Augmented Reality in the Visual Arts

When I first heard about augmented reality, it was to find more Twitter followers who were near me. I downloaded the app, held up my phone and though it looked like you were taking a picture, in the sense that you could see the real world through your phone, there were overlays that showed who was nearby. Little colorful bubbles popped up sharing Twitter names and where they were in relation to me. It was so cool.

After looking into it that much more, AR wasn’t relatively “new.” Advertisers were using it for more interactive ads, designers were using it to show off their work and artists were using it to bring their art to life.

I take that back, though– artists not only use it but help to develop AR. With every element of AR, there is a need for a creative individual– also known as an artist. Someone with the imagination to make things like a two-dimensional image come to life or figure out a way to teach anatomy to medical students. Yes, AR is used in medicine, too.

There have been projects created with AR– artistic projects– that allow for people to engage with the art world on a more personal level. See, although art is all around us in so many capacities, the respect for such an industry is very low and in a sense, always has been. Art, in many ways, was the first documentation of people, body parts, science, the list goes on. We wouldn’t be a civilization without art. Why wouldn’t people see this as a much more important element to society then? I digress, that’s another blog post. However, to have someone stop and engage with art on their personal mobile device encourages a more personal aspect to viewing art. They would be able to see another level to the art or even learn about the artist who created the piece. AR would allow for a two-way conversation with artist/curator and viewer. 

I came across a project that is more documentary in nature and highlights the possibilities of tech and art for the betterment of communities. With Mi Querido Barrio the creators of this project decided to show folks what their neighborhood in NYC looked like before it was gentrified. Walk by a 7-Eleven, hold up your phone and see what it once was. Artists help to captivate the past by creating replicas of murals and other elements that they saw disappear along with the changing demographics of the neighborhood. The community has donated photos to bring the past alive.

This, some can say, is the epitome of strengthening a community, building camaraderie and paying respect to those who established the neighborhood, making into a place where people want to live.

The power of making art accessible to community, residents, people transcends elitism and a certain distance that people put between themselves and art of any kind. I’ve talked to many people who say, “I have no idea about art. I’ve only bought one piece of art in my entire life.”

But here’s the secret: no one is an expert. Not even artists.

Much of what is important to communities of color lie within the walls of the neighborhood. I mean, artwork, murals, street art, graffiti even. What if you held up your smartphone and gained an education on the street like getting the name of an artist, who else worked on it, when, the title of the piece and why it was created in the first place? It can be done.

EXPO Collective is about making art touchable, accessible. If there’s anything that all people have nowadays, it’s a smartphone. For plenty of people, especially Latinos and those of lower socio-economic status, their phone is their primary way of accessing the internet. With the technology that is attainable now, bringing our art exhibitions to life and adding an extra “something” may be exactly what we need to make people feel that their understanding of artwork is not far off. Also, because every one of our artists comes from a variety of communities (meaning they’ve worked in, lived in different neighborhoods), viewers are also more likely to see something that resonates with them on display.

Augmented reality is all around us and the wave of the future, if it isn’t already here. From advertisements to which restaurant you should try that’s a mile walk from where you are to experimenting with makeup, augmented reality brings the internet to life, so that you are surrounded by the web (very Matrix-y, don’t you think?). Not only will AR allow for people to look at and watch art, it will allow them to change their complete perspective of what it can be.

Engagement levels would skyrocket and make art a bit more entertaining and inviting. It is used as a learning tool as well as an engagement tool.

Among other things, EXPO Collective wants to make it a point that art is not just the stuff you see in museums, but things you see when you’re walking to the bus stop or to school. Just because a piece of art, considered a masterpiece, is in a museum does not mean that the mural on the school wall isn’t a masterpiece. Just because you paid $40 for a piece at the local community event and not over $1 million for a piece at a silent auction doesn’t mean that it’s any less beautiful or valuable. The art is a piece of someone’s heart and soul, which is more than anything money can buy.

Quetzal by Roho García | Image by Joanna Diaz


Image by Joanna Diaz
Imagine by Roho García | Image by Joanna Diaz

Take for example these samples of a series dedicated to heritage, identity and culture. This series was created by our creative director Erick “ROHO” García in an effort to discuss the importance of our history and backgrounds– what we carry with us, whether or not we want to acknowledge it. In it comes a history of observation, personal experience and insightful imagination. The paintings were created with a plan and intent to tell a story to those who saw the pieces. Can you imagine what AR could do to enhance these pieces? 



Nuestro Barrio by Ricardo Gonzalez. Image/Facebook
Nuestro Barrio by Ricardo Gonzalez. Image/Facebook
Luchadora by Ricardo Gonzalez. Image/Facebook

The ability to transfer this knowledge to the viewers is important. Ricardo “NACO” González is one person who embodies this element in his artwork. A large collection of Ricardo’s work tends to tell the tale of Latino, mostly Chicano or Mexican, history. He has used pop art, bright colors and elements usually found in muralism– storytelling through images regarding cultural and historical tales.

The attempt to show viewers that there’s more to the art than they can see will hopefully make a connection and create art fans from a new segment of our communities. And that’s exactly our goal.

STEAM has emerged (thankfully) making the arts an integral system that should be included among Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The process of hypothesis and testing has always applied to the art field, just like it does in science. There are many similarities that one can find between art and science apart from the fact that the first ways scientists taught and were able to document their findings was by drawing, so to see this break the STEM mold was a victory of sorts.

Because of this newly added “A”, the most logical way to combine the two, that we saw, that would also provide a lasting and engaging impression was through Augmented Reality. In order to make the Quetzal Art Fest (now going on its third year) bigger and better, we wondered how we could add an additional element that would add on to the experience of our audience members walking through our festival. Augmented Reality was the answer once again.

We decided that this would bring in the elements of teaching students to develop the code, have them work with a particular artist on bringing their piece to life and have the exposure to both technology and art in one class. A plan was developed but finding the right partner to make it happen has been one of the most prevalent challenges. 

The more we move forward, the more we hear about the necessity for creativity in all aspects of life and by beginning the efforts of incorporating AR into our work, the more people–of all ages– we’ll be able to reach. For developers to students and residents in our communities to those who never “got art,”  AR would bring an opportunity to change perspectives and bring beauty to the beholder– an opportunity that only the privileged previously seemed able to obtain. Now, educational and engaging artwork could be something from which all people in our communities can learn. 

Are you interested in making a project like this happen and wish to collaborate with us? Feel free to send an email to and get the conversation started! We’re always welcome and open to dialogue for the advancement of the arts in multiple capacities.

Christina E. Rodríguez is co-founder and CEO of EXPO Collective. 

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