It’s as if the sky is punctured. Artist Nancy Baker Cahill’s new augmented reality (AR) app, 4thWall, allows viewers to see several of her distinctive, shard-like, explosive forms superimposed on any place they point their smartphone cameras. In this case, the sky’s no limit.
Cahill hit on the idea of creating the app while exploring the expressive potential of new virtual reality (VR) rendering tools like Google’s Tilt Brush, which allows you to paint and draw in 3D. It wasn’t that far of a departure from her large-scale, biomorphic graphite drawings: “Being able to draw in 360 degrees around my body and in space—that serves as an amplification and expansion,” she explained. She was soon designing custom brush strokes inside the tool, but it wasn’t until she partnered with Drive Studios that she decided to upload those 3D forms into a stand-alone app that locate her drawings in juxtaposition with the wider world.
There are now various AR galleries and exhibits focused on AR experiences, but, for the most part, opportunities for showcasing AR works are still emergent and in flux. Snapchat famously released their augmented reality art platform last year, featuring a virtual sculpture by Jeff Koons pinned to a lawn in Central Park and a call to artists worldwide to submit their own works to the platform (in a mind-bending and delightful twist, the Koons sculpture was subsequently vandalized with virtual graffiti). Within this fluid new ecosystem, Cahill’s move to create her own iOS app for viewing her works is the equivalent of self-publishing a book.
Although Cahill’s VR drawings are currently on exhibit on a marquee billboard in downtown L.A. (sponsored by Innovation Foundation Los Angeles), she regards her works on paper as fundamental to her practice: “It’s the language I speak, so it would be weird to stop speaking it.” I sat down with Cahill to better understand her recent evolution from paper to virtual spaces.
Kat Mustatea: Drawing is a very tactile process. Why is working with something as ephemeral as augmented reality at all attractive?
Nancy Baker Cahill: There is nothing that beats feeling the paper, having your fingers stained with graphite. I feel like working in VR has altered my own anatomy, such that I now perceive the white space of paper—when I go to draw with a pencil—differently. I render differently. They are literally in a feedback loop, of both inspiration but also technical risk taking.
Mustatea: What was the leap like from paper to AR?
Cahill: In VR, I went and tried a number of experiences that were not related to art—more like examples of gaming experiences. I had that thing happen where your heart starts to pound and you realize, “Oh my God, this is actually the perfect next step.” VR is the most immersive medium we have right now. On the other hand, you need to have hardware to experience it. So then translating it into AR means being able to share it and democratize the experience of it.
Mustatea: You have a series of drawings titled Surds. What is a surd?
Cahill: The way that Susan J. Brison explained it in her book Aftermath, a surd is an irrational number. Loosely translated, it means ‘mute’ or ‘voiceless’ or ‘nonsense,’ and my guess is that’s where ‘absurd’ comes from. To her, ‘surd’ was this interruption that was unexpected, that rendered everything into chaos.
Mustatea: How does that apply to the drawings?
Cahill: I work with these biomorphic, chaotic body forms, and then I punctured those with predictable sequences—mathematical sequences. I wanted to hold those two very human impulses in tension: our recognition of the fact that we live in a chaotic world, but also, equally, our need to seek pattern, find meaning in linearity, grids, any kind of empirical data. It involves quite a bit of risk, even just making these drawings. I know that sounds silly, but puncturing—what’s that carpenter’s maxim, like, measure twice, cut once? If I miss even by a hair, it destroys the whole thing. So I have to be extremely meticulous about how I puncture it.
Mustatea: How does the 4thWall app engage with AR as a distinct medium, rather than just translating your works on paper into digital form?
Cahill: It’s entirely different to be standing in the middle of a bunch of shards in a void, where you can’t see the floor, you can’t see your feet, you can’t even see your body. As a recurring image [the Hollow Point 101 drawings] really go back to my early, early days when I started shooting my drawings actually with bullets. I’m interested in these moments of cataclysmic rupture and beauty, and holding those in tension. I had a friend standing inside of it and she said: “I can’t tell if I’m in heaven or hell.” That is exactly what I’m going for. I want you to feel that in your body somehow.
Mustatea: You often speak of motherhood in tandem to your artmaking. How has motherhood impacted your artistic life?
Cahill: Yeah, I have three children. I think there is undue discrimination against women with children and I’m very passionate about this. For me it’s almost a political issue. I took a long time off to have kids and for a very long time felt like I had to catch up, that I had missed out, that I had not had this paradigmatic path. What I’ve come to sit with and enjoy is the fact that I’m not built for paradigms anyway. I don’t like rules. So I have come to understand profoundly that time off has generated a tremendous amount of content. We don’t stop working, thinking, feeling. We’re not static.
I recently gave a TED talk about the meaning of machines making art in the digital age. Find me at: mustatea.com.
Kat Mustatea is a playwright and technologist.