“Re-Engineering Humanity” Proves That AR Isn’t Just for Gaming

An art exhibit at 836M at which nobody will judge you for having your phone out.

Artist and curator Lady PheOnix has thousands of followers, pictures with Pharrell Williams and Erykah Badu, and no shortage of weird, fascinating art on her feed. Based on her Instagram, it would be safe to assume that she knows a thing or two about how technology can alter perspectives. Re-Engineering Humanity @836M, a group exhibition she organized, includes works that use technology as a lens to explore a number of hot-button contemporary issues, including fake news, gun violence, immigration and religious freedom. The show is in augmented reality, or AR, in which a prosthetic device is used to alter the world around the viewer, who will need to use the EYEJACK smartphone app and earbuds to interact with the exhibits through their cell phones.

Lady PheOnix describes herself as a digital gallerist, and found the artists presented in Re-Engineering Humanity @836M through Instagram. Representing a wide range of disciplines, the artists include electronica producer Max Cooper, animator Marjan Moghaddam, and visual artist Anthony Akinbola. As she explains, the show “positions emerging technologies such as AR with wisdom technologies such as prayer and meditation.” As such, it includes computer-generated 3D sculptures by Moghaddam and Sutu Campbell, digital paintings by Mark Sabb, and an Islamic prayer rug embroidered with Kendrick Lamar lyrics (Samira Idroos).

Lady PheOnix arrived at the concept for her second show after reading about public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays. She learned how certain things that we all accept as common-sense — like how bacon and eggs are for breakfast — were fairly recent inventions shaped for the purpose of selling products. Connecting Bernay’s legacy of manufacturing desires with our modern anxiety over social media’s creepy, psychic-like ability to predict and shape our every need led to the realization of how easy it was to engineer people’s habits and lifestyles for corporate interests. It’s unsettling to find out that the things we want and the things we do aren’t as much in our control as we’d like to believe.

Lady PheOnix, however, sees an opportunity where other people might despair.

“OK, this is what they’re trying to do,” she explained, describing the process through which people are manipulated with modern technology. “But what can we do for ourselves?”

The objective of her show is to create scenarios where people — whether artists, teachers, or just optimists — turn the situation around and use technology for their own benefit. She envisions a future where the power of technology can be democratized and used as a positive tool for communication and education.

“While they’re busy re-engineering us, we can re-engineer ourselves and our communities,” she explained. “It is about reclaiming power.”

Lady PheOnix is excited about the potential uses of augmented reality, some of which is explored in Re-Engineering Humanity @836M’s exhibits. The 3D, interactive element of the show means that the audience gets to engage with the art on a whole new dynamic level.

“It almost feels like [the artwork is] reacting, because you have the opportunity to act upon [the work] and now it has the opportunity to act on you.”

Elaborating on what drew her to AR as a medium for self expression, Lady PheOnix explains that, “When you have an augmented environment, you have the opportunity to say what you want on the surface, and then extrapolate underneath.”

It’s a way to hide messages in plain sight for people with the tools and technology to see them, with applications that could range from party invitations to political gatherings. In terms of the show, Lady PheOnix believes the augmented reality adds “a layer of additional meaning to the work,” a way to visually express a reveal the subtext of a piece.

She also views augmented reality as a metaphor for some of the societal inequalities she’s observed in her own life, and sees the show as a way to bring awareness to how modernity and technology can leave some people behind.

“For so many of us, information is present,” she says, “but we don’t have access to it because we don’t have access to a certain level of education or social group or networks. We’ve just never been exposed.”

What could be an exciting new experience for one person could be an insurmountable barrier for another — all because of the kind of cell phone they have. Always having the latest version of the iPhone is prohibitively expensive, but fail to keep up and you’ll get left behind when people move on to a new kind of communication that isn’t available to you.

Lady PheOnix thinks about the gallery experience “like little molecules rubbing against each other,” meaning she hopes that there will be a little respectful disagreement, and most importantly, conversation. She wants Re-Engineering Humanity @836M to be a place where people step outside of their comfort zones and start talking about potentially sticky topics. “It’s really just to get people in the same place, to have a little friction, and really raise the [energy] around these issues.”

Re-Engineering Humanity, through May 17 at 836 Montgomery St. Free, 836m.org


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