michael rees

Video Introduction

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Video Introduction to Synthetic Cells: Site and Para(Site) at Grounds For Sculpture with Tom Moran and with production by Keith Pyatt.

Synthetic Cells: Site and Para(Site) photographs

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Synthetic Cells Documentation

Since the advent of our internet age, Michael Rees has been redefining objects by using digital technology and innovative material to engage contemporary themes and subjects with sculpture. The object serves as the starting point for a rich interactive experience. In this exhibition, he continues to explore materials by using inflatable objects—supplemented with the overlay of augmented reality—to add multiple layers of complex semiotic relationality. Inflatable objects have historically been seen in utopian furniture, architecture, and toys dating back to the 1960s.

Synthetic Cells is an n-dimensional sculptural project that uses augmented reality and inflatable vinyl sculptures to weave a rich melange around the collision of utopias and an updated 21rst century Chattaqua. Curated by Tom Moran, Rees also conceived of the exhibition as a para-site for artists working with augmented reality to create a show beside the site of the inflatable vinyl cubes. Grounds for Sculpture has invited guest curators Edward Winkelman and Murat Otrbozekov to curate the Para (Site) with 6 artists: Will Pappenheimer, Claudia Hart, Chris Manzione, Tamiko Thiel, Carla Gannis, John Craig Freeman.

From the start, Rees imagined this exhibition as a group experience where the sculptural works performed as a site for others' augmented reality experiences. The richness of artists working in augmented reality today and their different approaches would be a kind of Chattaqua in which this diverse and sometimes heady art experiences could be experienced as distinct channels in a single exhibition. It is different than a group show in that it is conceived as worlds within worlds, a multidimensional experience. Works are not organized around sympathetic themes in the exhibition but rather operate as portals to other spaces and experiences.

ARTISTS included in Site and Para(Site)

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Inspired by contemporary network culture and the concept of the “Chautauqua,” a popular movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that brought together the arts, sciences, and politics for educational opportunities, Michael Rees invited other artists to participate in the augment portion of this project. Site (Para) Site, the augmented reality portion of this exhibition, was guest curated by noted digital experts, Murat Orozobekov and Edward Winkleman, who founded the Moving Image. These digital overlays were created by Michael Rees as well as three other artists invited to collaborate on this project: Claudia Hart, Chris Manzione, and Will Pappenheimer. In the fall of 2018, three more artists will supply augmented reality experiences: John Craig Freeman, Tamiko Thiel, and Carla Gannis. Prior experience with technology is not necessary for visitors to enjoy the virtual environment that the augments create.

Synthetic Cells: Epigenetics (first person)

John Craig Freeman

In Synthetic Cells: Epigenetics, I contributed parasitic augmentations to Michael Rees, Synthetic Cells inflatable sculptures.

I am an artist with three decades of experience using emergent technologies to produce large-scale public work at sites where the forces of globalization are impacting the lives of individuals in local communities. With this work, I seek to expand the notion of public by exploring how digital technology and mobile networks are transforming our sense of place.


In 2012, I produced a project titled EEG AR: Things We Have Lost, combining augmented reality with biosensors at FACT in Liverpool. People were selected at random in the streets of the city and simply asked, “What have you lost?” The location was recorded and a database of virtual lost objects was created based on the responses given. The virtual objects were then placed back in the exact GPS coordinates where the encounter took place, creating a citywide network of lost things, viewable on any mobile device. In 2015, I continued the project in Los Angeles through LACMA’s Art + Technology program and expanded the database of lost things. 

In both cases, in addition to the public component, the museum space was transformed into a clinic-like installation and visitors were outfitted with EEG-reading brainwave sensors and ask to think deeply about what he or she has lost. Once the software detected a measurable and consistent pattern, a virtual object, selected randomly from the database, appeared before the person using augmented reality technology.

Synthetic Cells: Epigenetics alludes to how the study of epigenetics reveals that memory can be passed to future generations by modification of gene expression. It draws from the database of lost things and attaches them to Rees’ Synthetic Cells. Lost things include peace, reason, health, loved ones, religion, home, dignity, culture and way.


The Monument App

Claudia Hart

The Monument App commemorates friendship, which endures, even as it being so garishly commodified through identity branding and a networked culture now redefining America. I made it in honor of the important question proposed by this show within an “in-real-life” exhibition by my old friend friend Michael Rees.What might friendship mean post Friends-on-Facebook?

Friendship is the glue but also subject of our subshow. And the subshow is again subdivided. I’m in the first of two augmented-reality projects that Michael has imagined as group exhibitions inside his solo sculpture show For each, Michael invited 3 friends to make augmented apps using colorful graphics stamped on his sculptures, as as augmented “trackables” - computer codes triggering animations when viewed through the app on a smart device. For my part Michael, also invited Will Pappenheimer and Christopher Manzione, together forming both an esthetic and a familial friendship group. We also embody the larger, social and conceptual underpinning of the particular work I produced for this - my “Michael” project. The backstory of it is that Michael, Will and I are considered pioneers of our brand of virtual art, specifically the branch that consists of 3D computer graphics, digital sculpture emerging from 3d computer models, and augmented and virtual realities. I’ve exhibited, dined and traveled with Michael for 15 years. And as a further anecdote, equally an exemplar, Chris is Michael's former student and mentee, now an accomplished artist and college professor with students of his own.

