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These Billboards Could Be the First to Feature Immersive Virtual Reality Drawings

Tandem billboards on Sunset Boulevard play host to a fascinating new public art installation

smithsonian.com

If you find yourself driving in Los Angeles in the coming weeks, don't get too distracted by the tandem two-channel digital billboards that have cropped up in the heart of Sunset Boulevard. A first of its kind, the abstract digital paintings cycle through a series of immersive virtual reality drawings. Stay long enough and you'll see towers of translucent color or watch jagged edges of metalic shards float through space. The virtual reality billboards, which are nestled in between businesses and loom over pedestrians, are intended to provoke, pushing a viewer out of the mundanity of their daily routine.

The installation, Los Angeles-based artist Nancy Baker Cahill's first public art exhibit, is part of Innovation Foundation’s initiative to bring art into the public domain with site-specific cultures, outdoor murals, digital billboards, and other projects. Cahill’s experiment fashioning virtual reality into public art is also very possibly a first of its kind, according to a press release. The work, which debuted in January, will continue to run until February 28.

In her artist’s statement, Cahill explains she is interested in using virtual reality to explore humans' relationships with their bodies; and the Sunset Boulevard art installation—which features six of her animated drawings created specifically for the exhibition—can be seen as her reflection on the body as an unsettled contest between strength, discomfort and definance.

Cahill, who trained at Williams College, began hacking and developing new “brushes” for her art after finding that the tools she had were unable to give form to the ideas within her head.​​ Some of her previous work includes "Fascinomas," a multimedia installation that incorporates the negative space of airbrushed objects, and "Manifesto No. 9," which plays with the idea of two-dimensional space. The installation on 8410 Sunset Boulevard continues to build on her work, using immersive digital animation to blur the boundaries between virtual reality and daily life in the city.

The billboards themselves also reflect a step forward for virtual reality in art. Across disciplines, the rise of the form has exploded in recent years. Musicians have used virtual reality both to enhance performances and to bring performances to distant audiences. Museums are similarly jumping on to change the experience of exploring their spaces, or to even create virtual spaces to display their collections. Even trendy social media platform Snapchat jumped on last year by showcasing virtual public art.

The medium certainly offers a new space for creative expression, something science fiction, at least, has long predicted—just take the immersive advertising featured in stories like Blade Runner. Commercially, now the technology to create virtual reality billboards has become viable, the space has already been embraced by advertising companies trying to make their products stand out. But with public art installations like Cahill's, the medium demonstrates the vast potential it can offer to artists, too, to provoke and engage an audience.

Editor's note, 1/19/18: This story has been updated to reflect that the artist worked with virtual reality not augmented reality to create the drawings featured on the billboards. 

(Nancy Baker Cahill)
(Nancy Baker Cahill)
(Nancy Baker Cahill)
(Nancy Baker Cahill)
(Nancy Baker Cahill)
(Nancy Baker Cahill)
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