A Major Research Project submitted to the McMaster University Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree Master of Arts in Communication and New Media.
This year I created an urban installation of eight augmented reality interventions throughout Hamilton, using the free Aurasma app available for iOS and Android. Many familiar landscapes have been altered, and text narratives have also been placed in various locations.
- what if was here on twitter: @whatifwashere
- Contact me at muskoxen at gmail dot com, on twitter, or in the comment section below.
- View / Download the low-res PDF version of the project’s accompanying photo book here.
- View / Download the PDF of the project’s research paper (45 pages) here.
- Click “Read More” below to read the paper as a blog post (with bonus illustrations).
To activate augmented reality content within this project’s book and elsewhere, use your mobile device’s camera by downloading and installing the free app Aurasma for iOS or Android. Then search for and subscribe to the channel “what if was here” by user “artlistpro”. In order to view the digital component of this work a live connection to the internet is required. Take care to not be too far away but not too close either. Some situations can be interacted with by tapping the screen.
Certain work is accessible through viewing the book from anywhere. Other content in this book is only revealed at eight specific locations throughout Hamilton. Some works do not require this book but are perspective specific. Some are hidden. Instructions and maps are contained therein.
There is a limited run of 20 what if was here books. To help with accessibility issues surrounding digital content and the cost of printing a bound book, I have decided to included a free, low-res PDF of the book that people can print out to take with them. Ten books are already spoken for, including one that can be borrowed from the library at McMaster.
Many works and experiences throughout my four years here are incorporated and new directions in my practice are also evident. You can get a good overview of the project from the video below.
Thank you to my grad supervisor, Liss Platt, for always shooting straight from the hip. One of the main reasons why I enrolled in this complex program stems from my belief that Platt is one of the most important artists working and living in Hamilton today. Thank you to the incredible faculty in this program, especially Dr. Christine Quail, for their patience and insights throughout this last year. Big thanks to my cohort for their acceptance of this sarcastic old-timer in their midst and for all that I learned from their research and feedback. Thank you to my son James and my partner Jen for their belief, encouragement and support — I would not have been able to do this without them.
I hope to see more augmented reality work in Hamilton’s public spaces! I think there is great artistic and activist potential with this technology. My thoughts about working this way are below.
WHAT IF WAS HERE:
A CITY-WIDE AUGMENTED REALITY INSTALLATION
CHRISTOPHER HEALEY, B.F.A.
Supervisor: Professor Liss Platt
A Major Research Project
Submitted to the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree
Master of Arts
in Communication and New Media
© Copyright by Christopher Healey, August 2014
I moved to Hamilton, Ontario four years ago. Within Hamilton, I discovered a community of competing interests that exceeded my previous understanding or experience of what it is like to inhabit an urban space. I found it fascinating how political and public rhetoric would often conflict with personal narratives to create shared, but contested, spaces throughout the city. As a student at McMaster University, I encountered specific theoretical frameworks that resonated with me as I reflected upon, and navigated through, these contested community spaces, and that will be explored and elaborated upon throughout this paper. Drawing upon my critically engaged and reflexive practice as both an artist and graduate student, I have arrived at what if was here, an artwork composed of multiple artistic interventions spread throughout the city of Hamilton. Installed into specific geo-locations, these works aim to question and challenge various viewpoints of what constitutes a desirable community within the urban landscape.
It became increasingly apparent to me that Hamilton can be understood as a city of many communities that also contains several divergent narratives about its past, present and future. During my frequent ramblings throughout the city, I have encountered many stories and opinions put forth by neighbours, activists, and politicians about what used to be here, as well as their hopes and fears of what could — and perhaps should — happen here. Indeed before even moving to Hamilton, I was warned about certain areas and offered cautionary tales of what happened to other people who used to live here. At the same time, others painted an optimistic picture of potential and growth awaiting people like me, who go forth west of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). This ongoing revelation of Hamilton as a site of contradictory and diverging hopes and identities continued to intrigue me, and ultimately informed the direction of my academic and artistic practice. Drawing on my experiences as an artist, activist, resident and now as a Graduate Student in New Media and Communications Studies, I have completed this new media installation art work that aims to critically examine these differing and often overlapping narratives in order to understand and synergize some of the underlying issues, ambitions, and messages contained in selected representative public spaces. In order to achieve this aim, it is crucial to begin with a brief exploration of the much contested notion of “community”.
WHAT IS A “COMMUNITY”?
Diverging interpretations of the concept of “community” abound, but for the purposes of this project, I will be drawing upon the definition of community advanced by Sue-Im Lee in her book A Body of Individuals: The Paradox of Community in Contemporary Fiction. In this work, Lee explores representations of community in contemporary American fiction, wherein “community is a perennial source of contention because it holds a self-contradictory proposition in its most basic definition—that multiple individuals become ‘a body of individuals’” (1). Though this definition has been arrived at through Lee’s analysis of works of fiction, I consider her approach compatible with the practice and process of creating artworks. In my view, both processes are based on representations that are drawn from the author / artist’s observations and imaginings of what is or what might be — in this instance, an exploration of what constitutes community situated within a particular historical moment/context. My artworks are not bound to being literal representations of phenomena or ‘true’ stories, but are, rather, constructed and imagined narratives using my experiences of the City of Hamilton as departure points for these artistic explorations. Understood this way, I wish to highlight the affinity between my and Lee’s attempts to explore the fraught nature of the concept of community be it from fictive, imagined or actual sources. A greater exploration of the ‘paradox of community’ advanced by Lee is still needed here.
The two basic and contradictory conceptions of community, as articulated by Lee, can be understood as consisting firstly, of a teleological view of community wanting to arrive at a natural state of unity between individuals, versus a more resistant reading of this unified state as actually representing “the ultimate logic of totalitarianism” (Lee 2). The first interpretation idealizes community, privileging common values and a sense of belonging over individual concerns and desires (Lee 1). Even the idea of identifying a single, dominant vision of community is problematic, as Lee observes for “many expressions of idealized community emerge from divergent sources — from ordinary speech, political discussions, communitarianism, feminist criticism, ethnic minority discourse” (2). Here Lee points to the obvious difficulty of locating the one supreme or ideal understanding of community that will unite us given the often antagonistic and/or incompatible ideological starting points and frameworks of analysis. There is no one common-sense and overarching understanding of what an ideal community should look like.
