Ghosts in the machine: Artist brings virtual sculptures to New Mexico – Santa Fe New Mexican


Without a smartphone, Anton Bakker’s sculptures, which are on display outside the state Capitol, can’t be seen. But they’re there.

Or, rather, they’re not there, at least not physically. But they do exist in a virtual world powered by Apple and Google’s augmented reality and geolocation technology.

Just open globalsculpturepark.com in a smartphone browser, click on the link that says “view the sculpture collection,” click on “February,” and choose any one of the sculptures that pop up on the screen. Use the option to activate augmented reality, and the sculpture will appear as if it were on the Capitol grounds. 

Augmented reality technology is raising eyebrows in the art world, as it enables a user to increase or decrease a sculpture’s size using a smartphone’s touchscreen. Users can move a sculpture around to view it at different angles. They can even take a picture of someone standing beside it.

And the background is not just limited to the Roundhouse. Bakker created similar virtual sculpture parks at landmarks around the world, including New York’s Central Park, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the White House grounds. 

Bakker’s Global Sculpture Park project is available at these locations through December.

Until recently, visitors had to be within 150 feet of a sculpture’s location to make the augmented reality experience work. But overwhelming requests to make the sculptures available everywhere were pouring in, and as of Friday, users can now experience them from any location.

The augmented reality experience is several steps beyond a typical virtual exhibition because viewers are not limited to a museum or gallery website. 

“You could take videos of yourself walking around a sculpture, and you would swear that it’s there when you look at the videos,” said Cindy Lawrence, CEO and executive director of the National Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath, which collaborated on the project with Bakker.

But creating a series of virtual sculpture parks was not how Bakker and MoMath’s collaboration began. The museum was planning a physical show of his work, Alternate Perspectives, which was scheduled to open last spring. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the museum was forced to close.

“Anton is a very gifted technologist, and he said, ‘You know, I think I could create a virtual version of your gallery online,’ ” Lawrence said. “We very quickly realized that there were some benefits to the virtual show. An obvious benefit is that people can see it from all over the world and didn’t have to come to New York City. But another benefit was that, when you look at artwork in a museum, you might be able to walk around it, but you never get to fly over the top of it. You never get to see what it looks like from above.

“In the virtual world,” she added, “you can look at it from every angle.”

The online version of Alternative Perspective did happen, and users can register to visit the exhibit at momath.org/composite-gallery. But during the planning process, Bakker hit on another idea.

“I was going crazy at the house,” said Bakker, who lives in Norfolk, Va. “I could not go to any of the art fairs and museum shows. I said, ‘Rather than being at home and being frustrated, I’m going to build a platform that can facilitate showing these sculptures all around the world.’ “

At the start of each month, Bakker changes out the virtual sculptures to reflect a new theme related to the principles of STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. For the month of February, the theme is polylines (continuous lines composed of one or more line segments). The project website provides information on each of the STEM themes featured throughout the run of show, such as Möbius twists, spirals, curves, knots and optical illusions.

The themes were developed in concert with mathematicians Tom Verhoeff, an assistant professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and Doris Schattschneider, a retired professor of mathematics at Moravian College in Pennsylvania.

“Not every mathematician can do this, but Tom and Doris are very good at taking something mathematical and explaining it in terms that a general audience can understand,” said Lawrence. “There’s a lot of room in mathematics to experiment, to explore. At its heart, mathematics is a pursuit of beauty, in some way, much as art is a pursuit of beauty. That’s the part of math that we try to emphasize in everything we do. Anton’s work was perfect for that.”



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