Los Angeles isn't known as a city with great public spaces. It's a city that traditionally has been beholden to private interests, back-room development deals and, of course, the car. Not coincidentally, it's also a city that has been hostile to street art, until it recently began conflating murals with commercial messages and battling multiple billboard lawsuits. As the city slowly begins to course-correct its past mistakes, a new art initiative addresses the intersection of private space and public art — entirely virtually.

Culture jamming, the tactics used by activists to subvert advertising and other corporate messages, isn't new. It ranges from the Canadian organization Adbusters' attempts to modify corporate billboards to Reclaim the Streets' campaign to “invade” a street and cut it off from cars. Now an organization called HeavyPAC is developing an app to take the intervention to the smartphone.

HeavyPAC's Re*Public project hopes to harness the potential of augmented reality — a way of combining real-world physical objects with computer-generated aspects such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. Re*Public uses buildings as blank canvases for virtual billboards, applying artistic “skins” onto the outsides of buildings. Users hold the camera on their smartphone up to one of the buildings in the app (to date, there are three), and on the screen they see a mural overlaid on the building.

Demonstration of HeavyPAC's in-development app

The app is the result of a collaboration between two complementary art projects — BC Biermann's SoCal-based Heavy Projects and Jordan Seiler's New York-based PublicAdCampaign. The two groups shared an interest in how urban spaces collide with private ownership and public media, so they formed a single entity, HeavyPAC.

Last summer the two collaborated on an initial venture to reclaim advertising for public art, creating a mobile phone application to overlay virtual images onto billboards. “We're philosophically interested in creating public space with more democratic participation,” Biermann says.

With billboards in Los Angeles leased for $5,000 to $10,000 per month (and digital billboards even more), the cost often is prohibitively high for noncommercial messages. “We're not opposed to advertising. It's necessary, but it dominates and crowds out other voices,” explains Biermann, who views the app as one potential avenue to reclaim the streetscape. Re*Public doesn't just aim to create better access to art for the public, it also hopes to offer artists more access to virtual canvases.

Now HeavyPAC is pushing the boundaries of that first idea by projecting art directly onto buildings, testing the concept on three buildings in New York and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, street artist MOMO has created a brightly colored mural overlaid on the façade of downtown's Bradbury Building, with 3-D renderings by Ean Mering. The New York buildings feature 3-D geometric blocks that project off the front of the buildings.

The app isn't available yet — Seiler and Biermann are testing its feasibility as they seek funding to expand and release it publicly. They would like eventually to create virtual mural walks in multiple cities, with art submitted by anyone.

An event HeavyPAC held in L.A. to demonstrate augmented reality

So how does it work? While most augmented-reality apps rely on GPS, this app instead uses the device's camera to identify the building or billboard. “It uses the architecture like a giant QR code,” says Biermann, reading the features of the building in much the same way a phone's camera can recognize those square, matrixed barcodes you now see everywhere.

As a result, the app allows the user to alter his perspective, walking around and through the space while the virtual art shifts as well. HeavyPAC hopes the app can become a reminder of what our city might look like with fewer ads and more art.

It's a counterpoint to how augmented reality often is used by corporations, which have harnessed the potential to enrich existing ads. In the past year, Volkswagen, Disney and Tic Tac have all experimented with augmented reality-aided billboards in Times Square.

Biermann isn't entirely sure what's next for Re*Public. Thus far, the project has been self-funded, and he and Seiler are considering funding options, including working with other cultural organizations such as museums or community nonprofits, crowd-sourced funding like Kickstarter or even university support (Biermann is an academic by trade).

“There's a learning curve for the public,” says Biermann. “But there are potentially amazing applications for art and education. We're just scratching the surface.”

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