The second, more ‘resistant’ understanding of community views this type of homogenous, idealized community as fundamentally oppressive in nature. Here ‘community’ is understood as a threatening act that involves the “transformation of many individuals into one body” and this “becomes the ultimate logic of totalitarianism” (Lee 2). Acts of resistance to the “fusion” of values and decisions made on behalf of the supposed public body (Lee 2) can be triggered as a result. Individuals or smaller communities within this larger idealized collective — and who do not share its assumed goals — will likely be subject to various forms of oppression, discipline and violence as they attempt to establish the legitimacy of their differing perspectives. Through these acts of resistance and critical response, Lee identifies the rejection of the very notion of idealized community as a “discourse of dissenting community — a dissent from the assumptions, values, and goals of idealized community” (2). The idea of ‘dissenting communities’ constitutes a forceful challenge to the potentially dangerous logic of appealing to a singular interpretation of what an ideal community could be, and points to the perhaps inescapable plurality of the concept, and lived experience, of being in community with others.
According to Lee, what we are thus left with can be considered an “inoperative community” (Lee 14). Berthold Schoene, in his review of A Body of Individuals: The Paradox of Community in Contemporary Fiction, lauds Lee’s “no-nonsense coinage”of this term, with ‘inoperative’ becoming quite simply “anti-instrumentalist” (Lee 14)(477). If what Lee means by “inoperative” is that a form of inherent brokenness (they do not work, the ‘means-end’ relation has broken down) characterizes and accompanies articulations of community within the “paradox of community” she exposes, then it could follow that any attempt at idealizing community leaves us in a sort of impasse — an ‘inoperative’ impasse where any discussion or project involving the creation or theorization of ideal community runs up against this paradox.
For my purposes, and drawing upon Lee’s account, I take the preceding to mean that an ‘idealized community’ is not necessarily a form of utopian theory, pursued with tools of civic engagement, but rather can be seen as the result of an oppressive public process and ideology that employs these same tools in order to stifle dissent in order to arrive at an appearance of consensus. We can understand this as a process that relies on the seductive notion of achieving or having achieved a harmonious community which in fact aims, consciously or not, to erase or subdue the arguably irreducible multiplicity of life forms and viewpoints that manifest in any collective setting. The result is an “ideal” and dominant version of community predicated upon a built in logic of exclusion. Understandably, those who are excluded are likely to resist and challenge this exclusion.
The definition and ideas above, at least in part, inform my theoretical approach to this project. I am interested in exploring this concept of resistance to expected and predictable interpretations of textual symbols inside a community’s public sphere. Lee describes this critical reflexivity between community and individual as a “state of ambivalence” that “attains a rich epistemological value in this study of community, affording a unique vantage point from which to intervene in debates over community, commonality, and fusion” (3). Schoene describes this insight by Lee as following “neither the idealists nor the dissenters; rather, it develops a third response to the paradox of community: to simultaneously believe and disbelieve in the proposition of ‘a body of individuals’”(477). I am sympathetic to this articulation of a “third response” as a way to move beyond the seemingly immobilizing aspects of the paradox of community Lee articulates. There are many things to value in our (idealized) constructions of community and our affective attachments to being part of a ‘body of individuals’. At the same time, the presence of dissenting communities serves to illuminate the oppressive and exclusionary aspects of our community building projects and concepts that stand in need of critique. Maintaining a working concept of community that is inherently provisional, that can acknowledge its own limitations, and that is constantly open to revision/inclusion may provide a way to move past this paradox — a way to simultaneously ‘believe and disbelieve’ in the controversial idea of community and, to adopt Lee’s expression, inhabit a productive state of ambivalence.
Critical theorist Lisa McLaughlin anticipates Lee’s critique of community in her 1993 article “Feminism, the public sphere, media and democracy.” McLaughlin describes the presence of dissenting communities and individuals as “counter-publics,” and the fact of their presence is problematic for the idea of the bourgeois public sphere (602). Similar to my understanding of the term ‘inoperative community’ (Lee 14), McLaughlin argues that it is a flawed undergirding that supports established views of there being a rational and constructive debate that is universally accessible to all members of the community (603). Jürgen Habermas, a proponent of this idealized public sphere, is cited by McLaughlin as acknowledging this problem when he wrote “an analysis of the exclusionary aspects of established public spheres is particularly revealing in this respect, the critique of that which has been excluded from the public sphere and from my own analysis of it too: gender, ethnicity, class, popular culture” (McLaughlin, 603). McLaughlin, Habermas and Lee’s reflections on the exclusionary aspects of the idealized public sphere model have influenced my own viewpoint when it comes to the city of Hamilton. There is a tension here that I believe can be traced to the presence of such counter-publics. For example, this is a city-community that often attempts to portray itself through the rhetorical use of various unifying terms or constructs such as it being “a hot market,” “the ambitious city,” or as “steel town.” A more recent example is the ongoing attempt to reimagine the city according to the hip motto “art is the new steel”. I have also encountered other less flattering, and arguably less unifying, descriptors of Hamilton which include labelling the city as “homophobic,” “classist,” “corrupt” and “dangerous”. With four years of lived experience in this city, I’ve found Lee’s account of the ‘paradox of community’ to be quite relevant to this context. Idealized notions of community prevail and proliferate here — alongside the increasing presence and vocalizations of multiple counter-publics or dissenting communities. The city is home to a wide range of individuals who may encompass a part of the spectrum of qualities or identifications listed above, but no single individual embodies all of these, nor can they be reduced to just one .
ACCESSING THE ARTWORK WITHIN THE COMMUNITY
what if was here consists of multiple installations across eight different locations throughout Hamilton and an accompanying photo book with additional installations layered within. These works can be accessed by using “Aurasma,” a free augmented reality (AR) app available for iOS and Android mobile devices that functions as both a studio space within which to create geo-specific rich media, and as a viewer for participants to engage with these instances. The Aurasma app, when connected to the internet, enables participants to find the exact locations of the eight installations in the photo book through the use of an ‘inline’ map that indicates geographic proximity to a particular site. The book itself contains instructions that inform the reader that certain augmented reality artworks can only be triggered at specific locations. The importance of bringing the book to one or all of these various locations as part of the photograph viewing process is clearly outlined in the book’s instructions. Download requirements and technical specifications are also included, as well as the project’s Twitter account — @whatifwashere — should the participant have any questions or feedback. Some additional geo-specific work beyond the eight locations portrayed in the photo book will also be displayed in the Aurasma app’s inline map. Some work is not geo-specific but relies solely on being triggered by specific images, such as a particular piece of text or a pattern. For example, the text in the photo book will trigger augmented reality artworks that can be viewed from any location in the world with an internet connection. These different types of instances are indicated in the instruction page of the photo book.
Once a participant has reached a marked area on the real-time Aurasma map they are encouraged, by the instructions in the photo book as well as the general instructions of the app, to view the area through the screen of their mobile device. The designated augmented reality work will appear for that location if one is utilizing the photo book. Other works will appear if one is not in possession of the book but instead focusing on features and signs in the designated environment. These instances are in the form of movies, still images, photography, slideshows, animations, and some accompanying audio events and soundscapes — including an original composed and performed rock song.
