Better than the real thing?

New media technology is redefining authenticity

By Eric Collins

CityU Gallery recently mounted the augmented reality exhibition ANiMAL – Art Science Nature Society in their permanent gallery on the 18F of the Lau Wei Ming Academic Building. We talked to Gallery Director, Dr Isabelle Frank, about the challenges of producing an exhibition – largely without traditional exhibits.

A.A. Milne once wrote “Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though”.

The recent CityU exhibition ANiMAL – Art Science Nature Society gave visitors the chance to redress the balance, and listen to the extraordinary web of stories that emanate from the animal world.

Here we could wonder at Qing Dynasty lions drawn on hanging scrolls, carry out CT scans on cats and dogs, marvel at a giant 3D scan of a whale skeleton, follow fish swimming inside a revolving Qing Dynasty vase through 3D glasses, and contemplate the prospects of the polar bear staring into a bleak future on a rapidly melting ice floe.

The extraordinary feature of ANiMAL was that many of the pieces displayed were not actually in the room.

3D printed objects may soon be indistinguishable from the original

“Working with the National Palace Museum in Taipei was a wonderful opportunity,” says exhibition co-curator Dr Isabelle Frank. “As the Palace Museum doesn’t lend real objects, we had to develop the digital part and we had some wonderful facsimiles. It provided the opportunity to use new media interpretations of the works that engaged the viewers directly.”

For Dr Frank, technology is a creative tool that can enhance appreciation of objects that you might not otherwise look at so closely. But are they better than the real thing?

“Even though 3D printed objects may soon be indistinguishable from the original, which is a disturbing and puzzling development, it could be that the authentic one will become more valued because of a proliferation of exact copies. Will the aura of the original increase? Who knows?”

Is new media technology redefining authenticity?

Dr Frank mentions the 3D scanned objects in the ANiMAL exhibition, that could be manipulated and observed in a way that would not be possible in a museum setting. These objects can be opened to reveal what’s inside them, rotated, and looked at up close.

Motion capture is used to preserve the heritage of Kung-fu

Augmented reality isn’t restricted to exhibitions. ANiMAL exhibition curator, Professor Jeffrey Shaw, has been spearheading the effort to preserve the cultural heritage of Kung-fu.

“Motion capture is used to create dynamic, digital representations to preserve the steps of masters that were being lost because the new generation is not keeping the tradition.”

As well as being the director, Dr Frank usually works as curator of the gallery. As CityU doesn’t own a standing collection, one of the main roles is putting on collaborative exhibitions.

“The themes are ones that bridge east and west, and arts and sciences. Part of the mission is seeing the gallery as serving the university’s mission and showcasing the artistic, intellectual and scientific discoveries that are happening. Our previous exhibition, Cabinets of Curiosities showcased historical collections that led to the classifying and analysing of both natural and human-made objects; in turn this led to very important scientific advances, such as the taxonomy work of Linnaeus.”

“Often scientists do not recognise discoveries made by the amateur or from earlier periods before the distinction was made between the amateur and the academic professional. Much of science emerged out of belief systems that included magical elements. In Curiosities it was fun to have mechanical objects, along with collections of butterflies, and then going to the contemporary period to bring in artists working on those objects.”

Augmented reality is changing the way objects are presented

Dr Frank hails from the arts metropolis of New York. How does she find working in Asia?

“Hong Kong is very exciting. In New York everything is staid in the big developments. You don’t have hundreds of museums being created as in China, all of which need new content and curators. In Hong Kong M+ is coming soon, the National Palace of Beijing is opening a branch here, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art is reopening in the autumn of 2019.”

Attitudes are different compared to back home.

“You can really feel the energy here. No one is blasé about the arts. When we have an exhibition in the university, people really pay attention. Combining the arts and sciences with augmented reality is shaking up the way objects are being presented, especially in the Asian context which is a more traditional one. The approach is to put ‘everything behind glass’ to protect the artefacts and this can produce a rather bland presentation.”

CityU offers programmes for careers in arts management

How might our students get into the curator line of work?

“CityU offers a Bachelor of Arts in Culture and Heritage Management in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and a Master of Arts in Creative Media in the School of Creative Media. You have to have some knowledge and interest in working with art. With just a business background you are not going to get very far.”

How about the future of exhibition galleries? Is there a danger they will go out of fashion as people can access everything online?

“I think the question is similar as to asking whether cinemas go out of fashion with the arrival of online streaming?” she said. “I think people go to exhibition galleries to have a very different kind of experience and to have objects presented in a way that they would not normally see. The design is very important and a whole atmosphere is created. All your senses should be involved. It’s an immersive experience.”

Don’t miss Art Deco. The France – China Connection

So, what’s up next at CityU Exhibition Gallery?

“We get a lot of collaborations through the foreign consulates. I am currently working with the French Consulate on the upcoming Art Deco. The France – China Connection exhibition opening on 5 March.”

“After that, we will be working with neuroscientist Sir Colin Blakemore, who is a member of the University’s Institute of Advanced Study. As a neuroscientist his research focuses on perception, and he is also very interested in the arts in perspective. The exhibition will bring together perception and certain developments of illusion and space in the arts. I am now working with the Italian Consulate and an Italian organisation of private lenders to try and get some Italian art.”