Notes from an Invisible Exhibition at Selby's Historic Spanish Point

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Last month, Selby Botanical Gardens unveiled an ambitious augmented reality (AR) exhibition in conjunction with 11 other botanical gardens. Called “Seeing the Invisible,” the exhibition features digital sculptures from 13 artists, each of them “placed” around the lush bayside grounds of the Historic Spanish Point campus and marked with numbered stakes in the ground. On their own, the sheer scope, vision and artist list of the exhibition warrant a visit, but as with all emerging technologies that push the boundaries of what’s possible, the exhibition is not without its stipulations that must be met to maximize enjoyment.

The first is the app designed specifically to accompany the exhibition. At a whopping 2 gigabytes in size, the app can take a very long time to download and install onto an iPhone or Android smartphone. Since the app also relies on so many components of a smartphone’s hardware—GPS, wi-fi and cellular antennas, camera—it drains a battery more quickly than most apps. So, visitors are strongly encouraged to download and install the app before visiting the exhibition–preferably at home over a wi-fi network–and should make sure they have a full charge too. 

Once the app is downloaded and installed, its use during the exhibition is fairly straightforward. “With this exhibition, we tried to approach it on two levels,” says Dr. David Berry, vice president for visitor engagement and chief museum curator. “One level is how the works unfold as visitors interact with them, the other is how to use them as an interesting way to get around the site.” To start, a map of the grounds pops up on your screen with a walking circuit highlighted in green. As a visitor moves, the little blue dot that shows their location moves too. The sculptures themselves are shown on the map in orange. Following the green trail takes visitors on a loop around the entire campus and presents the visitor with each sculpture’s site along the way. 

To activate the sculptures, a visitor must come within 15 feet of the mark on the app’s map. Most of the stakes in the ground will get a visitor close enough, but sometimes the app’s markings must be deferred to. When considering the number of satellites and high-technology required to even attempt the exhibition, this minor inconvenience is easy to forgive.

But more than anything, the novelty of the experience and the quality of some of the works go a long way in overcoming any technical obstacles of the format. “Once you’re using the app, it’s unbelievably compelling,” says Dr. Berry. Many of the pieces move and morph, while others have an audio component to them as well. Some standout pieces include “Gilded Cage” from Ai Wei Wei in the sunken gardens, “Water Serpent” from Jakob Kudsk Steensen sited on a spot overlooking the bay, and “Machine Hallucinations: Nature Dreams” by Refik Anadol (pictured above).

The latter is the work of a Turkish-born artist living in Los Angeles and makes use of a sophisticated algorithm to turn nearly 70 million images of nature into a shifting topographical surface. Even when surrounded by living, breathing nature at Historic Spanish Point, the piece still manages to force the uncomfortable question of how deeply technology and math can recreate the feeling of being in nature—or if they should.

“Seeing the Invisible” runs through August of next year at the Historic Spanish Point Campus.

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