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Snapchat exhibits art that isn’t actually there

Virtual art installations are made possible with mobile phones: Certain applications allow you to look at your surroundings through your phone's camera and images will be overlaid on the screen as if they are there in front of you. They can look quite three-dimensional and real. They only come up if you are close to the "installation" – a set of co-ordinates on a map – giving the further illusion that they are real yet invisible.

We saw this become widespread with the Pokemon Go game, which led players to hunt virtual creatures that could only be seen by their phones. Now the image-messaging service Snapchat has entered the discipline with a more highbrow approach: They have partnered with U.S. artist Jeff Koons to create a series of huge virtual sculptures in various capitals of the world, only visible to Snapchat users. This is an extension of their "lenses" feature that allows you to change your appearance in humorous ways. (All those selfies that make your daughter's friends look like rabbits or puppies or anime dolls come from the app.)

Up to now "lenses" has been thought of as little more than a fun and silly self-portraiture feature. The feature has also had its dark side: One of the things it can do is record how fast you are going in your car, which of course has led to terrible accidents as people look at their screen instead of the road as they make a show-off video. And Snapchat also has a "broadcast my location" feature that has caused concerns about privacy and the universal surveillance of these companies. This is the first time Snapchat has been used to propagate genuine art, as a virtual museum.

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The Koons pieces chosen for display are already famous. The American artist is perhaps best known for his giant silver rabbits, made of reflective metal but meant to resemble inflatable toys, or for his ready-made-style sculpture of basketballs floating in a fish tank. Snapchat has chosen a few of the "inflatables" to put on (virtual) show: a balloon-like Popeye figure, a balloon-like yellow dog. It has also chosen a pile of (fake) Play-Doh. When they appear on your screen, they will appear to be about three storeys high. The cities chosen for the apparitions are Paris; New York; London; Chicago; Washington; Rio de Janeiro; Sydney; Venice, Calif.; and Toronto. The Toronto one is a balloon-like purple snake and is located at Roundhouse Park, just under the CN Tower.

Koons, the archetypal postmodernist, is a perfect choice for this half-serious initiative. He straddles the line between joke and commentary, between intellectual and banal (and, as some critics fond of Spinal Tap might say, between clever and … stupid). No one can be really sure what Koons is doing, and he won't help them understand. He has a fascination with kitsch and tries to make it monumental by increasing its scale. He has made works with luxury brand names on them – Baccarat, Hennessy – and it's not clear whether they are a critique of consumerism or mere ads. Some of his most unease-causing works are large ceramics, done in the style of mass-produced figurines (such as a statue of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles). This series was called Banality.

When Koons talks publicly, he refuses to leave his character – he plays the role of a sort of unctuous salesman for the sentimental, refusing to admit that there is any darker meaning behind his embrace of sheen, surface and brand. He denies that anything he does is ironic. His blue-eyed, all-American looks and deep, earnest voice help to create this creepy cult-leader persona – and the persona is as much a part of his art as his objects are.

Koons's unpopularity among intellectuals has combined here with a deep distrust of Snapchat's motives to make this a much despised stunt among artists. The question of the ownership of virtual space is a bizarre but real one. Koons's statues are placed in public parks and they could be seen to be mere advertising for Snapchat, like giant virtual billboards. Already invisible ads surround us ready to be picked up by our phones whenever we use them to locate ourselves. Should corporations be allowed to own and brand all virtual space? Should there be restrictions on augmented reality in public spaces?

Sure enough, the new virtual art has already been vandalized. An artist called Sebastian Errazuriz works with the technology firm CrossLab, which also has an augmented-reality app and together they have created an image of the Koons sculpture meant for Central Park in New York, but covered in graffiti and they have placed it in exactly the same virtual location.

Despite the predictable backlash, there is something wonderfully self-conscious about Snapchat's choice of artist: Koons has long played with the question of what is authentic and what is valuable. His work asks whether a copy of the mass-produced makes it handmade, and whether a change in material in the mass-produced makes it immortal. His smaller balloon-like shapes are made of stainless steel, a material that costs much more than rubber, and painstaking effort has gone into making them look exactly like cheap rubber. (Not by the artist himself of course – craftspeople do this for him, to his specifications.) In this they are conceptual art: One needs to know about the material, the joke of the material, as well as simply seeing them. In fact, one needn't see them at all, really, to get them: One only needs hear this concept explained.

So now one can see them without really seeing them: One can see a representation of them on one's phone, which is just as good as the real thing, because they are representations of the idea of representation anyway.

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Snapchat was founded on the idea of ephemerality: Photos could be uploaded but would have no permanence; they would not be archived. This was meant to encourage frivolity and play – it encouraged people to take risks with their photos without fear of later embarrassment. The traces of their images would immediately fade. What better way to celebrate the ephemerality of the image than a celebration of art that isn't there?

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About the Author
Culture columnist

Russell Smith's most recent novel, Girl Crazy, is currently being adapted for cinema for New Real Films of Toronto. More

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