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Emerson Urban Arts Explores Globalization Through Virtual, Augmented Reality

This fall, visitors to the Emerson Urban Arts: Media Art Gallery will be able to catch a train to China through a new virtual reality exhibit by public artist and Emerson Professor John Craig Freeman.

Portal to an Alternative Reality: Chinatown Station with Service to Wuhan, opening Wednesday, September 20, and running through November 18, will allow visitors to virtually experience the ancient central Chinese city.

Through the use of emerging technologies, viewers will enter a life-sized subway station entrance and be deposited into more than 30 scenes in 10 chapters chronicling historic changes in Wuhan. Visitors will be able to walk around in the scenes, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Wuhan and its people, who speak to the viewer.

“This exhibit brings the real to virtual reality,” said Freeman. “This exhibit, using virtual reality, makes possible new narrative forms structured over space, rather than time. Portal is an experiment in spatial narrative.”

Virtual reality simulates a completely different environment from the one in which the viewer actually is located. Augmented reality superimposes computer-generated images onto the viewer’s actual surroundings.

Portal to an Alternative Reality is different from other immersive virtual reality projects, said Freeman, in that it was created on location and features real people, real places, and real experiences. It was based on a six-week residency by Freeman through the American Arts Incubator, an international creative exchange program in digital arts and media.

Two companion exhibits — Virtual U.S./Mexico Border and Border Memorial: Frontera de los Muertos, both also by Freeman – will run alongside Portal.

Virtual U.S./Mexico Border documents the North American migration crisis by displaying augmented reality scenes produced on location on the border in California. The exhibit offers views from both sides of the border, including Friendship Park, where families visit each other on weekends through the border fence.

Border Memorial is an augmented reality border wall public art project, viewable on Boston Common through an app installed on visitors’ smartphones.

“By exhibiting Freeman’s work, the gallery can share the faculty’s development of emergent digital technologies in the visual arts that address current political issues,” said Joseph Ketner, Emerson’s Henry and Lois Foster Chair in Contemporary Arts and curator-in-residence in the Visual and Media Arts Department.

“In this way, the Media Art Gallery embraces Emerson’s mission and values employing arts, communication, and media as vehicles for creative expression,” he said.

Freeman is a public artist with more than 20 years of experience using emergent technologies to produce large-scale public work at sites where the forces of globalization are impacting the lives of people in local communities. His work has been reviewed in The New York Times, El Pais, Liberation, Wired News, Artforum, Ten-8, Z Magazine, Afterimage, Photo Metro, New Art Examiner, Time, Harper’s, and Der Spiegel.

The Media Art Gallery is located at 25 Avery Street, Boston, and is open Wednesday through Friday, 2:00-7:00 pm. Admission is free.



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