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Technology as art

The dazzling Voxel Bridge installation

- Story by Lin Stranberg

The walkway under the south end of Cambie Bridge sports a high-impact, vinyl geometric mural encompassing the pathway, support pillars and ceiling. On its own, it’s an arresting sight. On a smartphone, it reveals another dimension.

Called Voxel Bridge, it’s the latest public art installation presented by the Vancouver Biennale and it’s like nothing else in the world. In fact, at 19,000 square feet, it’s the biggest blockchain-based augmented reality experience of its kind. It’s named for a voxel, a unit of value analogous to a pixel, with “vo” standing for volume instead of “pi” for picture. A voxel represents a single sample, or data point, on a regularly spaced, three-dimensional grid.

At Voxel Bridge, visitors use their smartphones to experience three realities simultaneously: the real world around them; the world of augmented reality; and the world of blockchain technology. Using the free, downloadable Vancouver Biennale app for iOS and Android devices, people walk through the Voxel Bridge mural and see it morph—through the complex relationship of art and technology—into a multi-dimensional sensory experience.

The installation uses advancements in augmented reality (AR) specially developed for Voxel Bridge by Spheroid Universe and supported by blockchain technology on the Kusama network. This collaboration came about chiefly because Brooklyn-based Colombian artist Jessica Angel has been a pioneer and leading advocate of the art and blockchain movement for years.

(What is blockchain? According to “At its core, blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that stores data of any kind. While any conventional database can store this sort of information, blockchain is unique in that it’s totally decentralized. Rather than being maintained in one location, by a centralized administrator…many identical copies of a blockchain database are held on multiple computers spread out across a network.”)

“Since I was 17, I’ve been connected with the blockchain community because my work has to do with bringing the concept of information to physical spaces through installation art,” she said. “I met a cryptographer who invited me to do a project, which led me to meet mathematicians, blockchain developers and countless others in this amazing, sharing community.”

Blockchain is open-source (non-proprietary) technology, thus Angel feels collaboration is the foundation on which the community was built. For Voxel Bridge, she collaborated closely with Spheroid Universe, the Kusama network and, of course, the team at the Vancouver Biennale.

The Vancouver Biennale is a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to creating open-air museums that celebrate art in Vancouver public space. It features both well-known and emerging international contemporary artists representing diverse cultural perspectives and artistic disciplines. As the definition of public space shifts more and more to virtual space—accelerated by the shifts we’ve experienced during the pandemic—the Biennale’s installations have come to include the most technically advanced examples of augmented and virtual reality (VR).

Jessica Angel knows Vancouver. She is an alumna of the Vancouver Biennale Artist Residency Program in 2018 and 2019, and through the Biennale also curated #ArtProject2020, a five-day virtual conference presented in the context of the bridge project, which brought together the leading minds in the NFT (non-fungible token) space.

Like all the Biennale’s public space art installations, the art may be bought by the city—as with Beijing artist Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter, a legacy sculpture now installed in Morton Park in Vancouver’s West End, thanks to a donation from the Chip Wilson family—or sold off to interested collectors instead.

In the case of Voxel Bridge, elements of the art will be available for sale as NFTs which, because they are not physical, means the installation could be in place for years to come.

Delayed by COVID-19 complications, the installation is part of the 2018-2020 Open Air Museum exhibition, under the theme of re-IMAGE-n (reimagine) Public Space, intended to bring together artists from Canada and around the world to address some of the most prevailing issues of our times, one theme being digital technology.

Blockchain technology is a hot topic these days. Although an entire generation is now comfortable with smartphone AR, as used in Pokémon GO or the user-selected filters of Snapchat and Instagram, it’s still early days for blockchain technology. It’s something we all know about but don’t really understand or use, except for a few early adopters.

“This is a new underlying technology that lives on the Internet but it’s decentralized,” Angel said. “It offers new possibilities for cryptocurrencies, security and transparency, things of that nature.” Fittingly, cryptocurrency was used as payment for many of the collaborators on the project.

Her work uses art as the fulcrum to demonstrate the complex blockchain technology to a broad community.

“The design has boxy, block-inspired graphics, connected in the form of chains. Graphically, tapping on the VR links that appear shows the boxes are blocks in the Kusama network, which is just one blockchain of many. Tapping the links enables viewers to see data that lives on the Kusama network, so it’s as if you can dive into the blockchain space at Voxel Bridge.”

She added: “My goal when I created this installation was that people would at least ask questions,” she said. “What is this technology? Why is it important? How is it going to change the world?”

She likens blockchain technology today to the Internet in the ‘90s. “You’d think ‘oh, maybe I can send an email,’ but you wouldn’t see the potential of it until it developed. Something like that is happening right now.

“Blockchain is still really clunky. The mainstream doesn’t understand it so well. So I want to provide the first glimpse, and use art as a way to enter a world that tends to be technical and difficult to understand from an experiential perspective. It’s something I hope people will remember as a memory to cherish.”

Download the Vancouver Biennale app from the App Store, Google Play or and visit Voxel Bridge, located at the south end of Cambie Bridge. It’s best seen during the day, there’s no charge, and the installation has no set closing date as yet.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication
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