Gone are the days when interacting with art often meant a static viewing experience as you walk across the halls in a gallery. Our 2022 reality sees more of –
Exhibit A: A portrait that responds to your emotions, smiling back. The ambient music also balloons or softens based on the data from your brainwaves. This is the ‘Monalisa 2.0’ by Raghava KK, multidisciplinary artist and storyteller.
Exhibit B: The painting of a cosmic landscape, with a blue building rising from crimson dunes into a cloudy sky. It isn’t complete though – until you view it through an augmented reality app and see a shifting animation superimposed on the canvas in front of you. This is part of the ‘COSMODREAMS’ project, by Marina Fedorova, figurative artist and painter.
Meet ‘phygital’ art
This is ‘phygital’ art – a hybrid, inextricably linked fusion of the digital and physical worlds in one artwork that is the latest medium in the global artist arsenal. And, the space has accelerated like never before in the wake of the pandemic and the digital-NFT boom.
Pablo Del Vaal, digital curator of Art Dubai, the Middle East’s leading international art fair, where both Fedorova and Raghava KK had exhibited works this year in March, says, “It is a new term now, it is just starting to be used. There are many ways of activating real objects or paintings or sculptures into the digital. All those things work more in the technical surface first, but the exciting thing is conceptually, they become something that is really outstanding. Many artists from the traditional sphere are using a lot of digital activations precisely for that reason.”
It is a new term now, it is just starting to be used. There are many ways of activating real objects or paintings or sculptures into the digital. All those things work more in the technical surface first, but the exciting thing is conceptually, they become something that is really outstanding. Many artists from the traditional sphere are using a lot of digital activations precisely for that reason.
Whether it’s minting NFTs, it’s augmented reality or a sophisticated artificial intelligence and neurofeedback software created in collaboration with neuroscientists, this is the new space of creation blossoming at the intersection between physical and digital, and it is redefining our relationship with art.
The allure of phygital - part of our ‘cyborg’ reality?
The term ‘phygital’ was coined in 2007 by Chris Weil, the current chairman and CEO of Momentum, an Australian agency.
It has since become an essential part of our retail and gaming experience – such as when you scan a QR code and watch a linked digital experience arising from a physical object, or walk into a store or restaurant and browse for options on a touchscreen kiosk, or of course, play Pokemon Go!, hurriedly walking around to find the best pokemons in the vicinity.
Think back to Dubai’s beloved Expo 2020 as well, full of vibrant phygital experiences.
• Phygital – A hybrid artwork that has both digital and physical parts, whether in how it was made, or in its final state. In an artwork, here the digital component may be minted as a Non-fungible token, but need not be. Marina Fedorova’s augmented reality videos for her paintings under the COSMODREAMS project are digital but not identified as an NFT.
• NFT: Non-fungible tokens are unique digital codes that can verify ownership of an audio file, digital artwork, photo, video, text, tweets using blockchain technology and can be bought and sold on designated websites mostly by using cryptocurrency. It can be used to identify the digital part of a phygital work. For example, Raghava KK’s ‘Guernica for the Siri-Ocene’ phygital project is a large painting and associated NFTs on sale from the work.
• Augmented reality: In AR, a digital work is overlaid over physical world, like when you view a space through your phone or tablet camera and a filter is added, for example on Snapchat or Instagram.
• Virtual reality: A completely digital or online 3D space, fully immersive, that you can experience and explore through VR glasses or in computers. Fedorova’s virtual space museum in COSMODREAMS can be experienced using VR glasses.
• Mixed reality: A hybrid virtual reality and augmented reality experience in which you can interact with a digital object linked to a physical space – for example, a worker inspecting a system remotely and using real-time data and input from workers present there to fix it, as per a 2017 Deloitte University Press report titled ‘Tech trends 2017: The kinetic enterprise’.
• XR: eXtended reality includes augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality and is an umbrella term.
According to Raghava KK, this is a natural part of our increasing and constant collaboration with technology to enhance all aspects of our daily lives.
“It’s like the merging of many worlds that are happening – the digital, the physical, the crypto investors and currency. So, that’s why I'm saying this is a space for the cyborg, which is man and machine, it's neither created by man nor machine. It's the combination of two.... And that requires its own set of practices, and processes,” says KK in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.
It’s like the merging of many worlds that are happening – the digital, the physical, the crypto investors and currency. So, that’s why I'm saying this is a space for the cyborg, which is man and machine, it's neither created by man nor machine. It's the combination of two.... And that requires its own set of practices, and processes.
For Raghava KK, the idea of phygital art is anything but new – he is a global pioneer in the field, having worked for more than a decade to expand the frontiers where art and technology meet.
