How can augmented reality lead more people to explore contemporary Indigenous art?

What’s on your mind? was a collaborative project between Bendigo Art Gallery (BAG), Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara artist Josh Muir, digital animator Isobel Knowles and Art Processors.

Muir is a proud Indigenous artist with a broad contemporary visual language, his fun and playful aesthetic drawing inspiration from pop culture and street art as he explores his own journey through mental illness.

Art Processors combined an augmented reality (AR) experience with a soundscape of music and Muir’s own narration to add new dimensions to his work and build on his exploration of being young and Indigenous in a technologically modern world.

Challenge

Bendigo Art Gallery (BAG) engaged Art Processors to create experiential pathways that would encourage more visitors, particularly younger people, to engage with Muir’s artwork and his key themes of mental health and connection to Country.

Approach

Art Processors designed the experience alongside Muir and Knowles as they developed their own creative direction for the exhibition. This made the AR and soundscape experience integral to telling Muir’s personal stories.

Deliverables

The eight-piece installation combines elements of audio, animation and graphic design—taking the viewer on an augmented reality journey through the artist’s mind.

When the visitor holds an iPad up to an artwork, the artist’s illustrations become animated—transitioning into landscape images of Country alongside Muir’s own narration and an integrated audio experience comprising music and nature sounds. This allows the viewer to experience the works in a more culturally engaged and dynamic way.

IMPACT:

BAG Director, Jessica Bridgfoot says What’s on Your Mind? is an inspirational exhibition for the gallery and the collaboration with Art Processors has sparked the idea of presenting a series of new narratives through AR.

“It has opened up a whole new world of possibilities both in terms of experiences in Bendigo Art Gallery, and in reinterpreting our collection.”

“It has been a pleasure to work with the team at Art Processors. They were culturally sensitive throughout the exhibition development and really captured the essence of Josh’s narrative.”
– Bendigo Art Gallery First Nations Curator, Shonae Hobson

AR as part of artistic storytelling

The exhibition took months of close collaboration between the Gallery, Muir, Knowles and Art Processors as the AR elements were developed alongside the final works for the exhibition.

First Nations Curator, Shonae Hobson had worked with Art Processors on the AWAKEN exhibition at the University of Melbourne’s Arts West Gallery and thought that Muir’s bold and colourful aesthetic would translate well into an AR experience.

“We collaborated throughout the year and decided to go with this theme and this medium,” says Muir. “We feel it appeals to young and old. It has good, powerful messages.”

Knowles, who has previously collaborated with Muir, worked with Art Processors to give the artworks and stories an extra dimension through animation, sound recording and music.

The AR elements are integral to the exhibition—they extend and build on the visitor’s experience whilst furthering Muir’s goal of demonstrating how storytelling can have a positive impact on mental health.

“The result is completely seamless,” BAG Director Jessica Bridgefoot says. “It has been great to see such young people working together and producing this. Digital technologies have opened up this whole other creative industry, which is fantastic.”

Revealing subtext through technology

We used AR technology to reveal hidden subtext to the works and deliver Muir’s message in a way that visitors might not otherwise perceive from just looking at the art.

“Attention spans and patience are a lot shorter than they once were,” says Muir. “I’ve had to consider capturing the attention of a young audience. So, they can absorb information in short episodes, using the iPads, moving through the exhibition so it flows.”

The AR moments within the exhibition are each linked with the eight physical works hung on the gallery walls—the artworks themselves act as the triggers for the experience (as opposed to a distracting and clashing QR code). This provided a seamless alignment with and transition from the artwork to the AR experience and back again.

We also used sound to enhance the immersive quality of the experience. Each work is accompanied by a bespoke, unique music track that incorporates Muir’s own narration about his culture, history and struggles with mental health.

Sharing stories with a wider audience

Muir’s work draws from youth culture and appeals to a young, digitally-savvy audience. “It’s a concept I’ve developed for working with the school curriculum. Basically, I want to try and follow up the connection to culture and Country and beneficial mental health,” he says.

“I’m sharing a narrative through an augmented reality interaction, through animation and composition of different chapters I have highlighted.”

The AR elements of the exhibition encourage a wider audience, particularly a younger one, to engage with Indigenous art in way they probably don’t expect. Bridgfoot says a more interactive experience in the gallery engages younger audiences and re-engages older audiences who might be enticed back to bring their children to the exhibition and then reinvigorate their own relationship with the gallery.

“We’ve had heaps of school kids and young people in, who heard about it on the radio. They just love it when they’re in the space.”

We also made sure there were as few barriers as possible to visitors starting the experience. Easy to use technology with a minimal digital interface meant more visitors could enjoy the AR experience regardless of their technical capability or their physical requirements.

New pathways for connection

The exhibition was an important chance for Muir to explore his experiences as a young Indigenous Australian in a contemporary world, highlighting important conversations about mental health, addiction and how art can be used as a means of healing.

While it’s a long way from the more traditional Indigenous art styles, Muir views his bright, bold work and use of AR as a modern take on Aboriginal storytelling.

“The stories and the narratives are still there—it doesn’t matter what medium the artist is working in, it’s always going to be inherently Indigenous and it’s about living cultures today,” says First Nations Curator, Shonae Hobson.

By using AR and audio to expand on his work, Art Processors opened up the exhibition to a wider audience whilst still giving Muir ownership over the personal and powerful stories he wanted to share.

“Art Processors are very future-forward and forward-thinking,” Muir says. “They have afforded another means of interaction, rather than a more traditional way of engaging.

Muir says he also feels that the project has helped him continue his artistic journey. “I feel like I’ve made an investment in my future with augmented reality. I feel, too, that this is going to be an exhibition that determines my future career as an artist.”