Julian Oliver

from Neural #37

1. Artvertiser is an augmented reality project of yours that approaches the city as a place of exhibition, intervention and interaction, replacing street advertisements with works of art. How do you think that the web affects our perception and interaction within the public space? Do nowadays cities look more and more as interfaces?


While some aspects of cities seem to increasingly take on the appearances of interfaces, what’s more interesting to me is the expectation that they ought to function as such.

My generation grew up with advertisements for various services that depicted the perfect social and economic subject, organising their finances, their dinner dates or their home renovation using telephones and more recently the web. Today it’s these idea(l)s of transactional instantaneity, traveling without moving, selecting, tracking and the expectation of connectivity that are increasingly positioned as vital organs for living capably. It’s inevitable they’ll carry over into how cities are used and what will be expected from them in future, I think.

2. Was Artvertiser in this case a proposal for the unexpected, or rather as you say the improved – instead of augmented – reality of an urban context? Could it be considered  also as a counter – proposal to current uses of augmented reality? Cause advertisement companies seem to embrace this technology to invade the cities once again,   only this time through the screens of our mobile devices.


The idea of Improved Reality is certainly precocious. I started using it to highlight the Augment Everything goldrush of recent years, where it seems the tool of AR is increasingly mistaken as an end purpose in itself cialis india. The Artvertiser however is a sincere attempt to make these proprietary read-only surfaces we’re exposed to day on day negotiable -even if just temporarily- by recycling them as surfaces for the presentation of art (or anything else for that matter!).

That AR is used as a core part of this process is not so interesting to me. Rather, I’m more taken by the broader challenge of intercepting –indeed hacking- space between a billboard and the visual cortex. In this way I think The Artvertiser is just one strategy within a longer history of critical adbusting, rather than as a self-celebrating technological wonder..

All said, Damian Stewart and I do very much consider it a capable exhibition platform in itself and look forward to working with more cultural organisations to produce exhibitions for the street.

3. In any case, one can not ignore the excitement augmented reality brings to users. levelHead must have been one of your pieces that have been loved and enjoyed by people of all ages. You actually successfully hided and embedded a spatial memory game  in three small “magic cubes” as  visitors have often called the very levels of the game. What were the challenges  behind this project?


Hmm, there were quite a few indeed. I can’t resist a little context here though.

I’ve often said Computer programming is first and foremost a process of self-humiliation; you quickly find out what you need to learn to live up to your expectations of yourself as someone that can think with clarity and ingenuity. Secondly, computer programming is the process of breaking down large problems into smaller ones, producing new problems if necessary, until the larger problem is dealt with. Somewhere in the middle of this picture is a computer and a compiler. I’m not yet convinced they are entirely necessary!

IevelHead was a good example of a project that doubled very nicely as both self humiliation and AR game development.

Thankfully because the problems were so interesting I found levelHead very rewarding to create. Keeping track of all the connecting rooms was quite tricky, especially while debugging. I had to write a primitive physics and collision detection system, trigger network and other features normally found in a game engine. Achieving that principle effect where the rooms appear neatly inside the cube was a little tricky as the C++ API I was working with was significantly lacking in helpful documentation.

All said, the real challenges with levelHead weren’t in development but in fact after the project was complete. Once I’d uploaded videos to YouTube and Vimeo the project started getting a lot of traffic, doing the rounds in some big blogs and magazines. It was at this point everyone from toy companies, cigarette makers, entrepreneurs and ad agencies started getting in touch wanting a way into the project. That wasn’t at all intrinsically bad in itself, of course, but there were several factors which made this sort of direction difficult.

The primary issue was that a lot of them hadn’t done their research as to what AR really comprised; they somehow thought that the cubes really were a kind of magic, not needing an external computer or camera. The other issue were the requisite patent sharks; it seems it simply wasn’t possible for any company to conceive of investing in the project without significant and low level IP buy-in. The fact I both don’t believe in software patents, let alone consider software patentable, soon meant we’d be doing no business together..

The project now lives on quite happily in museums and exhibitions. I’d be happy to see it develop into a larger game one day.

4. Space seems to have played a principal role throughout your work. Although different studies and practices lie behind each piece,  I think that there is always a common ground related to the intersection and the interdependence of the digital to the physical. In your psWorld you actually argued for the dependency of the computers to the world around them. This can be read mostly as a metaphor but could you give us some examples behind your thoughts?


You’ve certainly done your research! Only recently did I pick out that same thread in my work..

psWorld is a complex little hack. To talk about it requires some background:

Computers can be considered a kind of ‘Closed World’ in that as systems they are intrinsically inward looking.

In order to function a computer must have facility for monitoring processes, resources and events, executing decisions that look after the running health of that system over time. These are normally implemented in the form of special processes called daemons and take care of everything from log cleaning , monitoring CPU temperature and screen saving while the kernel itself manages memory and abstracting over the hardware. With the exception of electrical supply no computer is strictly dependent on the stability of processes outside of its own enclosure. Even input events and various network services are managed, anticipated contingencies.