Paintings with projectors, a sophisticated software connecting each individual’s brainwaves to the work (Monalisa 2.0), a hacked Kinect that let viewers paint their silhouette into the work (Shadow Engine), and an AI art machine are just a handful of the ‘phygital’ participatory art works he’s brought to life.
He went on to become the first artist to be awarded the title of Emerging Explorer by the National Geographic in 2013 for this work.
“I'm always interested in the space between spaces… what is interesting is the edge that allows for innovation.
“Because it creates new opportunities. It allows for resolution of impossible spaces. Oil and water can mix perfectly well in phygital spaces, and we are able to create new marks, which are called marks of the cyborg,” he adds.
For many other artists, it’s a matter of connecting with younger generations as well. Marina Fedorova, originally a classically trained painter turned to ‘phygital’ when she saw how people connected with it. She tells us, “Right now, it’s evident that art cannot be just like it used to be.
It should be more linked to the masses. Reality has changed a lot, and people are glued to the screen with the computers, iPads, phones, it’s even connecting better through the digital assets than just to look at the painting.
Right now, it’s evident that art cannot be just like it used to be. It should be more linked to the masses. Reality has changed a lot, and people are glued to the screen with the computers, iPads, phones, it’s even connecting better through the digital assets than just to look at the painting.
“The term ‘Instagrammable’ appeared to be very important for classical exhibitions even.“
The pandemic’s push and NFTs
The presence of ‘phygital’ in the art world had surged as cities across the world locked down over the past two years, and artists and galleries had to instantly find alternatives to physical exhibitions.
As New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art closed for the first time in its history due to COVID-19, it came up with a solution – a mobile app, ‘the Met Unframed’, launched in January, 2021.
It saw users view all the galleries digitally rendered hyperrealistically, in essence bringing the mighty museum right into their homes. They could also see some paintings move in augmented reality versions, play interactive games, and even put some of the most famous works as filters when taking photos – providing a phygital experience in appreciating the art.
Although AR and VR have existed for a while, a huge part of phygital art today is also fueled by the popularity of NFTs. Del Vaal says, “I think we've seen that with explosion in the digital universe of NFTs, everyone has been extremely obsessed with this completely new thing that was breaking boundaries, on top of the relationship of a work of art with a new monetary currency, because to access it, you need crypto.”
KK says, “It was a call for action for artists – why don’t you start using the new tools that are changing who we are fundamentally, and show us your topic and the truths about this idea?”
Zaahirah Murthy, founder and artist at Dubai-based ZeeArts gallery had been reluctant to go digital before the pandemic hit. “As artists and curators, we thought that it’s the trend now.”
For an artist, what is it like producing a single work across spaces?
Space, the final frontier: An immersive quest across senses
When Fedorova embarked on her magnum opus project with her team – COSMODREAMS, spanning hundreds of artworks, five years ago, she had decided it would be like a quest for the viewer. A ‘Space Art Odyssey’, inspired by a childhood of reading the best in science fiction – from Stanislaus Lem, Isaac Asimov to Ray Bradbury. It was exhibited at Art Dubai, 2022 in March.
“Through different components, like a puzzle, you can combine the story. First, you see the paintings, and the scenario, it gives you a little bit of an answer, then you see the sculpture, then you watch the movie on the screen or in VR glasses. You understand, and the puzzle comes together, and you see the whole story, so it’s a way to have this immersive experience,” says Fedorova.
She adds, “I think we had the first exhibition for COSMODREAMS two years ago, and you realise how people like it. We just did an experiment, and it engaged people, they participated. So right now, for us, it’s clear that it should somehow be a co-existence of the physical and digital.”
Nevertheless, for Fedorova, the physical part of the work is still more important than the digital: “Yes, this is a bridge with the younger generation to accompany the real work, but I'm a classical artist, I cannot just switch me off, and start to draw only digital. I have this almost physical wish to paint.”
Except, now when she paints, the process has changed. She’s already thinking about how it will transform.
A ‘tool of transcendence’ for the cyborg artist
Earlier this year, a striking 3.5 x 8 metre long painting that is part of the phygital project ‘Guernica for the Siri-ocene’ was successfully exhibited at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai – the latest in Raghava KK’s extensive repertoire of phygital works.
In the space of making artwork come alive in every possible way, KK is a global expert. His relationship with technology was cinched from the tender age of 16, when he had bought a design tablet during a trip to the US and evolved tremendously as he experimented - from initially trying out iterations digitally before painting a physical piece, to now collaborating with a global network including neuroscientists, biohackers, artificial intelligence experts to create art – with the likes of Apple, and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology.
“I was asking myself, ‘What are the new tools that I have as an artist to express myself?’ I call them tools of transcendence,” says KK.