SOME ADVANTAGES AND LIMITATIONS OF THIS TECHNOLOGY
It was, and continues to be, important to this artistic endeavour that the technology platform chosen for the community-based project be stable, well developed and freely available in order to ensure the greatest possible ease-of-access and ease-of-use. The Aurasma app is already widely used throughout the world in commercial, educational and artistic endeavours. Though new media installation work has been criticized as being “an educational or aesthetic gimmick” (Bunt 95), augmented reality art installations have increasingly gained in popularity and critical acclaim in many cities and are currently accepted as a contemporary art mode. A favourable review in Wired Magazine states that with this technology there are “profound implications for art in the public sphere and the discourse that surrounds it” (Sterling).
While current commercially available augmented reality apps are largely aimed at print advertising campaigns (Aurasma), other potential wide spread use of augmented reality, outside of artistic practice, includes the tourism and heritage industries. Guttentag (642) and Caarls et al attest to the power of narratives for engaging and appealing to tourists and similar participants through the use of this type of platform (13). Further potential is surveyed by Van Krevelen et al. when they point to areas such as navigation and industrial assembly as possible applications for this type of technology (11). It is not difficult then to imagine further potential uses in areas such as the conveyance of real-time medical information to surgeons, or for military exercises and training (Van Krevelen et al. 13). Like me, Van Krevelen et al. see current limitations of robust AR gaining wide-spread adoption as an issue of portability and outdoor use (14). For example, the technology for a fully immersive mixed reality environment is still “cumbersome” and unreliable (Van Krevelen et al. 14). Kasahara et al. espouse the potential of multi-user spatial collaboration systems for creative and playful content generation in “cities, schools and households.” They point out that another potential benefit to the widespread use of AR is the ability to creatively interact with the “real world … without the charge of vandalism” (Kasahara et al.). This resonated with me as I was, in a sense, vandalizing public areas by applying my own text and imagery without permission from local authorities as I engaged in the creation of the aforementioned installations.
One of my ongoing concerns with using this technology as a medium for critical articulation is falling into the trap of what Horkheimer and Adorno refer to as “realistic dissidence” (10). Is working with an augmented reality app inside a commercial ecosystem simply trying to achieve the same hegemonic cultural influence over a population as any other entertainment medium, such as TV or corporate internet content? Though they are irrefutably part of the larger digital culture landscape, perhaps instances of augmented reality can, like video art, “remain autonomous by developing practices such as site-specific installation, which [will keep] it from being consumed by television, and thus [retain] the critic’s and curator’s interest.” (Gere 113). I certainly believe this to be so, and this, in part, informed my choice to use the Aurasma app as a central component of my project. I would also claim that art composed through augmented reality technologies can meaningfully engage participants and elicit deeply personal and emotional connections with the work. For example, Gilroy et al.’s E-Tree is an augmented reality program that portrays the growth of a tree that is influenced by a real-time algorithm that attempts to perceive emotions of the viewers (945). I view the above example as an innovative and exciting use of AR technology — one that enables the artist or researcher to capture (in however limited a fashion) the emotional experience and output of the viewer/audience, beyond traditional self-reporting measures such as surveys or interviews.
Although creating the kind of custom software and hardware that is part of Gilroy et al.’s E-Tree would address limitations inherent in using a commercial app, I chose not to develop such a platform from scratch. I was concerned that by doing so, I would perhaps arrive at what could be seen by many as a “facile gadget” (Bunt 94) — an interactive marvel that would probably not be accessed by many for very long. This is akin to my lack of desire to grind my own paints and weave my own canvas as the defining characteristics of creating a painting. The community accessible nature of what I had in mind for what if was here did not fit strictly within these robust but singular approaches. Though commercial technologies often ultimately make use of the advancements developed by such innovative work, as an artist I am more interested in exploring the possibilities of this medium and subverting the intended commercial functions of this app. Aurasma is an already widely accessible augmented reality application and as such, promises potential as a new and mediated virtual artistic space between myself, the participant and our shared physical presence in a community space (Doyle 71). I am interested in the exploration of narratives within, and often pushing against, the limits of a medium.
WORKING WITHIN THE URBAN LANDSCAPE
The methodology of this project consisted of placing over thirty artistic interpretive narratives of “community” throughout the city of Hamilton, Ontario. My intention is to offer a surprising and fresh perspective for participants through publicly accessible, site-specific digital environments (Sermon et al. 51). These works are related to various geographically specific locations throughout the city that resonate personally and emotionally with me. In this manner, the work transcends concerns of achieving merely technical goals. Working freely within an established medium has allowed me to texturally explore particular narratives within the chosen landscape. Through an ongoing practice of critical reflexivity within this landscape, I have arrived at what I believe to be meaningful, and critical insights regarding the contested ground of ‘community’ within this city.
Significant environmental and heritage-based issues that affect the visual environment of Hamilton provide the basis of some of these works. Other works react and respond to particular socio-cultural and activism-based issues (and related stories) that have been prevalent during my experience of living in central downtown Hamilton. Some parts of the work are drawn from what people outside of the Hamilton area have told me about Hamilton. Some are drawn from dialogues with citizens inside this community. With these narratives, opinions and visuals I hope to have captured multiple alternative perceptions of the cityscape as inductively informed by the question “what if?”. Though I think it would be an interesting and valuable research study, the goal of my project is not to create literal illustrations of what Hamilton’s cityscape might have looked like under different circumstances. Rather, my interest in addressing this research question is expressed by artistically creating manifestations of psychological and emotional spaces throughout locations within the community.
To help frame “what if?”, I have placed in the book, adjacent to each location’s trigger image, quoted authoritative text from various corporations, non-profits and governments that are involved with the public interest in those spaces. When this text is viewed with the AR app, an overlay appears with a short semi-fictional narrative concerning that space. These narratives are my paraphrasing of the aforementioned dialogues, drawn from the many conversations I have held with individuals and groups over the last four years in Hamilton. Both texts are generally positive, and the enthusiastic narratives tend to reflect the positions of the selected texts. Some common complaints, such as lack of parking or the rising cost of real estate, are incorporated as well.
For example, installation #5 is located on James Street North at the corner of Barton Street. In the photo book, there is a black and white photograph of a view from the north-east corner that acts as the trigger image if the book is brought to this location. The accompanying text printed in the book consists of a 2013 City of Hamilton council motion proposing to close the street during a monthly local arts festival referred to as “Art Crawl.” This is an example of “what if?” rhetoric on a municipal government level that, to me, betrays a level of privilege associated with the James Street North area. The motion states that there are no particular associations or official organizers associated with the event, yet there are accommodations being made at the city council level that are not afforded to other areas of the city. Why has this understanding of community, in this area, been privileged in this way?
