Gints Gabrāns is a well-known contemporary artist from Latvia. He is the founder of a GPS-based augmented reality (AR) mobile app, SAN, and the author of numerous large-scale virtual art pieces, which can be spotted all across the globe. He tells us how he found his creative freedom in augmented reality art space, which, although presents a new set of challenges, eliminates the laws of nature, such as the good old gravity.
What has been your path to the art world?
I took a paintbrush in my hands and became an artist… [laughs] It is difficult to put the finger on one single moment when I decided to get into art. I was studying art in-depth at secondary school, and when it came to choosing my degree, I was also interested in architecture and sculpting. I guess painting was always the central thing, but it was a very competitive degree program in the 1990s. So, I chose to study Scenography at the Art Academy of Latvia. Back in the day, artists painted background scenery for theatre productions, and I knew I would be able to explore both scenography and painting as part of that program.
How did you come to producing augmented reality artworks?
We were doing various video experiments at the Art Academy, which got me into contemporary art and new media quite early on. It was around 2015 when I came across augmented reality and the marker-based Overly app.
There were things that I wanted to realize as an artist, but it was quite impossible in the real-world setting. I saw that augmented reality could accommodate artworks I wanted to create, but I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen in the world before. My goal was to present art in augmented reality free from any attachments to physical markers. That is what the SAN app has achieved.
You worked with Overly to develop your AR app, what was the process like?
I approached Overly with my idea of a location-based AR app, and although they were up for a challenge, I am not sure if they realized the amount of software development work it would take. Although there were some GPS-based AR apps on the market at a time, there was nothing explicitly designed for art, so there were no templates to barrow, and everything had to be developed from scratch.
The SAN augmented reality app is GPS-based. It also takes into account the four cardinal points or the directions of where the north, east, south, and west are, as well as the given object’s distance to each.
All these figures have to be calculated as precisely as possible for the artwork to make sense in its given location. The objects I create can reach up to forty kilometers, and viewers have to be able to go through and under them and look at them from various viewpoints.
To test how SAN works, I took a trip to New York, because where else are you going to find rulers that measure hundreds of meters, aka skyscrapers? We placed the AR artwork next to a skyscraper, then got on the Hudson River and checked out how the object looked from different perspectives and distances. It was a cocktail of emotions, with moments of excitement when things looked great and pages of notes of stuff that didn’t work so well.
As an artist, I didn’t have much spatial experience in terms of forms, size, and viewpoints. I created an object, placed it in a particular location, and went to view it just to realize that it had to be bigger by at least a hundred meters. If creating an object in real life, an artist would look at the rules of textures, physics, meterage. You do not have the same experience creating virtual artwork for an augmented reality setting, so I had to learn everything from the ground up.
What do you use to create AR art projects and where does your inspiration come from?
Unity is where I mostly create 3D objects and animate them. Sometimes they are brought to life from a hand-drawn piece on an A3 piece of paper. From time to time, it is also commission-based work.
What is the value that augmented reality adds to the world of art?
First of all, I am not looking after the world of art. Primarily it is myself that I look after, which I guess makes me a part of and a contributor to the art world. Augmented reality creates a space for creative freedom. For me, it is an empty territory that I own through the SAN app and can fill with art. I have even sold a small virtual land within the app to a group of Lithuanian artists, which shows that augmented reality can be an alternative space for hosting art.
If I was to place a physical sculpture somewhere, I would need to abide by the local laws, sign, commercial contracts, or coordinate my activities with local councils and governments. When I initially started to create projects in SAN, the whole world was my playground. My experimental polygon was some of the world’s largest museums. I lived in Paris for a while, so I was able to have a look at the art I created there myself. From other places, like Berlin, friends sent me photos.
What are the key themes of your AR art?
It could be architecture, stratospheric architecture. But even with stratospheric architecture, when I create flying buildings, I always try to take into account what it would be like if it was real and someone lived on a top level of one my skyscrapers. How would these buildings levitate, what would be the angle towards the earth, would they have to be below the ozone layer so there would be no radiation. I am trying to consider and play with the rules of physics.
If you look through my website, web.san.lv, you will also notice the evolutionary context. Often when I create objects in virtual reality, I am asked for how long they will remain there. Theoretically, the answer is for infinity. But this immortality can stall development. It is similar to biological beings. To create more complex structures, evolution has to take place. So to kickstart progress, I came up with the digital death and removed all of my first-generation sculptures from the app. The evidence only remains in my web portfolio.
What is your favorite SAN artwork?
I guess it would be the SAN Transreality Towers that can be viewed on Zirgu street in Riga, Latvia. I was able to do 360 photos of these virtual objects and have a look at how does the skyscraper look at 20km high, what is the texture like, what does it look like from the top, what does it appear like when looking up.
What does the future hold for your AR art?
To help develop the SAN app, I have started to publish my augmented reality art pieces on Google Maps 360 view. It is sort of like documenting, where SAN objects are.
It is very suiting for the app because I work with Google Maps all the time to place my objects. I look at the maps, explore places in the street view, and decide exactly where I want to put my sculpture and get the coordinates from there. So it is only logical that I document it to the same coordinates on Google.
The objects in 360 view are placed precisely in the same place where people could explore them in real life. It could be up for a discussion if it corresponds with reality? I would, of course, say “Yes!”. Both the Google Street View and SAN objects are virtual, so they do coexist perfectly there in the digital world.