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An animated monster invades the Whitney Museum in a new AR commission

Nancy Baker Cahill’s augmented-reality work examines climate change and human-nature relations.

For the Whitney Museum of American Art’s newest digital-art work, CENTO (2023), by new-media artist Nancy Baker Cahill, a fascinating hybrid creature—part mycelium, partly mollusk, partly bird, and partly machine—will hang above the Meatpacking District beginning October 3. The interactive location-specific augmented reality (AR) project tackles the environmental issue and interspecies collaboration from an ecosophical perspective, criticising human isolation from nature.

The artist says the chimeric creature was inspired by the necessity for alternative ecological groups and means of interaction and pulls from philosophic and scientific fiction works to examine climate change’s fundamental problems. Jeff VanderMeer’s 2017 short fiction, The Strange Bird: A Borne Fiction, uses a bird-like monster to symbolise hybridity gone wrong and explore survival and adaptation.

According to Baker Cahill’s account in The Art Newspaper, she had some enthusiasm related to the excess of planetary collapse that is inextricably linked to the collapse of society. She said that a landmark point has been reached in the prospective development of bioengineering and synthetic biology. Cento is being seen as the answer to the question of where life will lead, and it promotes the vigour of an intensive calculation for the interdependence of species. 

Users can download the free, Baker Cahill-designed the 4th Wall app to engage with CENTO from anywhere in and around the museum. Visitors may choose one of 12 feathers, each with a biological purpose, to help the creature evolve. While the sixth-floor terrace will be the major viewing site, CENTO will also be viewable from other museum terraces, the High Line, and online.

Baker Cahill elaborated further. saying that it is intriguing to consider the accidental societies that can emerge from this, which often occurs with augmented reality, especially with open augmented reality initiatives. A living laboratory for building communities and adaptation in this very unstable era, CENTO is an ecological fantasy. Biotechnology is surrounded by negative associations. Given that it incorporates business, capitalist, military, and exploitative passions, this is troubling. She brought forth questions about what if scientists produced a transspecies, resilient creature, and what if a group of different species came together?

Cento, which means patchwork in Latin, is an assemblage of lines from several poets. When she included a reference to Clarice Lispector’s novel Viva in his brief motion picture The Quivering and Lively Nerve of the Now (2023), Baker Cahill found the phrase.

Using vivid passages from the novel, Baker Cahill recalled blending them to portray what was said as she encountered them. Unaware of what was being done, she was building a cento, and that phrase evolved into the perfect analogy for CENTO, which breaks down the notion that humans are all centos—made from countless ideas and existences but capable of monolithic thinking. The piece acknowledges human diversity and explores the rationale for a collective reaction to ecocide.

Artport, a digital exhibition space and repository for new-media works established in 2001 by digital artist Christiane Paul, will house Whitney’s first collaborative augmented reality commission, CENTO. At Artport, a large number of cooperative online activities handle dwelling from a poetic, communal standpoint. The World’s First Collaborative Phrase by Douglas Davis invites viewers to add to an ever-expanding phrase using 1994–2005 software that has been continuously running on Artport since 2013. More than two decades ago, Davis said that the project was like CENTO given that it did not have a start or finish.

According to Paul, the involvement component of CENTO is quite intriguing and unique. Augmented reality is always a terrific overlay of realism. It can be more spectacular than watching a piece of art on television, like witnessing a creature hovering in midair in real time. Participatory AR is a recent development, and CENTO is broadening its concept.

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