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AR as Public Art: Times Square Submerged

Mel Chin's "Unmoored" is used to "trigger a conversation about the fragile future of our planet with the hundreds of thousands of people that visit this area every day."

Conceptual artist and activist Mel Chin launched Unmoored, a mixed reality experience in New York’s Times Square that imagines a world where climate change has gone unchecked: With melting ice caps, erosion, and coastal flooding, Times Square is entirely underwater.

“I think the most important motivation as an artist is to use what James Baldwin has described as extracting the question that is buried within the answer,” says Chin. “If the answer is ‘The world will be inundated and destroyed by our own doings,’ then what is the question that we have to ask now? This project is about now.”

Developed in collaboration with Microsoft, Unmoored allows visitors can explore a submerged Times Square. Using the augmented reality app, visitors who look up in Times Square will see a nautical traffic jam of boats bobbing 26 feet above them. This flotilla includes boats of all types and sizes, slowly making their way around existing buildings and landmarks. 

The untethered boats occasionally bump into each other and buildings, causing undulations of wave-like action and sending amplified underwater sound effects to audiences. Apparitions of living forms appear, generated by light, and actively seeking connection to the human audience.

“The project evolved from a partnership with teams from Microsoft and Listen (a company that often works with Microsoft and other brands on an array of artistic experiences), brought together by Zengalt, a Bellevue, Washington-based group of technology enthusiasts who specialize in mixed reality technology and other similar forms of technology,” explains Athima Chansanchai.

“Massive teams of developers, animators, 3D artists and sound designers worked collaboratively with Chin, who had his own team at the University of North Carolina Asheville (where the former New Yorker currently lives) research the boats moored in New York Harbor, which would then appear in the augmented reality of “Unmoored” above visitors’ heads. Chin and his team produced a comprehensive list of 141 boats (calculated to fit the space above Times Square) and information such as models, years, draft height, lengths and number of motors. Some are more than a hundred feet long; others are rowboats.

Sarah Ibrahim, the technical lead for both the creative development process and the physical activation of the project, tells Chansanchai, “Unmoored is about the city and its identity unmooring from its current state and becoming something else. 

“I think that mixed reality is a very interesting platform for public art and I think artists have limited access to these types of technologies, so we can keep creating a conduit for artists to access it. If we can provide opportunities for artists to continue to create augmented reality public art, think about how much more art there can be with the scale of augmented reality.” To read the full article, click there.

Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, recognized the use of “mixed reality to trigger a conversation about the fragile future of our planet with the hundreds of thousands of people that visit this area every day.”

“As an artist, I can dream and postulate many things, but it’s unlikely I can bring all of them to reality working alone,” Chin tells Chansanchai. “This is an opportunity to realize a vision comes by working with teams from Microsoft and Listen who can do what I cannot do. That’s the possibility when you have a collaboration between art and modern technology. I’m thankful to all the crews that made these projects happen, all the people who have entrusted me to do something, we hope is, extraordinary.” To read the full article, click here.