John Mack makes art for a world online seven hours a day

A man holds his phone up to an augmented reality image
Looking through the lens of a phone is the only way to see reality in A Species Between Worlds John Mack

People see the world through the lens of their own experiences, be it religion, culture or, as artist John Mack believes, media. A Species Between Worlds, a photo exhibition by Mack, asks visitors what remains when these lenses are removed. Located at the Skylight Modern in Chelsea, New York, A Species Between Worlds opens free to the public today, September 1st and will remain open throughout September.

On average, people around the world gave almost Seven hours online every day in 2021, with the US average being more than eight hours. Just like them printing press triggered social changes in the 15th century and TV In the 20th century, the digital media we consume increasingly influences the realities around us. In 2016, a rush in Taipei, Taiwan, halted traffic as hundreds tried to catch a rare Pokémon in the augmented reality (AR) game Pokémon Go. Online social technologies continue to mature with the development of the metaverse, the critics fear will have a negative impact on the mental health of its users.

The 2020 Netflix Docudrama The social dilemmaviewed by more than 100 million people, revealed how social media companies built addiction mechanisms into their algorithms, then sold their users’ attention to the highest-bidder advertisers. A Species Between Worlds reminds users that when we point the finger at media companies, we also point three fingers at ourselves.

The exhibition combines art and technology to warn against relying on the latter. And ironically, without a mobile device of their own, visitors won’t get the full experience. The tour begins by downloading an app that creates an avatar for each visitor. Screens surround the room with screenshots of Pokémon Go landscapes from US national parks. When visitors hold their phones up to these landscapes as if taking a picture, the app shows Mack’s photographed image of the park. The Pokémon Go landscape is almost comically simple – a flat image with green for land and blue for water – where Mack’s photographs have colour, depth and perspective.

Pokemon Go rendering of Isle Royal
pokemon Go representation of Isle Royale John Mack
Isle Royale photo
Isle Royale photo John Mack

Pokémon Go, released in 2016, offered an early taste of what the metaverse might look like on a large scale. The game mapped landscapes around the world, and users could look at their phone screens to find Pokémon, or “pocket monsters,” to use in virtual battles. Pokémon could be found anywhere from a player’s backyard to the Coliseum in Rome. Mack’s exhibition reverses this experience. Instead of standing in front of something real (trees, a river, etc.) and looking through a phone to find something virtual (Pokémon), exhibit-goers see the augmented images on screens and have to look through their phones to figure out what the landscape is really is looks like.

In just six years since Mack’s project began, world-building technology has come a long way. Today the entire major league baseball stadiums exist in the Metaverse with details right down to the leaves on trees. It gives the illusion of depth, color and perspective, similar to the location, but “it’s still a flat screen,” Mack told the Observer. “When a prison gets bigger, it’s still a prison.”

As visitors move through the exhibition, the “signal” weakens, causing both the AR images and the visitors’ personal avatars to collapse. The landscape fades to a grayscale sketch, and the phone app shows the three-dimensional wire frame of the image rather than the image itself. Words like “futility” and “apathy” appear on the screens to represent what some people are feeling when they’re online -Media are separate, or accordingly The social dilemmawhat social media companies convey to their users when they are offline.

Pokemon Go rendering blended with a grayscale sketch of Acadia National Park
pokemon Go rendering blended with a grayscale sketch of Acadia National Park John Mack

In addition to photographing national parks, Mack traveled to the Seven Natural Wonders of the World for this project. Upon entering the room containing these images, the message appears on visitors’ phones: “The first natural wonder of the world is nature itself. The first man-made wonder of the world is boredom.” These screens are activated by motion. So when a visitor stands in front of them, the image of Pokémon Go’s AR terrain appears. It takes rest – or boredom – for the screen to reveal the photographed image.

In an April interview with author Yuval Noah Harari, Mack said, “Boredom is the closest thing to peace.” This statement also applies to the exhibit’s physical layout. After boredom, viewers enter the final room where, for the first time, the screens show the real rather than artificial images – a total disconnect from the AR that started the tour, a restoration of reality and perhaps even a sense of fulfillment for viewers.

Photo of Big Bend
Photo of Big Bend John Mack

The tour takes viewers through the sense of control when viewing the AR imagery, losing control when the signal drops, and regaining control when a phone is no longer needed to view images of the natural world. While Mack doesn’t see technology as an enemy, he wants visitors to think about “the role they’re playing in their own digital device pandemic.”

John Mack makes art for a world online seven hours a day

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