Shepard Fairey’s ‘Hope’ poster, for then Presidential candidate Barack Obama, is one of the most iconic pieces of art and design in recent years. Since then, the political climate has dramatically shifted, which Fairey addressed in his ambitious LA exhibition ‘Damaged’. This has now been brought in its entirety to your phone, by way of an impressive and immersive VR/AR experience.
I mean this in a broadly literal sense. Typically, gallery experiences in digital are little more than a fancy slideshow, but with Damaged, you get a vast warehouse to explore. Part videogame, part immersive installation, it is significantly more evocative than mindlessly swiping through still images, and an excellent example of how the small screen can democratise art.
The second you fire up the app and start exploring, you get an immediate sense of space and context. You can browse the exhibition, taking things in however you see fit. Subtle atmospherics and the odd animation add to the illusion. The sounds of a flickering neon sign at the entrance to the exhibit follow you around, buzzing and fizzing in the distance above the hubbub of local atmospherics.
Fairey optionally joins you on the journey as well – albeit as a disembodied voice that echoes through the warehouse, providing background and reasoning behind the pieces you gawp at. It feels like a personal tour, and you half expect to see the artist when you turn around, proudly looking at his work.
If you’re less keen on Fairey banging on about everything you’re looking at, you can disable the commentary, and just breathe in the art, or dip into written notes instead.
There’s flexibility, too, in how you can move around the virtual exhibition. You can swipe the display to change your viewpoint, move your phone around in front of your face to dictate what’s shown, or go full-on AR, the view updating as you walk. Fortunately, if you don’t happen to live in a warehouse, a swift double-tap lets you quickly scoot up to whichever piece of art you want to next see, rather than awkwardly asking to pop in next door when you run out of space.
Of course, whether or not the message and the art appeals to you is another thing entirely. But Fairey himself notes that art can be part of the solution in a damaged society, “because it can inspire people to look at an issue they might otherwise ignore or reject”. That’s all very well if they can access it, but too often they cannot.
This app still presents barriers – you need a device, and money for the app. But beyond that, Damaged feels like a step towards the future of art – one that through smartphones and AR is democratised and readily available, rather than sealed in a gallery- (or warehouse-) sized box.