The supporting and enthusiastic narrative I referred to above appears when the participant views the text in the book with the Aurasma app. I wrote this dialogue as a derivative of the rhetoric printed in the book, and it is meant to represent popular views of the same area that are largely informed by this community-building rhetoric. Furthering the example of installation #5 on James Street North, the narrative that appears reads as follows: “This area used to be scary but now new shops and galleries are here. We like to bring the kids and have dinner whenever we can make it to art crawl. It’s so vibrant but parking is a problem sometimes. Hamilton is really transforming itself!” This narrative echoes a story I have often heard from people who live in the surrounding areas. It serves to re-enforce the message conveyed by the municipal motion contained in the book about the need to accommodate visitors to the area, but it also raises questions about privilege and viewpoint. For instance, does this one street really represent Hamilton? Does the community here (James Street North) have a responsibility to those who will only drive into it? What does the vague metric of “vibrant” really mean, and are visitors from the suburbs really in the most appropriate position to render this judgement? What influence will that have on the kind of art and culture presented in this area? So is this area actually for the community itself or for those outside of the community? Clearly there are many different assumptions and ideas about community operating here.
The content of the book is intended to challenge assumptions from those who are privileged enough to live elsewhere, but who still feel entitled to pass judgment about James Street North’s past (“This area used to be scary”), its present (“It’s so vibrant…”) and its future (“Hamilton is really transforming itself!”). By visiting the area and viewing the book’s photographs with the Aurasma app, they will be confronted with a dissenting view that is more critical (this aspect of the project is explained in greater detail in the section below). Thus representations of public efforts to create a hegemonic community appear in the book’s text — both in print and in the augmented reality text it triggers when viewed with the app. The book’s structure symbolically reflects my criticism of the pubic sphere in that localized and dissenting views are not readily accessible in mass media narratives concerning a specific area. If you are not at the location represented by the photos in the book, then, as in real life, you have access only to the publicly available rhetoric and popular perceptions of the area. I believe this directly speaks to the site-specific potentiality of AR technologies to disrupt dominant narratives that Gere (113) hopes is possible, and that I touch on earlier in this paper.
When this augmented reality text narrative is active, as triggered by the printed text in the book, the participant can then choose to tap the screen with their finger. It is not made obvious at this point that the participant can interact further with the work in this way. An important component of my artistic rationale for this project is to encourage the discovery of more information about something through exploration and engaging the imagination, rather than by simply following instructions. If the viewer does tap any of the eight instances of these AR texts, then they are presented with a hand drawn map of the area that contains the location of the photo. This simple map also hints at where the participant should stand to in order to view the photo based AR work, as well as where some other AR works are installed in the immediate vicinity. Though the inline Aurasma map also indicates the locations of many of these installations, it does not feature AR installations that are not geo-coded. These other AR works instead rely solely on trigger images, such as symbols or text, to activate them. These small, hand drawn maps act as hints to aid the participant in finding these additional works, should they wish to do so. If that screen is then tapped, different things happen — a picture is presented, or more text narratives appear or links are activated to related search engine results or live community based discussions on social media. For example, a browser opens to present a Twitter search for the Hamilton, Ontario hashtag #HamOnt, or the Art Crawl event #ArtCrawl, or even a neighbourhood specific search such as #BartonVillage. This brings a greater scope of context to discussions happening in the public sphere about these spaces, and informs the participant of the general ‘tone’ that is present in discussions concerning the community at any particular time.
As mentioned in the above section, if the participant accesses the text installations specific to the eight locations then they will find narratives that are more cynical, critical and personal than the public narratives. These narratives are paraphrased reflections of my own views, and of the views of several dissidents, malcontents and others in my activist community. These are the individuals who Lee sees as undermining the integrity of the bourgeois promise of a harmonious public sphere (2). These are my experiences of the ‘community’ of Hamilton, Ontario.
Continuing with the example of installation #5 to demonstrate this, if the participant views the street sign for James Street North at the north east corner of Barton Street with the Aurasma app, then the following text appears: “Ian told me there was black and white film footage of a parade down Barton Street with the Queen of England. I researched this with the help of a CBC Digital Archivist. We could only find evidence of the 1939 Royal Tour of King George IV and the 1959 visit of Queen Elizabeth II. Both times they only crossed Barton here in order to go down James Street North. I think now Ian was full of shit.” The preceding is in fact a true story, based on a conversation with a friend. However, it is not important whether it is actually true or not that the Queen once paraded down Barton Street. What strikes me as important is that the only well documented route taken during these royal visits that I could readily find, happened to be the same route where the art crawl festival occurs. This indicates to me that this area has always been designated as a privileged space. It is a ceremonial route and the “transformation” of James Street North into a “vibrant” arts district should come as no surprise because it is clearly not a recent cultural development. The critical subtext of this narrative is that you have to cross over Barton Street whether you are participating in the art crawl, or whether you are royalty participating in a parade down Hamilton streets. For those who live in this city, Barton Street is known as an economically depressed area with a high crime rate. For most who attend art crawl, whether they live in Hamilton or not, visiting Barton Street is not an option despite Ian’s fanciful tales of royal parades to the area. Does it ultimately matter if Ian’s tale is true or not? Perhaps only to those of us who live on or near Barton Street and see something substantial at stake in terms of representations of the neighbourhood/community. Perhaps this kind of representation is the determination of the allocation of resources throughout this city. For me, it is an example of the relevance of asking “what if was here?” as informed by the personal viewpoint of Ian, a local resident of the Barton Street neighbourhood.
This narrative critically re-enforces the AR instance that is activated when the participant views the photo book for installation #5 with the Aurasma app while standing at the north east corner of James Street North and Barton Street. A vintage photo from 1939 of an excited crowd viewing the royal couple pass by in a car replaces the printed photo of the street intersection. If it occurs to the participant to tap the screen after it has loaded, then a brief news reel of the 1939 tour plays on the screen. Complete with audio of the original narration, this public domain clip clearly displays the title “Hamilton” and cheering crowds lining James Street North. Poor Barton Street is nowhere to be seen. If the screen is tapped again, a browser appears with vintage photos of James Street North displayed via the website of the Hamilton Public Library. The installation serves as a critical intervention highlighting the erasure or eclipse of one community by the prevailing discourse and hopes surrounding another.
