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Artists reimagine monuments through augmented reality


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: In a time of much reckoning over American history, there are questions raised anew about what a monument is and whom should be honored.

A new exhibition in Los Angeles explores that, in what's called augmented reality.

Jeffrey Brown has a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Life in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, but not as you have ever seen in. This is a digital tribute to the workers who have lined the streets of this immigrant neighborhood for decades, an otherworldly portal between past, present and future worlds, exploring the continuing presence of an indigenous people native to L.A.

In a new exhibit, Monumental Perspectives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, five artists were tasked with reimagining monuments through new technology, augmented reality, an interactive experience that overlays digital information with the real, physical world.

Ruben Ochoa, Artist: I had to learn all these terms, because I wasn't familiar with all these terms. I had to learn how to navigate Snapchat.

Jeffrey Brown: One of the five is Los Angeles-based artist Ruben Ochoa, whose piece, Vendedores Presente, pays homage to street vendors, many of whom are working-class immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Ruben Ochoa: It's essentially like a magical realism, whimsical lens of vendedores falling -- floating down, eloteros flying around, to a paletero cart approaching you, and paletas popping up, to a towering bucket of flores spouting out flower petals.

Jeffrey Brown: The technology was new for Ochoa, but he comes from a family of street vendors, so his monument was personal and political.

Ruben Ochoa: For me it was like, how do I address what's happening presently in L.A., what I'm seeing around me, what's occurring?

I talk about my roots of my family, the informal economy, and street vending. How do we pay tribute to that, but not just to one particular vendor or object? But it was more like the social fabric of vending.

Jeffrey Brown: In the height of 2020's social justice uprisings, many monuments were pulled down, many more raised questions. Why do they exist? Whom or what do they honor? Do they need to be here?

Michael Govan, LACMA's director, wondered about a different approach.

Michael Govan, Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art: How do we move forward and to talk about celebrating figures that hadn't been celebrated? What should we monumentalize in the 21st century or who?

Jeffrey Brown: LACMA partnered with Snap, the social media company best known for its Snapchat messaging app, to create this exhibition.

But why augmented reality, instead of something more physical or permanent?

Michael Govan: Monuments do augment our reality. They change the way we think of a place that might remind us of something. A monument might be there to allow us to remember something. So, whether it's in a virtual space or a real space, I think it can serve exactly the same function.

Mercedes Dorame, Artist: When I think about monuments, I think about how they're often a singular moment or a singular person. And it's kind of often, for indigenous people, these histories that are really kind of traumatic for us.

Jeffrey Brown: Mercedes Dorame is an L.A.-based artist who created Portal for Tovaangar, a monument that pays tribute to her ancestry, the Gabrielino-Tongva Indians of California.

Mercedes Dorame: It's about this continuum of presence in Los Angeles of the Tongva people and other indigenous people there. What do we want to understand or reconnect with?

And, for me, that is -- like, that is the cosmos, the sun, the stars. Like, what is inscribed in the land? The history of the land, the plants, the people, the kind of legacy that is still here, still in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Brown: She worked with an Australian artist who goes by the one name, Sutu, an expert in virtual reality and other technologies.

Sutu, Artist and Lens Creator: She does paintings. She works with, like, artifacts and stones and shells and different things like this. And I wanted to make sure that we could bring all that into the digital world.

She created a painting and took it on site and photographed it on site, which was super helpful. I was then able to take those photos and extract the -- just the painting from them and bring that into the program.

Jeffrey Brown: He used a combination of 3-D modeling, animation, and other tools to create the augmented reality of the portal.

Sutu: There's no law of physics there. You can have anti-gravity, you can have things floating.

One of the things that augmented reality lends to the world, I guess, is that it's -- you're bringing to life a physical place with the digital art. So, the digital art can provide context to that physical place.

Jeffrey Brown: That led to a question for museum director Govan.

This whole project sort of raises a question of permanence, right? Does it have a life beyond, beyond what we see in Snap?

Michael Govan: Absolutely.

You think about monuments, they don't have to be a statue. Monuments can be written in books. They can be put on media. What are monuments? Monuments are ways to remember things that are useful to us to help us think about our past and hopefully think about our future, too, because there's a heroic aspect to what you want to remember to guide you forward.

So, it is also about the future.

Jeffrey Brown: For Ruben Ochoa, his monument' has led to an advocacy project: He's raised $60,000 through direct donations and the sale of limited edition prints to support vendors hit by the pandemic.

Ruben Ochoa: Because a lot of them are immigrants, they're not eligible for a stimulus check. And so this is their only means of survival, only means to put food on the table.

Jeffrey Brown: And Mercedes Dorame sees another benefit to this kind of project.

Mercedes Dorame: The reason why I make artwork, the reason why I wanted to engage in a project like this with an institution such as LACMA and Snap is to push this story forward, to make our people more visible.

And, for me, that goes into a lot of these pushes into institutions where we're thinking about representation and whose voice is heard.

Jeffrey Brown: New technology, new monuments, new ways of mixing art and history.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Land of fantasy.

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