Walk through the Pratt Museum’s summer art exhibit, “Dirigibles of Denali,” and the show looks like a normal installation. Large pixelated prints hang on walls. Two tapestries fill up the space over the stairwell. Drawings of futuristic domed cities tell of a past-imagined vision of tomorrow. Prose poems add a literary art perspective. And in the middle appears a blank pedestal, as if creator and artist Nathan Shafer forgot a piece.
But that’s only the real world.
Using a computer tool called augmented reality, or AR, the 39-year-old Anchorage resident has laid layers of perception on top of the real world. Download several programs or borrow iPad tablets set up for the show, and visions appear over the art.
Hover over a QR code, and a 3-dimensional sculpture by Benjamin Schleifman pops up in the screen. Point a tablet or smart phone over those poems, and newspaper or magazine articles show the original source material for those words. Aim a smart phone at one of those pixelated prints, say, “Crossing T’ugashitnu into Denali City,” and see former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel’s concept of a tent-covered city he proposed being built near the Tokositna Glacier. Look at that blank pedestal and Gravel’s vision shows up as a Google Sketch-up design that can be rotated and viewed from all angles.
“I want viewers to have tons of entry ways into the subject,” Shafer said of his installation.
Three domed or covered cities form the core of “Dirigibles of Denali,” but it’s an idea that goes beyond the show, augmented or not. Shafer has a companion piece, “Dirigibles of Denali: Three Domed Cities” as well as a science fiction anthology, “Dirigibles of Denali: Science Fiction Omnibus,” in which writers have created stories set in a world where the domed cities exist.
As a child in a military family, Shafer lived around the world before coming of age in Alaska. He attended the University of Alaska Anchorage and graduated from the University of South Florida, Tampa. He got a master of fine arts in digital media from Rutgers University in 2008, with a specialty in touchscreen computers.
“When the iPhone came out in 2007, everything I had been working on in grad school was irrelevant,” he said.
After graduate school, he worked for a year in the film industry in New York with Troma Entertainment, but returned shortly to Alaska with his wife, Joelle. He teaches special education and works with middle school children with autism. He’s part of Manifest AR, the first collective of international augmented reality artists.
Augmented reality is pretty simple, Shafer said.
“It’s a digital overly in the real world. At that very basic level, it can do lots of different things. As a study in cybernetics, it’s mixed reality,” he said. “It’s a linear reality. On one level you have natural reality, perceived reality. On the other side is virtual worlds that are 100 percent digital creation.”
Augmented reality sits on the reality side of the spectrum, with augmented virtuality opposite it, where the real world has a virtual overlay. Pokemon Go, the interactive video game, is an example probably most familiar to people of augmented virtuality. In Pokemon Go, players visit site-specific real-world locations to fight Pokemon characters.
“It put AR into a visual framework they could understand,” Shafer said of Pokemon Go. “It’s mixed reality where they would go from virtual reality to augmented reality back and forth.”
“Dirigibles of Denali” came about from a proposal Shafer wrote for a Rasmuson Foundation grant to do a Seward’s Success AR — an art piece about one domed city vision. He got the grant. Then he got invited to do a talk with AR artist Patrick Lichty at the New Media Caucus in 2016. Shafer had been collecting ideas of futuristic cities and did a talk on one Arctic and two Alaska visions. The Alaska angle struck a chord with the Outside audience in Washington, D.C.
Shafer said in designing “Dirigibles of Denali” he wanted Outside visitors to see a vision that’s more than the cliché kitsch of some Alaska exhibits. Shafer welcomes tourism, he said.
“But I also want something that’s not cute,” he said. “… We don’t always do the best job of presenting the complexity of what we have.”
“Dirigibles of Denali” looks at Alaska Native visions and motifs in its story backbone. There’s a videogame referenced in the anthology and exhibit that recreates Nintendo sprites or images as Native story concepts. A comic book series he’s working on that will be a future Bunnell Street Arts Center show has Native characters like a Dena’ina woman with autism who has connections with the glacier people, a Dena’ina story motif.
In considering Alaska Native themes, Shafer said he tried to be cognizant of cultural appropriation.
“What I was trying to do was culturally appropriate things. In new Alaska, other people’s culture isn’t free ammunition for your work,” he said. “One of the best ways I’ve seen if you want to talk about culture is invite those cultures. … Instead of just asking them for approval, it’s better to ask them to participate and not give them constraints.”
For example, in the anthology, he invited Gwich’in playwright Richard Perry and Inupiaq writer Lucas Rowley. Schleifman’s AR sculpture came about when Shafer realized public art envisioned in Seward’s Success wrongly borrowed Tlingit clan images. He asked Schleifman to create something new and culturally appropriate.
Pratt Museum curator of exhibits Scott Bartlett said visitor reception to “Dirigibles of Denali” has been mixed. Some people seem confused while others pick up the loaner iPads and dig into the show.
“Once they learn about it they get into it,” Bartlett said. “They’re spot on it. A number of visitors are ‘I totally get it.’”
The show fits in well with the Pratt’s 50th anniversary this year. Part of what the Pratt has done this year is what collections manager Savanna Bradley calls “paleofuturism,” looking back into the past to see what people then imagined the future would be like. AR also has inspired Bartlett to think how it can be used in other museum exhibits.
Creating virtual models like was done with Denali City also could be done for artifacts. An artifact on static display could be viewed in augmented reality.
Viewing the exhibit or even reading the companion books only seems like it scratches the surface. Talking to Shafer is like the film-long conversation in “My Dinner with Andre,” where he bounces from idea to idea, the images — real or augmented — suggesting visions still blossoming in Shafer’s imagination.
“Just the way I use augmented reality, it tends not to be this one thing, this masterpiece thing,” he said. “I tend to think in little variations or iterations of a subject. … I think that visual language of how we know something has to be developed.”
Shafer offers a workshop on Geolocative Augmented Reality at 5 p.m. Aug. 9 at the Pratt Museum. Learn how to create augments by turning images into target-based augmented reality. The workshop includes a basic introduction to target-based AR using the hp Reveal app. The fee is $50. Participants will need their own mobile device with the hp Reveal app installed. For more information and to register, visit www.prattmuseum.org.