherd, personifying the Great and Second World Wars to an octopus holding four flowers with the head of a revolver representing The Beatles,”Ascension” takes us through the tremendous highs and lows of the American experience.

Left: Butterfly Bee (2017), Augmented Reality, variable dimensions

May 13th, 6:23pm: Watching daylight recede down ancient alleyways of the Strada Nuova, Richard Humann appears to be thinking everything and nothing at once. In a few short hours the Palazzo Mora will have all buzz and excitement one would expect an opening during the Venice Biennale to have. As an observer it’s almost impossible not to get swept up in it and for those participating, there’s no avoiding it. Over the 11 days an interesting transformation happened to Richard and his team; all the nervous energy and anxiety evaporated as the clock hit 6:00 p.m. and the exhibition opened. It was like watching Cinderella’s ball in reverse, where once Richard’s assistant Mia Qian Collins and Jay Van Buren of Membit, creator of the AR app, worked with laser focus, they now found themselves effortlessly striking up conversations with attendees showing them how to use their phones to experience a new night sky. In truth, during the rest of their stay in Venice, there was hardly a moment when they didn’t have some strangers phone in their hand, pointing it skyward. “It’s nerve-wracking going to an opening and seeing none of your work on display other than a quick overview of the piece and instructions on how to download the Membit app, but I had a great team around me. Mia is a real dynamo, and we might not be sitting here talking about Ascension if Jay didn’t come in and save the AR element of the piece, though it was the project curator (Seol Park) who found him in the first place, it was truly a team effort all around.”

Below: The ‘Dome’ over Venice, Ascension (2017), Augmented Reality, variable dimensions

Scrolling through the dozens of pictures he managed to snap, Richard pauses and rubs his eyes, taking a moment to match his experience with the images, “In truth, I think it took us about a day to realized Ascension had a slow burn with people.” While “slow burn” is a wholly accurate statement, in the moment Richard and his team would’ve chosen different phrasing. Countless time after demonstrating the app there would be, for what felt like an eternity, little to no reaction, only to be flooded a few seconds later with people wanting to discuss and know more about the installation as they began to comprehend what they were seeing and experiencing. Considering the breadth and reach of the work, that’s pretty understandable; at first glance it’s equal parts awe inspiring and overwhelming. “It’s cool, it definitely rewards you the more you interact with it,” said Josephine Reena, squinting at her tablet screen while giving her feet a break outside a cafe in Cannaregio. “No one tells you how much walking there is at the Biennale,” she continues, “it’s nice to still experience the amazing art here even if your feet don’t want to.”

Left: The Gentle Beast (2017), Augmented Reality, variable dimensions

Being in Cannaregio Josephine is able to see an up close view of the constellation entitled The Shining Suburb on the Hill. Venice is divided into six Sestieri’s and at least one constellation is laid over each one of them. The entire installation with all 12 constellations can be viewed from San Giorgio Maggiore overlooking the Riva degli Schiavoni. With the entirety of Venice as a backdrop, Ascension changes character almost immediately to something more akin to lucid dreaming which can be no more pronounced during those twenty to forty minutes just after sundown when the night sky takes on this perfect gradient from blue to black. Richard coined that color as “Gloam Blue.” However, in order to truly appreciate the serenity of “Ascension” at its most majestic, you must first see “Ascension” where it is most alive- up close on the streets of Venice. It is only there where, as Josephine put it “damn guys, there is way more to this than I thought,” you can start to unpack each constellation’s layers. Or if you’re lucky enough, you can run into Richard Humann outside a cafe in Cannaregio and talk to him about it.

Right: The Shining City on the Hill (2017), Augmented Reality, variable dimensions

“In the second piece of my work, The Shinning Suburb on the Hill, I’ve taken the Reagan quote (“America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”) and turned the city into a suburb. After the great wars of WWI and WWII, America shifted from urban and rural to include suburbia. The “hill” in my piece is the atomic mushroom cloud from the bombing of Nagasaki that brought WWII to a close and also brought home victorious servicemen from the final battles in the Pacific theater. Into the hill are shoved suburban ranch houses that stand erect vertically as if they were planted like corn in a field, and yet resemble a cityscape at the same time.”

Slow to rise from his chair, Richard is just now starting to look visibly tired; it’s been 14 days, 8,296 miles by air and countless more crisscrossing Venice on foot. Slipping the laptop into his bag once again, he concedes that he’s “still too close to the Biennale to gauge how it went.” The plans to sweep up the scraps of scattered paper and stack the assortment of pop cultural references, star maps, and astronomy books covering nearly every available surface are, as they were always going to be, put off until the following day. After waiting to hear the lock click and jiggling the door a few times to double check, “You know, the Italians called it my Opera.” Pausing before going down the stairs of the old Greenpoint Bell Atlantic Telephone building where his art studio is located, and a tired smile crept across Richard Humann’s face, “All the Italians called Ascension my Opera, that’s an interesting take on it, right? You should put that in your article.”

Richard Humann’s “Ascension” is still floating above Venice during the biennale and he’ll be expanding “Ascension” with two new constellations at the OPEN20 exhibition coinciding with the Venice Film Festival. To experience “Ascension” all you need is a smartphone or tablet and the Membit app.

By Jesse Strauch, Contributing Writer

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