The three of us cherished the opportunity to be a cog in Michaels’ machine, both as a friendship offering but also as a creative challenge. So what I produced exists in my mind both as unique work by Michael but also equally as another one by me, one that I will reappropriate as an augmented block, a plastic “Lego” in a monumental sculpture of my own devising. This other work is also called “Monument,” a nine-foot rapid prototype print of a nude caryatid decoratively encased in graphical patterns very similar to the one I’ve borrowed from Michael. My patterns also double as augmented trackables: computer codes triggering animations, also viewable on tablets through another app, my own, that I’ve called the Monument. My expanded Monument App has 14 trackables, including the one by Michael, the one that is part of his installation. Also significant: the animation that this trackable triggers is one made by glitching Facebook, meaning the familiar logo, combining it with another homegrown piece of flashing signage: a command to “EAT, EAT, EAT,” the bulimic compulsion behind our current culture of hyper consumerism.

My monument completes the friendship circle that has been constructed through its making. Michael's work appropriates the art of his friends (“appropriation denoting an inclusivist idea about art, making it about creation rather than the exclusivity that would be implied if I substituted the word “stealing,” which I won’t). And for contemporary media art: so it goes.


It’s OK and Angsty Pool

Will Pappenheimer

Site and Para(Site)

My interpretation of the notions of Site and Para(Site) with respect to augmented reality, which I have been entertaining for some time, is that the phrase succinctly encapsulates a number of important aspects of the medium. The meaning of the prefix para- run through variations of: above, beyond, beside, near, alongside, abnormal, incorrect and resembling (wiktionary). First, augmented reality forges two parallel sites, one physical and one virtual, which form a relational juxtaposition that creates the artwork. Though this fusion is channeled through technology, augmentation understood as perception, cultural conditioning and psychological projection is a condition of being human. Art historian, Miwon Kwon, postulated this notion prophetically in 1997 in her signature essay, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” with propositions such as: “…the site has been transformed from a physical location-grounded, fixed, actual - to a discursive vector-ungrounded, fluid, virtual.” Michael Rees’ offers the site of his physical sculptures and imagery, themselves inflated ephemera from compressed air, to become a fluid virtual site for the works of other artists through the augmented reality medium. Thus these auxiliary works become recombinant with his sculpture to form alternate formations and interpretations of the physical work at hand. Whether the results are ascendant (beyond or above) or parasitic (abnormal or incorrect), is in the intent of the artists and the reception of the viewers. Further, the biological reference in the title of Rees’ exhibition, “Synthetic Cells” could also allude to notions of single cell evolution from parasitic relationships between microscopic lifeforms, which on the one hand might seem to oppose one another, but in the end converge to become a more complex and viable being.

It’s OK

It’s OK is the first of two works created by Will Pappenheimer, functioning as a collaborative collage, augmenting Michael Rees’ sculpture and imagery. The works feature characters derived from 3D gaming avatars who emerge from the surfaces of Rees’ images as a form of co-existential virtual performance. The first of these, features a character, Micah, who comes forward towards the viewer and delivers an internal monologue of preparation and advice for a forthcoming battle. As Micah moves and gestures, a mysterious brush mark traces her movements as an extension of the wall image as a painting. The tone of Micah’s talk, which is modified from an online “ASMR” role-play video, is intended to be intimate and therapeutic. The work evokes the emotional and physical presence of a virtual persona, opening a telepathic relationship of camaraderie to the viewer.

Angsty Pool

Angsty Pool liquefies Michael Rees’ large abstract black and white crosshatched wall image into a rippling pool. Moving throughout the shallow water are five duplicate male base game characters in underwear, who perform motions of cleansing, lounging and occasionally looking out at the audience. Their movements are guided by a process of motion capture previously enacted physically by my collaborator, Freya Björg Olafson. As suggested by the title, the turbulence across the across the underlying image as well as the churning motions of the characters evoke conditions of anxiety even in the midst of the relaxing act of swimming. These conditions are meant to relate to troubling issues of identity circulating through contemporary culture, at the same time as the the desire to wash them away.