An environmental themed example of what if was here is installation #2. The photo book component of this work appears when viewed looking south from the middle of the Greenhill Avenue overpass in King’s Forest. The black and white photograph of the Red Hill Parkway disappears and is replaced by a streaming movie portraying the forest that used to stand in this spot. I took this video from the nearby walking path that runs parallel to the highway, and which is located within the remnants of the forest that used to be here. This spot was chosen intentionally for the video as it most likely resembles the forest that the highway ultimately replaced. I chose an angle that approximates the landscape of the highway image in the book, and kept the audio soundscape of the highway traffic mixed with a gentle breeze rustling the leaves. The goal of this installation was to critically highlight the absurdity of the political rhetoric and claims contained in the book. To clarify: the City of Hamilton has designated an area that is predominantly a highway and a golf course, as a forest. To support this improbable feat of classification, the city’s communications proudly state that this area is so well managed that it has won two environmental awards — though it omits the names of, or any further information about, these awards. Not surprisingly, this begs the question: what constitutes a forest? Who decides?
If the viewer taps the screen while the movie is playing a browser window opens that displays the results of a Google search for the term “King’s Forest.” The results on this first page consist entirely of links and information regarding the local golf course. If the most relevant search results presented by Google’s algorithm are to be believed, then perhaps a forest is indeed a golf course with a highway leading to it. It is up to the viewer to decide whether this designation makes sense to them or whether it is, rather, somewhat absurd. At the very least, it encourages the participant to think critically about the circulating discourses and dominant public representations of this space/community.
Like the other installations printed in the photo book, an AR text narrative is triggered by viewing quotes contained in the photo book with the Aurasma app. A short text narrative appears that largely re-enforces the political rhetoric associated with this contested space: “This highway had to go somewhere. It is good for the economy and for the neighbourhoods close by. There is still a nature path here and even a golf course. You can drive across this city in 20 minutes.” If this text is tapped, then a small hand-drawn map of the area appears, acting as a clue and reference to the location of the artworks installed, and my critical position within it. If this is tapped again, then a browser opens with a Twitter search results page displaying the most recent tweets about Hamilton traffic. I’ve noticed people in Hamilton are very concerned about traffic and do not brook delays or congestion well. Nor are they generally open to adopting or embracing alternative modes of transportation. Perhaps this is as deep as any critical examination of the possible reasons that led to choosing a highway over an urban forest needs to go. A further consideration of this installation follows.
An AR text narrative is installed on the information sign at the entrance to the walking path. This short dialogue, representing a personal viewpoint of this location, references my encounter with an activist who tried to save the forest, while also featuring some of the effects the Red Hill Parkway has had on my neighbourhood: “There used to be forest here. I notice there is still a forest where a road could not go through. Once, when I attended a rally at City Hall to support heritage architecture, an activist who fought to save King’s Forest spoke to the crowd. He said they almost won so we should continue fighting too. Trucks still rumble through my downtown neighbourhood.” Thus this work reclaims developed space as a virtual monument signifying a recent past of activist resistance within the city of Hamilton. Though these artistic interventions can be classified as works addressing either the political, public or private spheres, they are all critical examinations of contested spaces within the landscape of urban Hamilton.
RESEARCH FRAMEWORK AND PROCESS
My artistic approach to this type of project was developed using the theoretical model of Creation-As-Research as espoused by Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk in 2012. This process is ideal for a critical, qualitative investigation as this approach follows the action research reasoning that “performances, experiences, interactive art works, et cetera can also be ways of generating research data that can then be used to understand different dynamics” (Chapman et al. 16).
Thus, relying upon Creation-as-Research (Chapman et al. 16) but also Critical Theory frameworks (McLaughlin 603), this contemporary art work is derived from a critical artistic reflection of my lived experience within the city of Hamilton since moving here in 2010. It is an intervention based work that disrupts expectations and destabilizes our understanding of the meaning(s) of shared spaces in the public sphere. This textual act, based on my attempts at critical reflexivity within the personal, political and emotional spheres of the city, is one of resistant reading through the use of programmed digital interventions into community spaces — multiple attempts to challenge the dominant discourses of what constitutes ‘community’ in Hamilton. Presenting alternative views of our environment with these often absurd or surreal “realities” of what used to be here, what could have been here and what might be here, these imagined variations of eight public spaces can be seen as the culmination of my ongoing artistic and discursive engagement with this community. At the same time they mark the beginning of my continued artistic interest in using augmented reality to construct what I have come to refer to as ‘post-landscapes.’
Since the proposal stage of the project, two major developments occurred that affected the work, and that were the result of insights arrived at via the creation-as-research framework. The first was the incorporation of text transparencies into live environments, and the second was the addition of an accompanying photo book containing relevant political rhetoric and trigger images for all eight locations. While examples of both of these aspects of the project have already been discussed in this paper, I feel it is necessary to expand upon them to better understand the creative process that underpins this work.
These post-proposal modifications were realized through experimentation and testing at the different locations incorporated into the work. Opting to work with a small screen presented some initial concerns for me; one being a potential lack of poignancy experienced by the viewer when engaging with the digital works. Initial viewing of the project prototypes with my iPhone’s five inch screen was clunky and/or cartoonish at best. It struck me that what I had produced was perhaps not an engaging or immersive artwork, but rather a very average and ordinary experience of looking at computer illustrations on your mobile device. I was concerned that, for the participant, this would be experienced as being akin to visiting any web page regardless of whether that page appeared in a certain location or not. The mobile device was still not an object specific or special to the eight urban contexts contained in the work, but simply a screen to the same digital world you could easily access at home. How could I get around this potential problem?
I imagine that an AR experience that involves live information about an environment can largely circumvent this problem as it relies on a fundamentally different motivation, or reading, for the participant (Demiris 42) — however it quickly became apparent to me that it is decidedly underwhelming when presenting an artistic work that relies on set imagery and sound on a 5 inch screen in some very noisy environments. The root of this issue I realized, is that this work was originally conceived not to be small and highly interactive, but rather to engage the participant through an immersive, virtual environment such as Second Life or as a Machinima movie production. There were also technical issues of the AR work not being triggered due to differences in lighting, or stemming from seasonal changes to the immediate environment of the installations. Once I had settled on working within an immersive and real world environment, I needed to reconsider how to approach my eight chosen installations and artworks. Something was still missing from the work at this stage. I did not want this to become an academic study on the artistic potential of a technological platform, but rather a complete and engaging art work standing on its own merits.
