arts and design

Melbourne’s augmented reality: is public art the remedy to the city’s pandemic malaise?


Paris has its Latin Quarter and Barcelona its Gothic Quarter, but who ever knew Melbourne had a Flinders Quarter? Running from Flinders Street to Collins, down Elizabeth and up Swanston, it takes in some of the city’s most famous laneways, including Degraves Street and Centre Place. The name’s provenance is disputed – it may or may not have come about when the area was dominated by the rag trade – but it appealed to the organisers of the Flinders Quarter Augmented Arts Walk.

Many cities have self-directed cultural tours, but the key difference here lies in that word “augmented”. A close cousin of virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) is a way of enhancing a physical object – for example, a piece of art – with digital elements accessed via technology, in this case a smart phone. All participants need do is download a free app called EyeJack, point it at the art, and watch as the work metamorphoses on the screen.

Technology that interacts with public space is a relatively recent phenomenon, so it’s comforting to discover how easy it is to use. The app is intuitive and simply holding up your phone in front of the art unlocks the audio and visual effects. How the artworks respond to the imposition is another matter. Tracy Sarroff’s Green and Red and Sue Beyer’s Portal Glitch both seem brilliantly and bravely reliant on the tech, as if the true meaning of the works can only be fully accessed via the app’s digital transformations. These are perhaps at the forefront of the technology, and it’s interesting that both are concerned with basic structures – the building blocks of being and the ways they can be morphed by outside influences.

Audience members hold up their smartphones to access the augmented reality elements of Portal Glitch by Sue Beyer
Audience members hold up their smartphones to access the augmented reality elements of Portal Glitch by Sue Beyer. Photograph: Flinders Quarter Augmented Art Walk

There are 12 pieces that make up the walk, and while all are “augmented”, only some are actually enhanced. Some seem rather naively attached to their augmentations, or the video and sound has failed to respond to the art in meaningful ways. Carla Gottgens’s The Guardians and United Make’s A Touch of Climate are cutesy where they could be provocative, and the spinning clocks and baroque clanging that accompanies Anton Hasell’s intricate and complex The Parallax of Time feels merely obvious. The best works in the series are those that stand alone: both as great art that can be admired by a passerby, but also invigorated by the new technology – Ann Ryan’s The Duchess and the Butterfly II and Jingwen (Jina) He’s You Can Find Something Truly Important in an Ordinary Minute in particular. These are works that speak directly of renewal and transmutation.

More generally, the project poses some questions about what role art does or should play in a post-pandemic world. Rather than art commissioned for its own sake, the walk was conceived primarily as a business support initiative: the project is the brainchild of Rail Projects Victoria (RPV), the agency delivering the metro tunnel. It might seem an unlikely partnership, a major works organisation teaming up with a bunch of visual artists, but anyone who has been into Melbourne’s CBD lately will know it desperately needs a revival.

The initiative began with an inaugural art walk in 2019, when the only threat to the city’s cultural life was the disruption the tunnel works would wreak. Total commercial shutdowns because of the global pandemic have only made the problem more acute.

The Duchess and The Butterfly by Ann Ryan
The Duchess and The Butterfly by Ann Ryan. Photograph: Flinders Quarter Augmented Art Walk

“Businesses are pretty battered at the moment, particularly in the CBD,” says RPV spokesman Raphael Symons. One of the complaints from traders after that first walk was: “You brought people into my area, but you didn’t bring people into my shop.”

While organisers can’t force people to spend money, this year they have added a treasure hunt to drive sales more directly. “If people can find all these artworks they can win a voucher to spend in a local business,” Symons says.

It’s a fitting time to consider the role of art in the city, with the recent announcement of the sale of the Nicholas Building, a beautiful 1926 10-storey construction and for many years a hub for artists and makers and creative studios right in the Flinders Quarter. Artists concerned about what a sale might mean for their tenancies have started a campaign to protect the decades-old creative ecosystem within the building.

Local traders tell Guardian Australia they are generally enthusiastic about the Art Walk. Tristan Hyde of Patch Attack in the Nicholas Building, an iron-on patches and sticker store, says that “any help getting people walking through the building is great. If anything, I reckon it could be expanded throughout the city.”

Johnny Vakalis, proprietor of Journal Café on Flinders Lane, agrees. “I’m a big supporter of art and artists. It’s a great idea, but I just wish more people knew about it. There should be queues of people out the door.”

Extensions to the season are possible but costly, Symons says. And there’s “probably less value the longer it goes. Half the value comes from the wow factor”. Maintenance and repair are also crippling, especially given that “there’s a huge graffiti problem in the city at the moment”. “We’ve already had at least two of the artworks defaced or half ripped up,” Symons says.

As for upscaling or rolling out the event across the whole CBD, there are no plans for that at this stage, although similar initiatives are in the pipeline. City of Melbourne has Flash Forward coming up, a program of installations across 40 laneways, including a slate of live performances from local musicians. The theatres are also expecting some big shows like Moulin Rouge, due to open in August.

Yet again, commercial centres are leaning on art to help them rejuvenate. But it’s hard not to think that if economic rejuvenation comes at the expense of artists themselves, Melbourne will feel the loss for years to come.



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