Oct 4

Augmented Reality and Public Art

by: Laura Kochman

Some days it feels like we’re really living in the future. Virtual reality is popping up in all sorts of unexpected ways—from medical student training to architectural modeling—and it’s already been five years since a holographic projection of Tupac Shakur performed at Coachella 15 years after his death. For over a year, Philly has been overrun by a vast number of pocket monsters, which you can only see through the Pokémon Go app on a mobile phone. Technology is capable of strange and wonderful things.

Augmented reality is an enhanced or altered version of reality, in which technology is used to overlay digital information onto a real-world object or landscape. Our 2016 one-night-only installation underneath the Reading Viaduct, Unsung, falls into this category. Video artists Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib worked with sound artist and composer Nadia Botello to weave image and sound together in a haunting projection.

The sensory inputs of sonically-manipulated recordings and grayed-out projections of singing women combined with the craggy surface of the Viaduct and the murmuring of the crowd to create something new. For one night, we manipulated reality to bring these women’s stories back to life, to reach across time and gain a different kind of knowledge than is possible through reading a history book (if there were a book discussing the erasure of women and brothel culture in 19th-century Callowhill). It’s impossible to experience the past, or to experience something that happened to somebody else, but augmented reality offers a chance for a new kind of bridge.

Three of our currently-installed Monument Lab projects work with augmented reality: Michelle Angela Ortiz’s Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking), Alexander Rosenberg’s The Built/Unbuilt Square, and Marisa Williamson’s Sweet Chariot all change the way we see the world around us. For these three artists, their vision of a monument involves viewer experience and shifting perceptions, or telling a story that has remained, in the words of an earlier project, unsung.

Now through November 19, Seguimos Caminando will light up City Hall’s North Apron every Wednesday and Friday night with projected words and images that honor mothers previously or currently unjustly detained at Berks Detention Center. Ortiz has imagined the imposing facade of City Hall as a space of law and power, a meaningful backdrop on which to project stories of the undocumented and unseen.


  • Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) projection still. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) projection still. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) projection still. Photo by Steve Weinik.

In Rittenhouse Square, now an upscale Center City district, layers of history lurk unseen with the Pokémon. Park visitors who use the two new viewfinders that have appeared at either end of the square will see historical gatherings and renderings of proposed structures—the history that was and wasn’t. The viewfinders of Rosenberg’s The Built/Unbuilt Square are an old technology, repurposed to reveal the unexpected.


  • The Built/Unbuilt Square by Alexander Rosenberg. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • Snippet of a view inside The Built/Unbuilt Square by Alexander Rosenberg. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Williamson’s project, Sweet Chariot: The Long Journey to Freedom Through Time, uses the more modern technology of image-recognition and digital apps, alongside the physical city landscape and a scratch-off map. Site-specific videos open windows onto the African American struggle for freedom in Philadelphia, taking the audience on a scavenger hunt from Washington Square Park to Weccacoe Park, a former burial ground for Mother Bethel AME Church. Sweet Chariot reframes this space, which conceals both Lenape and African American history, remaining a neighborhood playground though it is the site of 5,000 historic graves.


  • A snippet of Sweet Chariot by Marisa Williamson. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • A snippet of Sweet Chariot by Marisa Williamson. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Virtual reality has incredible potential in the art world, but augmented reality seems particularly suited to public art: no VR headset is necessary, and it’s usually an experience you can access with a smartphone, or with no equipment at all. The economic barriers to access are much lower—any member of the public might stumble upon it within a civic space. At Mural Arts, we augment reality every time a new mural goes up, but these uses of technology change the way we see the world by pointing to what is missing. Who don’t we see? What can’t we hear? The silence is monumental.


Unsung was made possible with major support from the William Penn Foundation and additional generous support from the Hummingbird Foundation.

Lead Monument Lab partners include the City of Philadelphia; Philadelphia Parks & Recreation; Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy; Historic Philadelphia; Independence National Historic Park; Penn Institute for Urban Research; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Price Lab for Digital Humanities; and the University of Pennsylvania.

Major support for Monument Lab projects staged in Philadelphia’s five squares has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

An expanded artist roster and projects at five neighborhood sites have been made possible by a significant grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Lead corporate sponsor is Bank of America.

Additional support has been provided by Susanna Lachs & Dean Adler, William & Debbie Becker, CLAWS Foundation, Comcast NBCUniversal, Davis Charitable Foundation, Hummingbird Foundation, J2 Design, National Endowment for the Arts, Nick & Dee Adams Charitable Fund, Parkway Corporation, PECO, Relief Communications LLC, Sonesta Philadelphia Rittenhouse Square, Stacey Spector & Ira Brind, Tiffany Tavarez, Tuttleman Family Foundation, Joe & Renee Zuritsky, and 432 Kickstarter backers. Support for Monument Lab‘s final publication provided by the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation.

Media partner: WHYY

Last updated: Oct 4, 2017

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Alpha Bruton says

Thank you so much for sharing these projects, they are amazing. I am able to speak about the future present and use these as examples for projects I'm working on in the future.