With psWorld I’m interested in implementing -in software- the kind of fragile dependence any organism has on the relative stability of its environment. By mapping all running processes on a computer to actual features in the visible world the health of the operating system becomes immutably bound to the consistency of its ‘perceptible’ environment. In this way psWorld can be considered a kind of primitive phenomenological bridge for computers, a meta-application that plunges the host computer into the world and ties its vitality to all the complexity therein..

5. You also seem to like playing with the fake, with false perceptions based on the possibilities given by the digital process. Your Insertion Series are such a case. Huge sculptural digital elements appear in videos which sovereign, alter and augment the space while floating within it. Our perception is hacked although we can tell they are not real. Why false perception is also important?


Interesting question..

Each video insertion represents a conversation between me and the place I’m working with, a manifestation of what I see or would like to see in that site.  As such these insertions are way of being in a place, a way of sharing it with my imaginary for a moment; I don’t make the work with the audience in mind and so false-perception (as a strategy) doesn’t direct each insertion. That said, I’m working on a new series that will feature some very well known sites, inevitably playing into (and with) the experiences of others. I’m waiting for the heart of the Berlin winter to keep filming however – it’s just so bleak and lovely on camera.

I’m often asked why I don’t work on trying to implement these insertions in a real-time context, using natural feature tracking techniques with an AR outcome.

The truth is I’d never have the kind of control afforded by archival footage and a 3D modeling suite, at least with current generation technology. Regardless, I find working this way immensely enjoyable; each insertion already requires a lot of careful conspiring with the site, its light and geometric complexities. A holiday from hacking on code.

It’s worth mentioning that far more people encounter Augmented Reality in the form of archival video online anyway and so one can talk about an ‘AR effect’ often having more cultural value than experiencing the given implementation itself. As such, AR is a kind of popular imaginary, a technological metaphor through which people can reposition the world as improbable and mutable.

The immense interest in AR right now says a lot about how willing we are to distrust, and then reinvest, our perception. This is a positive symptom of the AR goldrush, I think!

6. You have yourself been very interested in the role of perception in art, and you have actually also written about this  highlighting the playful character that several experimentations with perspective and perception have had in art history.  How has this influenced your work?


I’ve had a long interest in directly targeting the visual cortex as a site for both exhibition and reflexion, something Illusionists and Op Artists have of course been preoccupied with for a long time. While I’d like to say that my study of optical illusion art and visual perception has influenced my work directly (that’d certainly look cogent in a catalog, or interview like this), it’s not the case. My interest in exploring the way I perceive goes back as long as I remember, well before an interest in art history.

What my study in this area has helped a lot with is contextualising much of the  work I’ve been doing within the longer human history of  strategic, phenomenological perversion. Art touches on just a small part of that old project..

7. And what about video games? You have worked extensively on this field, being part of the game based art scene. How has your involvement in game creation, in appropriating, modding and subverting affected your own perception of space and of intervening within it?


This is something I think about a lot. Recently I’ve had to admit to myself that
3D graphics programming has had a fairly lasting influence on the way I think. Spending so much time projecting forms in a Euclidean universe has to eventually manifest as habits of thought, something increasingly apparent to me when dreaming up a new project as certain metaphors and mathematical reductions keep popping up.

What’s been important to me however is maintaining a critical relationship with this influence; I’m very interested in tensions between Space (in the mathematical sense) and Place, in the worldly yet personal sense- as it’s experienced.

We can say that Space, just like the number 812, doesn’t exist in nature. Space refers to a body of ideas, or formalised abstractions, that help humans distill the world as a field of estimations. The fact that these estimations often prove correct – that a long flat bridge designed in adherence to trigonometric rules will actually hold, that we can chart our course observing stellar bodies – knit Space ever deeper into the world as though it were always a part of its fabric. Other times however these models let us down – a place is always more than a point on a map and the Earth, given infinitely small units of measure, must have an infinite circumference, for example.

It’s been tremendously useful for me to learn the mathematical language of Space, if only to antagonise contemporary investment in it or explore how this abstraction and the numberless world might collide. It’s alluring stuff and I hope to do quite a bit more work along this line in the years to come.

8. Talking about interventions between Place and Space, the digital and the physical,  between false and real, is there room for an emerging “common” space? Does creativity play a role in this formation? Or is it just an illusion?

A big question!

I think that much creativity of the kind that yields Art is so bound up in a market of strategic self-differentiation, as a currency in itself, that it’s difficult to invest in art as something indicative of a commons anymore.

It’s not easy to talk about art and the making of it now without considering the impact of late capitalism on cultural development; a precondition that orders  societies through the forced internalisation of competitive interest. So it follows that more and more art is made in the interests of excelling within the group, than excelling the group as a whole.

A culture of creativity that I do see to be very transformative -one that shapes  whole economies, thought and earth- is that of Engineering. I’ve come to enjoy this frame of thinking about my work (and the knowledge communities around it) that I (alongwith my studio partner Danja Vasiliev) find it’s more useful to refer to what we do as a kind of Critical Engineering than Art, or Media Art, as such.

Engineering, I believe, is a potent and richly creative language of our time. It just needs more people using it critically.


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