“Over a period of time started, it grew and grew - my vocabulary of playing with code, playing with data, playing with artificial intelligence, playing with neuroscience, bio hacking, all of that was happening.”
I was asking myself, ‘What are the new tools that I have as an artist to express myself?’ I call them tools of transcendence. Over a period of time started, it grew and grew - my vocabulary of playing with code, playing with data, playing with artificial intelligence, playing with neuroscience, bio hacking, all of that was happening.
For Monalisa 2.0, Raghava KK’s aim was to the change the power dynamic between the artist and the viewer. He says, “I was talking about art that changes based on who’s viewing it… Here, it is just the artist as the seeker, the one who asks the most relevant questions. I chose that definition.”
As part of the project, he has worked with a musician to compose an entire musical score for when your mood shifts from A to B. He says, “We created a spectrum of moods - the brainwave just travels across that spectrum. Think of it as the latent space of all possible emotions. And as it travels through, the music has to change, the visual has to change… if there are low beta waves, it gets very calm, when it’s a crazy delta, it’s screeching.
“Technology is part of everything. It’s no longer a goal, it’s a co-creator with me. That’s why I call ourselves the cyborg artist. We are not human, we are both,” Raghava KK, who is set to call Dubai home this September, says.
Dubai is a phygital art capital
Murthy says, “For me, Dubai is considered as a global hub within the global crypto sphere due to its growing community of crypto technology leaders, NFT collectors and crypto investors.
“I think this is the best place to be… VARA (Virtual Asset Regulation Authority) will create advanced legal framework to protect investors as well as artists. And that will govern the crypto, NFT and virtual assets. I think this is a great legislation that is setting up, and we'll have both artists as well as investors in a proper regulation and framework to do a user-friendly business.”
It’s a limitless universe, and here’s the key to unlock it
“You could be an NFT,” Del Vaal tells me. I laugh uneasily.
The ‘phygital’ art space is a vast one, just as all human interaction with digital is – from a museum of real-life paintings that are digitised to view in the metaverse, to augmented reality.
To break it down, here are some ways hybrid ‘phygital’ artworks that have been produced in 2022:
When physical becomes ‘phygital’ …
• Digitising a physical artwork on the blockchain
So, you’ve created an artwork. You could digitise it fully or in part and mint it into an NFT on a platform like Opensea, Rarible, and Binance – for sale together.
ZeeArts gallery had recently run a virtual exhibition in Dubai highlighting and advocating for the UN Sustainability Development goals. She says, “Different artists were doing it in different places. It's a physical artwork, and then we digitize them. With the photo, we put them on 360 degree.”
• AR: Activating a physical artwork with a device
QR codes, augmented reality devices are some ways that physical artworks can be activated digitally for a new form.
Del Vaal says, “When you put your cameras, your devices or your glasses, that three-dimensional universe appears. And those pieces or elements of architecture that are placed around the space are the ones that are the anchor points for the things that you can see thanks to the technology and the glasses that you're wearing.”
• Digital projections in an immersive installation
“You also have immersive installations where you enter into spaces that they have screens in the floor in the wall… you enter into a completely new world of fantasy,” says Del Vaal.
When digital becomes ‘phygital’
• Complementing digital art or an NFT with a physical work
Murthy says, “In our platform, for example, if a client would love to buy the NFT, but would like to have physical form of this piece, we’re happy to make that happen,”
• Linking the artwork to the physical world
Whether a complex software like the one running ‘Monalisa 2.0’, or an app that reflects outer reality in some way, digital works can change with your physical presence. Del Vaal is particularly interested in the relationship between art and time, when artworks change with season or days: “When a work of art is living in your filter, or your phone, and every time you open it, it gets a new shape….”
In terms of display, digital art NFTs can be displayed on an infinity frame – where the photo is captured between two clear panes of glass, and can be hung in your living room.
Finally, machine-generated art
AI and machines have also been trained to create art themselves or co-create art with humans. Raghava KK created an AI machine SOZO that paints in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
Bottomline: Selling phygital artwork today can be a maze
“I think it’s going to take a long time before phygital can become the future because access-wise, logistically, it’s been a nightmare,” KK says. “Nobody wants to buy a painting where there’s a projector on top of it.”
Fedorova is also still finalising the nuances of sale for her COSMODREAMS project as well. She says, “It’s not only a physical painting, of course – if we sell it, we sell it with this augmented reality scenario. It's not an NFT. Absolutely not.” Fedorova, I am told, doesn’t believe in NFTs.
Is phygital art the future? KK says, “I don’t think it replaces anything. It just adds to the vocabulary of our next question.”
Note: This article was first published in 2022