Well, that was an odd and wonderful way to spend two hours.
All over the world, flagship Apple Stores are offering a free, immersive Augmented Reality experience; a walking Tour ( [AR]T ) around six artworks, ‘anchored’ in the area. That’s my crude way of putting it, and in our case we were based in and around Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square, and our two well-informed Apple Guides took us round.
Imagine a normal walk round an area, to look at some statues or sculptures; and now imagine that those artworks are only experienced by you, on your phone, through its camera, and through the headphones. It’s like they are overlaid on what you’d normally be seeing.
Except that that’s too static: these are moving, 3D, interactive pieces. They respond as you twist, move, touch the screen. In one, you have a hand in designing the look and emotional response of a clothed being, perched high on a building; another is a manic miniature factory, like a hyper-real Scalextric; a third sends a coloured shape-shifting sign-writing bubble-serpent sailing and waling around Nelson’s column. Poetry lifted into the sky above the National Gallery, and floated away. Tourists turned geometric.
It is, as you can gather, quite hard to describe.
Each time, our guides gave us an intro into the artists, their work, and their themes, so that we would know what to expect, and then afterwards, we huddled to discuss our responses.
So how did this Christian respond, to this very alien world?
First, it was fun – and I haven’t made that clear enough. The creators have delighted in making their work, and it shows. We need to come back to that.
Second, reality is never far away. When you are in a world of rainbows, fluid identities, and a poet with AIDS, the agenda is quite clear. Especially round Covent Garden. Especially round Apple. The thing is, after a month when sandwiches, tube trains, banks, and even holes in the ground (yes, you, Crossrail) have all been rebranded for Pride, it’s not that surprising to find it anywhere, any more.
Third, it delivered clever, amazing tech – but also less than expected. That is, it wasn’t fully immersive. Contrast it with Virtual Reality, where people can fly, lose themselves for hours, live a completely second life. In this case, because it was normal life but Augmented, you never forgot the fact that you were actually in Trafalgar Square, with other tourists wondering what you were up to, and with persistent drizzle. Think of it as a high-tech version of Chartres Cathedral, where sunlight and glass mean that grey stone is transformed into a dazzling kaleidoscope – but gravity still works.
It was certainly engrossing and entrancing, but never fully so; like that moment during a movie when you catch sight of the Exit sign and the magic spell is broken, there was too much ‘stuff’ around.
Remember, this is flagship, cutting edge kit, where both the artists and the techies are struggling to find their feet. And they’ve hardly begun. Also on my tour was a guy who does VR for a living, and he says that it will be coming much more fully formed, soon. Remember those failed Google Glasses? They’ll be back.
Fourth, the discussions before and after were interesting because they were just like any other conversation about any other contemporary artwork: here is the artist and her usual themes, and then afterwards, how did it make you feel, how did you respond? What’s interesting in this case was that the artwork themselves respond to us, and in a couple of them the members of our little tour had quite different experiences. It was quite hard to get into the groove whereby we did see the phone screen as a mechanism not just to look, but to change and guide the work, but we all learnt eventually.
Fifth, there was a moment of delicious irony. One artwork had us on a kind of treasure hunt. Speech bubbles danced around St Martins-in-the-Fields, and the words on them were continually promising something more, something better, something newer, something just round the corner, all to a soundtrack which matched the growing emotional promise. When we eventually arrived at the end of the quest, there was a brilliant little scene of painful disappointment, being played out inside a tree, where a miniature, dying figure looked back on his life as one of deferring the experiences of reality and love, because of being promised ever better, ever shinier toys.
The irony? This is Apple, people. The masters of the shiny toy. They gave us the latest iPhones and Beats headsets to experience this. And those clever artists subverted the whole thing.
And what is absent in all this, of course, is the gospel: the one promise that will never, ever disappoint, and will eternally be better than we can imagine.
Did I mention that this is a free experience? They provide all the kit: the only time my own phone came into it was when they Airdropped all the photos I’d taken.
So if you’re near a store that’s offering it, book yourself in and have a bit of weird fun. Throw yourself at it, and don’t be timid.
I said I’d come back to the fun. These artists really enjoyed making their work, and it made us laugh, talk and make friends. It puzzled us sometimes, but in a way we could talk about. Nad as we spun around the fountains of Trafalgar Square, all following that shape-shifting bubble in the sky, all in total synchronicity, we ourselves became a weird, funny, choreographed artwork.
Which has made me think, that I’m not sure I have a theology of playfulness. Yes, beauty, yes, gracefulness. Movement, meaning, identity, yes. There was a long poem which snaked its way and led us quite a dance, and I can analyse and dissect that. Worldviews, I can do.
But fun? Where do we start with that one, friends? How does fun connect with the gospel?