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Art Augmented

A new app lets local visual artists easily add movement to their work.

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Artist Janet Scagnelli tells the story of a friend arriving at a gallery opening and seeing a bunch of people holding their phones up in front of her paintings. “He got really annoyed,” she says. “He told me, ‘why can’t people just look without taking pictures?’”

What the friend didn’t realize was that Scagnelli had integrated augmented reality into her pieces using a transformative app called Artivive. Viewed through a smartphone, Scagnelli’s paintings came alive with music and movement, turning what could have been a two-dimensional experience into a more immersive, mult-sensory journey.

Augmented reality, sometimes known by the acronym AR, has been used successfully for years with interior designers, for example, to show clients rooms digitally transformed when seen through phones or tablets. But Artivive represents a leap forward that is democratizing the usage of the app for artists, according to Virginia Commonwealth University kinetic imaging professor and animator Pamela Turner.

“I’ve been interested in this kind of technology since 1989,” Turner says. “It used to cost thousands of dollars. Now it’s a free app on your phone.”

Turner created her first piece using Aritvive last year.

“I was putting together some photo sequences and was emailing with a former student, Jordan Bruner (profiled in Style in 2011),” recalls Turner. “She suggested I try this new app she was playing with. It was invitation-only at the time, so I sent them examples of my work and they gave me the thumbs up.” 

The result was “Water’s Edge,” a piece she premiered at last year’s inaugural “Environment at Risk” show at Plant Zero. While it looks like a serene photograph of driftwood on a bed of rocks, viewed through the Artivive app, a more active scene emerges of waves rising and receding while the words “Water,” “Wood” and “Stone” flash across the bottom.

“Artivive was the perfect solution to the problem I’d been trying to work out,” Turner says.

Scagnelli saw Turner’s piece and immediately started to think of possibilities in her work.

“I really wanted people to be able to go beyond just seeing the art and kind of go into it,” she says. “It’s really an invitation to come into my mind. Looking through the phone, you see the art but it’s also a little window where you see what I’m thinking about.”

While AR provides exciting opportunities, it can also add a nontrivial level of difficulty, even for Scagnelli, who worked for years as an animator in New York. For this year’s “Environment at Risk” show, Scagnelli created four watercolor paintings, each made by breaking up a landscape over eight square panels. She then created short animations that overlay the works as displayed. Viewers pull up an animation by scanning a code hanging alongside the piece.

The process took about four months, Scagnelli says, with many challenges along the way.

“I knew how to make these, what are really short films,” Scagnelli says. “But I had to keep in mind that someone is only willing to hold their phone up for so long. I’d try it out and feel my arms getting tired and think, clip, clip, needs an edit.” Turner says the recommended maximum length for any Artivive piece is 45 seconds.

While Turner and Scagnelli are both skilled animators, they say that anyone who can shoot a video on their smartphone can use the app. “You can have a lot of skills or none at all,” Scagnelli says. “There are a lot of options.”

Turner also emphasizes that the technology can extend an artist’s vision, rather than obscure it.

“The earth has always been a part of my life and my work,” she explains. “I’m trying to approach AR not as separating us from nature but as a way to help us reconnect. I can use it to reveal the mystery of things we are connected to but that we overlook.”

Pieces by both Turner and Scagnelli can be seen at the “Environment at Risk” exhibit hosted by the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club at the Project Space at Plant Zero, 0 e. Fourth St. There’s a midshow reception Feb. 28 from 6 to 9 p.m. with music by Joshua Vana. Details at vasierra.club/art or by calling 366-0745.

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