An Indian Visual Artist Channelling Her Angst Through AR Typography

An Indian Visual Artist Channelling Her Angst Through AR Typography
Image Courtesy: Rajshree Saraf

Angst is a feeling we’re all intimately familiar with in some way, shape, or form and has been an arguably permanent fixture of human existence since the dawn of civilization. Whether it be a particularly gnarly traffic jam on your way home from work, a broken heart, or even just the frustration of tripping over your own two feet; there’s a myriad of things that can cause that heady cocktail of anxiety, anger and sometimes even sadness to make an appearance in our lives and throw our emotional balance off keel.

On the other hand, angst has often been the driving force for a significant amount of all art that’s ever been created. Generally speaking, human beings are angsty by nature and our expression of that angst is often through our words, actions and interactions with the world around us. It is through art that we find an outlet for our angst and the act of creating is very often a form of catharsis for these powerful, often overwhelming feelings. From Vincent van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Kurt Kobain; angst has been a permanent driving force for the art we create and consume.

‘Hallucinating Type’ an ambitious Augmented Reality typography project by New York City-based visual artist Rajshree Saraf, takes the idea of angst and its permanence in society even further. The project involves her superimposing angst-ridden AR typography in various locations across New York City. The result is a project that imbibes a perfect amalgamation of the day-to-day emotions that all of us go through at some point while navigating the hustle and bustle of our day-to-day urban lives. There’s a playful facetiousness to her art that speaks to the inner punk in all of us; empowering us to push back against the many occurrences that cause us angst.

We had to find out more.

It’s fitting that an angsty AR project like this took place in what is possibly one of the most ‘angsty’ cities in the world. What sort of a role does the living, breathing behemoth of culture, diversity and multiplicity that is New York play in this project? Did your experiences of the city and its people shape these AR-type sculptures? Are there any intentional nods to the idiosyncrasies of the city?

I’ve never thought about New York’s energy specifically shaping the project. I’ve lived with anxiety for as long as remember and Hallucinating Type would’ve been just as angsty anywhere else in the world. Now that I think about it, yes it would have been angsty but perhaps not like this; not so publicly. Well, almost publicly.

What is NYC if not a bunch of people screaming and cussing in all directions all the time? At the bodega, on the subway, in the parks, at any crossroad; even at 6 am - there’s always someone, very publicly, having a breakdown. I guess the project does mirror New York, but it wasn’t intentional. New York is just a place where doing something like this didn’t feel weird. It perfectly fit in. The city is not trying to calm you down and most importantly never requires you to have a ‘put-together’ front. So yes, New York’s anxious energy helped me not get paralysed by my own, but rather helped me deal with it.

Image Courtesy: Rajshree Saraf

Augmented Reality is rapidly evolving into a form of cathartic escapism and a space where individuals and creatives can see and shape the world around them in a whole range of vibrant ways. Could you talk a little more about the therapeutic aspects of AR? How has it helped you displace feelings of anxiety or angst that occur from time to time? What would you want people who view your art to take away from it?

AR is quite therapeutic, and the clue is in the name –– Augmented Reality. We’re literally trying to make our realities suck a little less. Like a lot of creatives, crippling anxiety is a part of my creative process. It’s inevitable; the intense wave of self-doubt before it all starts to make sense. I didn’t start the project thinking it’d be all angsty. I started it at a transitional phase; anxiety was at an all-time high, and I did not have a lot of time on my hands. It was only after I realised how AR helped me deal with anxiety, that I decided to use it as an avenue for my emotional outbursts.

It felt like screaming really loudly in a public place and AR allowed me to do it without repercussions. I was the only one who could see my screen, so I was essentially screaming publicly but nobody could hear me. What a superpower right? It took me a while but I’ve come to accept the fact that we don’t have a lot of control over what people take away from our art. So, ‘AR is cool’, ‘God really is dead’, or ‘She needs help’ –– are all acceptable takeaways, if not an existential internal monologue, of course.

Image Courtesy: Rajshree Saraf

Augmented Reality means that sky is well and truly the limit for experiential art and design. How do you see the technology developing further in the near future and what sort of innovations can we expect to see? What are you looking at experimenting with yourself?

We’ve barely seen all that AR can do. Explorations have been mostly in education, entertainment, and art where fault tolerance is comparatively higher. That’s changing now, as our technology is evolving. While it may be some time before AR devices replace our phones, there are talks of user-friendly AR glasses, accurate geo-location in AR, and virtual objects that can react to the physics of the real world. How crazy is that?

AR has proven it can evoke awe but I’m also very excited to see how this new medium would finally work into our everyday. It’s so raw and the most exciting thing about it is the possibility of rethinking traditional design standards for a brand new medium. I could trial-and-error my way to contribute to design guides for communication in AR. Take it beyond the filters and curated events. I want to experiment with how it will work in our wayfinding systems or digital therapeutics. Oh, and real-time AR interventions will be a truly, truly revolutionary addition to our healthcare system.

As much potential as AR has for enhancing our environment, I want to point out that it can also make things worse. We must be careful about who we want to give access to our very personal spaces. Virtual assistant technologies are already scary.

Image Courtesy: Rajshree Saraf

The advent of social media was synonymous with the ‘memeification’ of angst. People took their feelings and turned them into inside jokes that created humour out of a sense of shared experience. You saw it in the early days of Myspace and Facebook and now you see Millenials and Gen-Z taking it even further on Instagram, Snapchat, & Twitter. AR is the latest form of this trend, with filters recreating everything from fortune-telling Magic 8-balls to ascertaining the name of your soulmate. Do you believe that projects like this can allow people to better express and relay this angst in the real world? Do you see a world where this replaces graffiti and wall art as a form of cultural expression? Could people hundreds of years from look at AR sculptures like yours and get a glimpse into our lives?

I believe the more comfortable we get with a medium, the more creatively we can use it for expression. Filters are AR 1.0, so they’ve been around the longest. We have seen it transition from normal funny AR face filters to more nuanced, memefied ones within a few years, as people got more comfortable with It.

We’re still far from reaching AR’s final form, but I’m sure as the barrier to entry and distribution decreases for art projects like this, we’ll be able to express more freely in it too. And we’ll hear a lot of other relatable individual voices.

However, I don’t think we should see the invention of a new medium as a replacement for the older ones. New media is just an addition to our toolkit for cultural expression. The invention of written language or cameras didn’t replace drawing; so no, I don’t see a world where AR would replace graffiti or wall art. Each media has its own affordance and an individual’s unique experiences draw them to one or the other.

Some people express themselves better with words, some with photographs, some by painting, and some will through AR. I loved AR because I love environmental projects and I love technology and I love designing. It allowed me to combine a lot of my interests.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to carry on this project even next year, let alone a couple of hundred. With the rate at which technology is evolving, we don’t know what AR will look like in a few years when it’s fully developed. I might not know if and how and what they’ll see but I sincerely hope what they see is the voice of the generation and not just ads and the ruins of corporate capitalism.

You can follow Rajshree here.

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