I soon realized that installing text narratives in these spaces as AR instances largely achieved many of my artistic aspirations for this project and negated many of the imagery production problems I was experiencing. The text itself could appear over the environment in real time, maintaining this crucial contextuality of location as the conceptual tension of the work. Text itself, without need for physical form but perfectly suited to it, bridged this gap between the virtual and the real worlds by the very act of reading it. This method was complementary to a project that explored psychological projections of community as it utilized the very imaginations of the participants. I was intrigued by the notion that this text, viewed once, could continue to represent an augmented reality experience for the participant in a particular space without further reliance on a mediated relationship through digital technology. Rather, remembering there is a particular narrative associated with a certain space can be transcribed accurately as text by almost anybody. Imagery, audio and interactivity cannot easily be transcribed accurately to their original form and therefore remain trapped in their location and context. They are fragile, dependent on an active gaze for cohesion — captive to whatever technology gives them life. Thus, there is a wonder to the construction of all imagery, but it lacks the kind of permanency that occurs with text work in this manner. To read text embedded in a particular space transcended limitations of a phone screen and opened up a wider array of possibilities as I could now consider incorporating site specific quotes and narratives.
Another interesting aspect for me was that by installing these transparent text slides I was, in a sense, installing my own commemorative plaques in these places. Furthermore, installing these narrative text works constitutes an act of resistant reading through hijacking available signage specific to these locations. For example, I could use a “No Parking” sign in one instance to act as a trigger image for a text overlay that appears on top of it. The “No Parking” sign is, in a sense, the authoritative voice of the community as it defines this particular space. This space is a ‘no parking space.’ By adding my own text as an AR installation, I circumvent laws and the customs of negotiation in the hegemonic public sphere in order to add in, for example, a very personal and individual critical perspective. This challenges the notion of a harmonious state of individuals in this community that share experiences, and thus, perceptions of this space (Lee 2).
As the work progressed, I remained committed to rendering the imagery specific to the eight locations as outlined in my original proposal. However, since the intended idea was for this AR imagery to appear on top of a panoramic view of each location, there remained the same issue of providing a reliable trigger image in the various environments. For example, if I wanted to turn the Westdale Movie Theatre into a Casino, then I could not make use of a nearby sign upon which to layer this visual as the viewer would not be looking at, or even facing, the facade of the theatre.
This led to the second major development to what if was here since the proposal phase: the creation of a printed book as part of the overall work. Using a book format allows me to control the display of trigger images for each location and makes it possible for content to be accessed through AR that would not be available otherwise. I decided to keep some AR content in the book (the original visuals conceived for this project as outlined in the proposal phase) as geo-specific to each of the eight locations. The participant must bring the work to the location and view it with the Aurasma app in order to access the works triggered by the printed images. This physical relationship with the object (book) that depends on location (geo-tagging) reinforces the spatial parameters of the installation work as a whole.
It was well into the development of this project that my academic supervisor recommended reading Donna Haraway’s “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective.” This article resonated with me as Haraway proposes notions of power and domination based on our body’s proximity to “drawings of inside-outside boundaries [that] are theorized as power moves, not moves towards truth” (576). I found Haraway’s insights applicable to my interest in the tensions that present themselves throughout the eight contested sites my project examines. These tensions usually manifested themselves between the situated personal, dissenting views expressed in the project, and the dominant political and public rhetoric that often circulates independent of proximity. I found myself agreeing with Haraway — particularly as a means to critically engage with Hamilton — when she insists “on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere” (581). I believe that what if was here meaningfully takes up Haraway’s concern. The participant must engage with the city itself and actually see these spaces, both before and after the AR instances, in order to engage with the work. The deeper levels of the artwork require the attendance of the participant, and by way of their attendance, they therefore commit to a critical act that approaches a situated knowledge rather than a detached “god view trick” of the community (Haraway 581). These works cannot be viewed from a passing car — one must walk in most of these environments to access the artworks. By the act of holding the book in a special place and scrutinizing it closely, the participant is mentally and physically engaged with the artwork, and they thus gain a more intimate, firsthand (or situated) knowledge of the place — a perspective that is generally not available via the “view from nowhere” put forth by conventional public discourse.
A CRITICAL APPROACH INTO A COMMUNITY
My work is very much about the act of walking through the urban environment, and the accumulated experience of my wanderings through this city for the last four years. I certainly identified with the term flâneur, which I understand as referring to someone who “saunters around observing society” (Oxford University Press). I discovered a connection between Haraway’s article and another work that I came across during the development of this project: Frédéric Gros’ book A Philosophy of Walking. Gros sees the urban flâneur as someone who could cross boundaries that appeared when cities became large enough to be thought of as landscape (176). Echoing Haraway’s idea that “only partial perspective promises objective vision … limited location and situated knowledge” (583), Gros suggests that by strolling in the urban environment, one is engaged in a critical act by subverting expectations of “the crowd, the merchandise and the town, along with their values…the flâneur subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism” (177). Following Gros, I could perhaps consider myself (somewhat humourously, of course) a form of ‘contemporary flâneur,’ with my investigative wanderings through the city culminating in the subversive artwork what if was here.
The act of walking constitutes another layer of community interaction that is important to this work. When I would take long walks throughout the city, I would often stop to take photos of interesting spaces and landscapes. I suspect these were spaces that a typical person might not be interested in photographing, and as such, people would stop to watch me looking at the space while taking its photo. At times I would be approached and questioned about what I was doing, and these interactions often led to interesting and insightful conversations about the area. In many ways these location-specific dialogues provided the early impetus for this project. For example, I have been continuously documenting the empty storefronts of Barton Village, and oftentimes would be asked if I was a developer or “worked for the city”. When I explained that I lived in the neighbourhood and that the photos were for my own artistic practice, the individual would often tell me about how this area used to look and what would likely happen to it in the future. Typically, there would be critiques of the community as told to me through personal narratives, but there would also be a repeating of some political rhetoric. One such piece of unsolicited feedback from an elderly couple involved recalling how many bed bugs there used to be “but now there is not” and that “the area is really improving with the coming of the 2015 Pan Am games.” They could “not move anymore” even if they wanted to as “real estate prices are soaring” but their “neighbours are selling and moving away.” I savour these narratives as textures of my community, and as insights that are difficult to glean from simply studying real estate listings or reading about the development of a new sports stadium in the area. These are texts that hang in the air here for me now, forever framing this specific time and place.
Now I imagine that these experiences may happen for the project’s participants as they stand still, referencing a space through body placement to obtain the proper perspective, and scrutinizing a book closely with a mobile device. In my experience, the activity mentioned above is not considered ‘normal’ behaviour in most public spaces, and is behaviour akin to studying a space and taking photos of it. My hope is that this too attracts attention, while also promoting interaction and discussion among participants and other community members. Like using a camera in public, utilizing the book is also a spectacle. By contrast, somebody standing in a public space and looking at their mobile device is no longer such a spectacle.
