The Variable Museum: Off-Topic Art

This article originally appeared in the Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Vol19-1. The full article can be downloaded from LEA’s website or as a PDF here.


There are not many hard and fast rules on the Internet, but one thing I have found to be a remarkably consistent truth since the dawn of the web is that the most interesting part of any forum is its off-topic area. Websites that put a lot of effort into creating focused, topical content to draw together people who like politics, or coding, or lolcats quickly learned that politics, coding, and lolcats were not all their visitors wanted to discuss. Thus was born the off-topic forum, a place for people with a common interest to talk about all the things they do not have in common. On many sites, off-topic fora foster a feeling of community that mirrors the offline world more closely than purely topical discussions. They are the digital equivalent of town hall dinners or downtown coffee shops, the places where humans–constrained by geography instead of shared interests–get together and talk about the rest of their lives. Sometimes the talks are friendlier than others, but the result is a conversation where everybody learns how they are the same as and different than the people around them. Here, borders are exposed and new ideas can form from the collisions of old ones.

Creating these liminal spaces between perspectives is one of the goals of my artistic practice. While it is possible to suggest them using traditional media, augmented reality brings a powerful new technique to the table: the ability to personalize an artwork to different viewers while still maintaining the viewers’ relationships to each other and the space as a whole. As in the off-topic forum, viewers who are brought together by a common aspect–physical proximity–have their own unique perspectives–personalized AR imagery–to smash together and see what they can create. This is the space I tried to create in my installation The Variable Museum.

Creating an opportunity for discussion is not enough for many viewers though, particularly when they are in the unique state of consciousness that is brought on by entering the Art World. In this world, where the inviolability of objects is often reinforced by glass cases and security guards, additional prompting is needed to move visitors from being passive viewers to active creators. AR can remove the physical barriers easily. The cultural barriers, though–the aura of the art object–are more difficult, but also provide some unique opportunities to exploit.