Thus, the design of this work reflects a philosophy of walking through environments in order to gain special insights about them. To interact with the project in these environments, one must be looking for these works in these environments. Though common perceptions of these contested sites are referenced, the structure of the work itself criticizes certain forms of rhetoric as a trick “view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity” (Haraway 589). In order to understand the underlying meanings and references contained within the art, one requires a situated knowledge of the area. Through this process and reasoning, the project arrived at point where some works can be accessed at locations without the book, as previously mentioned. Some works in the book can be accessed without being at the locations. Some works are only accessible when the book is brought to one or all of the eight locations. what if was here then becomes a multivalent work about community that can be experienced in completely different ways, depending on the level of engagement by the individual. One of these ways — simply looking at the book of photos and cited texts — does not require technical access at all. In a sense, the multiple ways that one is able to engage with the project can be seen to symbolically represent the myriad and contested views of community that perhaps circulate in any vibrant urban space.
Another possible scenario could consist of the second reader for this MRP reading this paper and viewing the book, but not visiting the locations. My friends and family will likely visit the locations with a copy of the book but not read this paper. Random people in Hamilton may install the Aurasma App for other reasons and find some of the location-specific work without seeing the book or reading this paper. With a mixture of narratives, photographs, animations, audio and movies, the overall structure of this artwork critically reflects what I see as the fragmented, postmodern nature of public discourse within the urban landscape.
EXAMINING THREE SCALES OF NARRATIVE
Hence, what if was here is a narrative composed of three layers of text, image and location; these can be assigned to broad categories of the political sphere, the public sphere and the personal sphere. I define the political sphere as dialogues or discursive spaces that are established by government or government sanctioned entities that claim to democratically represent designated areas of the community. This sphere is represented in the what if was here book by printing widely available information, familiar visuals, and popular rhetoric about various public areas of the city. This level of the project is deliberately similar aesthetically to postcards or even tourism brochures. The sources cited in the text highlight the type of information anyone in the world can access about these spaces, and how these spaces should be interpreted. These are the simulacra of harmonious public spheres that are well-governed and full of promise offered to the public. They are portrayed in need of constant action and management. They have been treated as an interface, without any apparent notion that they should have or should be left alone (Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication” 127) to simply be spaces shaped by community use. In the critical environmental works in this project, for example, there is a sense of industrial use and re-use of lands for economic purposes as well as casual enjoyment by citizens — but not the possibility of allowing natural spaces time to rejuvenate on their own.
To clarify what I discuss above, let me provide an example. Installation #4 appears when viewed at the tip of the South East pier along the waterway that connects Hamilton Harbour to Lake Ontario. This canal runs under the Skyway bridge on the South side of “The Beaches” where one can see refining industries surrounded by some of the most polluted waters in the world. This location’s imagery questions why we accept such uninhabitable areas as part of our community. Why do we not consider them as reclamation goals for commonplace activities such as swimming? Instead, the promise of environmental reclamation is still largely removed from the consideration of use by the community in general, remaining under the auspices of heavy industry. For instance, despite any public pressure or political rhetoric concerning a clean up of the port lands of Hamilton, they are still referred to as the ‘port lands’ regardless of the state of the environment in that area. They are not transitioning into a state that would change their designation from “port” to “resort” or “provincial park”. To me, this indicates an impossible fusing of incompatible states of being for the waterfront. Can it be both a port for heavy industry and an environmentally sound playground for the community at the same time? This hopeful state of existence, which I don’t believe will ever be achieved, is what makes this another contested site in my what if was here project. Further exploration of this problem follows below.
This tension is reflected within the rhetoric contained in the book, which cites published texts from three primary stakeholders in major Hamilton reclamation projects: the Hamilton Port Authority, the Federal Government of Canada and the Hamilton Waterfront Trust. While the Hamilton Port Authority lobbies for continued commercial use of this environment, the Federal Government promises to clean it up from past commercial use, and the Hamilton Waterfront Trust pledges access to the area and “its beautiful surroundings” with the help and guidance of the Port Authority.
To me, this constitutes a Beaudrillardian example of signs disconnected from reality through symbolic interactionism (Fine 83). Symbolic interactionism has three broad premises that are at play in my example above —“that we know things by their meanings, that meanings are created through social interaction, and that meanings change through interaction” (Fine 64). By creating a public committee to care for the harbour lands (even though the committee membership is stacked in favour of the port authority and city government) we are invited to symbolically interpret this entity as a form of democratic interaction for the benefit of the environment. Since we are allowed access to certain areas of the port lands that are beautified for our benefit, our experience becomes a “miniaturization” of the harbour (Baudrillard, “Simulacra and simulation” 1). Heavy industrial use continues unabated, as the community use of the harbour becomes a form of symbolic interactionism that “no longer needs to be rational” because “it is no longer anything but operational” (Baudrillard, “Simulacra and simulation” 1). In other words, this relation encourages the perception that if my family and I can visit well managed public areas of the port lands safely, then they must be well cared for. Thus this viewpoint ignores the argument that a natural environment is healthy only if it is protected from use, and instead opts to evaluate the port lands by virtue of their everyday access by both industry and community.
The public sphere aspect of the work consists of the location-only visuals that are unlocked if the participant brings the book to the installation locus. These art works are fantasy-based imaginings of these spaces. They are absurd extensions of some of the tensions I have encountered while exploring the contested sites of community-building efforts in this city. Using installation #4 as an example, this augmented reality interaction conjures references to Edouard Manet’s famous 1863 painting Le Bain (Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe) by collaging the figures from the painting onto Hamilton’s industrial waterfront. These entitled white male picnickers (Andersen 38) refer to the entitlement of the industrial business class in defining this area and the usage of our community space, as different scenery from the industrialized harbour lands acts as backdrop for their leisurely lifestyle. This is the land where wealth is generated at any cost. In an egregiously feeble attempt to legitimize these costs, the entitled class offers the community a promise of public access to the land in exchange for their continued misuse of it. The use of this painting delivers two other critical comments towards Hamilton: one regarding the proliferation of prostitution, and the second highlights the seemingly divisive choice of either accepting the health of the economy or the liveability of the community.
People who work within the social services in Hamilton tell me of the great amount of exploitation, human trafficking, and sex slavery that occurs here, and this painting certainly references prostitution for the benefit of these well-to-do gentlemen (Andersen 26). I do not mean to take up a position regarding the controversial nature of sex work, but rather wish to highlight the constrained range of economic choices that exist within a globalized neoliberal capitalist regime, of which Hamilton is a part. The other tension I have noted here, the common Hamilton narrative of a struggle between a blossoming creative class and the established but diminished industrial base, is referenced in this painting through its compositional adherence to Raphael’s painting Judgment of Paris (Andersen ix). Like Paris forced to choose between three gods, it is my view that public discourse in Hamilton is framed in such a way that we too are forced to make a decision, but one between the health of the economy, a meaningful quality of life, or an improbable mixture of the two. Reflecting upon my experiences in Hamilton, I strongly suspect there is no real choice but rather an empty Baudrillardian simulacrum masquerading as a meaningful system of discourse in the public sphere (“Simulacra and simulation” 4). Let us consider the artwork that makes up installation #4 further.
Is the viewer shocked to see this imagery in the installation or do they find it absurd?Why? Contemplating this imagery without access to any of the above theory presents the viewer with the vulnerability and (possibly) exploited nature of nude women relaxing in industrialized and polluted public spaces. Indeed, potential outrage at this imagery might parallel the receptions this painting received when first exhibited in 1863. This work was arguably the first surreal imagery of its kind in Western art history, and it confused critics and the public alike (Andersen vii) with the placement of fantasy imagery — the prostitutes — on top of an otherwise ordinary picnic in the park. In this way, it is interesting to consider augmented reality art work as the direct descendant of Manet’s famous painting.
If the political sphere of the work is the first layer, and the public sphere of this work is the second layer, then the third layer could be considered the private sphere. This level of the project consists of semi-autobiographical narratives concerning each specific site. These narratives are personal, often referring to other undisclosed events relating to the space, and decidedly more blunt and negative than the rhetoric of layer #1, or the whimsical imagery of layer #2. In particular, these text-based narratives exist completely outside the book and are geo-coded to be site specific. For me, this layer represents the nature and value of Haraway’s understanding of ‘Situated Knowledges.’ Arguably, one can only gain an objective vision of a place through acknowledging a partial perspective and rejecting the promise of a view from everywhere (Haraway 583). This type of vision can be attained by living in a particular space, walking in that space and spending time not using that space but simply being in that space. For those that want to access this layer, they must spend time in these spaces looking for the AR installations embedded in the environment around them.
For example, in installation #1, I layer an animation of a volcano onto a steel refinery as viewed from a scenic lookout on the escarpment. Though this is fantastic and rather silly imagery, like a doodle on a picture in a magazine, it is my hope that these rather unexpected scenarios cannot be completely disregarded by the participant. They may see a source of wealth, importance, economic prosperity and monumental history (Nietzsche 11) when contemplating the steel refineries in north Hamilton. The animation of the volcano is meant to challenge such codified symbolism that I suspect that many, if not most, people consciously interact with. When I look toward the waterfront, I see a primordial landscape of volcanoes, and I experience an accompanying sense of foreboding, a palatable sensation of environmental doom either through the slow accumulation of polluting emissions or the irrational fear of a sudden volcanic eruption. These book-based AR works are a meeting point of vastly different psychological landscapes that are tethered to the same landmark features in the community. This is not an effort to persuade someone that my viewpoint of the world is the right one, but rather an effort to impress upon others that there are many possible worlds, a multiplicity of viewpoints. If the symbolism I am presenting seems absurd to some, the professed certainty of their viewpoints regarding these spaces seems equally absurd to me. These geo-coded animations and site specific embedded text works are the two components of this private sphere.
This work was always intended to be a subjective art project based upon my choices, interests and experiences—it does not constitute a civic development planning demonstration. The goal was to produce a city-wide art installation, and the final artistic choices regarding what images or texts to present, and where to locate them, resided with me. These artistic choices were not based upon other measurements such as quantitative data analysis. Rather, I was eager to work with the various impressions and perceptions that only reveal themselves after a sustained period of living within any community.
Being a fictionalized work of alternative versions of Hamilton based on my own observations and resistant readings of symbolic textual objects, my artwork responds to the tensions cited by Lee resulting from the paradox of “competing discourses of community that dominate current debates over community” (1). This critical response is supported by “visualizing Nancy Fraser’s ‘post-bourgeois’ reconceptualization of the public sphere as exclusionary mechanisms at work and critical revisionist historiography revealing hegemonic modes of domination behind these mechanisms” (McLaughlin 601). I believe that the project what if was here successfully takes up and engages with these ideas, and offers its own unique exploration of these concepts within the contested community spaces of Hamilton.
I believe Hamilton was and is an ideal location to explore the tensions, contradictions and paradoxes within the many communities and individuals that inhabit the same geographical and imagined spaces. One of the goals associated with asking the question “What if?” through layered instances of augmented reality, is that this project will encourage productive discussion between and among groups in the community who may hold different visions of what Hamilton was or could be.
Coming into this program, perhaps due to my age and previous activist activities, I was not a blank canvas. Concepts such as reflexivity and qualitative research are painted on top of the contours and bumps of my experiences and biases, and for me, this also includes the experience of being inside a University program again after almost two decades away.
Being in university again brought with it the curious experience of not only analyzing the world around me in new ways, but also of colouring my interpretations of the past. Thus, my pre-existing interests influenced my academic trajectory towards the production of a creative multi-media installation. In turn, academic studies helped shape the desire to critically examine my previous experiences within Hamilton. One such influence has been the work of the philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who wrote, “The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives.” Following this idea of Montaigne’s, I have arrived at the belief that genuine engagement with my community and its various dynamics can be attained by examining my own life experience here. The resulting art work, what if was here, attempts to reflect this sensibility.
In the proposal stage of this project I presented a collection of preconceived artworks. However, I knew that these ideas would be affected by physically visiting these locations again during the studio creation phase of the work. Put simply, my MRP research has led me to the conclusion that by situating oneself in a certain location, one gains special insight into the characteristics of that place and time. I now believe that no amount of information and rhetoric about a place will allow one to arrive at a narrative as valuable as situated knowledge (Haraway 581). In turn, this artwork reveals subtleties, nuances and meanings only to those who are firmly situated within this community.
Implicit in this position and in this artwork is a critique of academia. In several of my graduate seminars the professors expressed an isolation associated with academic work and a disconnection from the world outside of academia. This is seen to result from the fact that there are usually few people who access a scholarly essay or a research study done by a student, and even more rarely are these works accessed by members of the non-academic community. Some community-engaged faculty expressed criticism towards those whose academic activities remain firmly ensconced within the institution. At the beginning of this Masters program I may have made the same criticism. Now I am less certain about making such judgments about knowledge production or the various paradigms used to arrive at meaning and understanding.
What I do notice now and find interesting is the tension produced by different forms of rhetoric contained within a space, and this is reflected in my project’s artistic examination of the existence of simultaneous narratives within public spaces in the community of Hamilton. What narrative best defines your relationship to your community is entirely up to you — but how often is that narrative actually being defined by someone or something else?
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