Short Bio

Will Pappenheimer is a Brooklyn based artist working in new media, performance, video and installation with an interest in shifting virtual and physical spatial and object relations, often as a form of spatial  or institutional intervention. He is a founding member of the Manifest.AR collective. His work has been shown at Whitney Museum of American Art, LACMA, Los Angeles; San Francisco MOMA; Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; FACT, Liverpool, UK; Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair, Istanbul; Fringe Exhibitions in Los Angeles; the ICA, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington; FILE, Sao Paulo, BR; Turbulance.org; The New Museum and the 2017 Moving Image Art Fair in New York. The artist’s works have been reviewed in Christiane Paulʼs historical editions of “Digital Art,” Art in America, New York Times, Hyperallergic.org, WIRED, EL PAIS, Madrid, and Liberation, Paris. He teaches new media at Pace University, New York. Email: willpap@gmail.com, www.willpap-projects.com.


Gardens of the Anthropocene

Tamiko Thiel

Augmented reality installation, Tamiko Thiel, 2016-2018

The augmented reality (AR) installation Gardens of the Anthropocene posits a science fiction future in which native aquatic and terrestrial plants have mutated to cope with the increasing unpredictable and erratic climate swings. 

Popularly known as "red tides," massive blooms of Alexandrium fundyense on the East Coast produce harmful levels of neurotoxins that cause paralysis and even death in sea animals and humans. It seems that the turtles trapped in Michael Rees' Synthetic Cells at the Grounds For Sculpture are carrying Para[Site] spores of the mutanted version of this red algae, the giant Alexandrium collossus. Existing in an overlapping but normally invisible dimension, they are visible through the lens of the AR-enabled tablets at the Grounds For Sculpture.

These mutated red algae have become airborne and can apparently now survive on dry land, far away from water. Visitors should be careful not to breathe in the airborne toxins, as they may cause health problems similar to those being caused currently by a different species of red algae in Florida

Tamiko Thiel




The Inflatable Boy, Lucille Trackball

Carla Gannis


Artist Carla Gannis contributes to “Synthetic Cells: Site and Para (Site)” an augmented reality performance by Lucille Trackball, Gannis’s virtual alter ego. Gannis references the sixteenth century mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo in her representation of Lucille, a colorful android assembled from an assortment of 3D-modeled emojis. Apropos of Michael Rees’s installation of inflatable vinyl sculptures, Lucille tells the story of “The Inflatable Boy,” a viral joke from the internet.


Carla Gannis is a New York-based artist fascinated by digital semiotics and the situation of identity in the blurring contexts of physical and virtual. She received an MFA in painting from Boston University, and is faculty and the assistant chairperson of The Department of Digital Arts at Pratt Institute. Upon her arrival to New York in the 1990s, Gannis began incorporating digital elements into her painting-based practice. Since then she has eclectically explored the domains of “Internet Gothic,” cutting and pasting from the threads of networked communication, online art history, and speculative fiction to produce dark and often humorous explorations of the human condition.

Her work has appeared in numerous exhibitions and screenings, nationally and internationally. Recent projects include “Portraits in Landscape” Midnight Moment, Times Square Arts, NY; “Sunrise/Sunset” Whitney Museum of Art, Artport; and “Until the End of the World,” DAM Gallery, Berlin. Gannis’s work has been featured in press and publications including, ARTnews, The Creators Project, Wired, FastCo, Hyperallergic, Art F City, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The LA Times, amongst others.


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Chris Manzione

Only As Beautiful As The Objects It Reflects

In response to Michael Rees’ Synthetic Cells sculptures Manzione continued an on going series of works Only As Beautiful As The Objects It Reflects. This series of works aims to provide access to an objects surrounding environment by looking into the reflective surface of the object itself, creating a type of looking glass that welds the reflection of the environment to the surface of the object.

This new work examines layers of reality that both dissipate and reveal, shifting orientations that become incursions on our comfort while questioning the origin and presence of objects in our world of ubiquitous digital and network technologies.

These works have been created in response to Rees’ sculptures using 3D scan data from particular sites along with a 360° HDRI images also captured at a series of chosen sites. The 3D scan data then receive a fully reflective mirrored texture within software and the 360° HDRI image then gets placed in the same scene as a spherical environment around the object providing a source for the reflections.

The 3D scanned objects include a cabinet of curiosities, a fallen tree, a brick flower bed, and a large boulder; the 360° environments come from a circus, a quarry, an open field, a mountain top, and deep woods.

Christopher Manzione is an American artist who ran the Virtual Public Art Priject (10’), an organization that used augmented reality to produce original artist works in public space. His most recent project Activatar app will host a range of new media artists projects through monthly shows via the app and is scheduled to launch December 2017. Manzione’s work also includes sculpture, installation, virtual reality, 3D printing and performance; most recently he presented the virtual reality artwork World and Place Evaporating as part of the Moving Image Art Fair (17) along with curating and showing in Space Between the Skies at Apex Art (16). In addition he has received a 2014 Fellowship through Franconia Sculpture, he was a 2013 Fellow for New Jersey State Council on the Arts, artist-in-residence at William Paterson University’s Center for Computer Art and Animation (11), Socrates Sculpture Park (Emerging Artist Fellowship, 2010). He has shown nationally and internationally at venues such as the Boston ICA, Abington Arts Center, Kim? Art Center in Riga, Alt Art Space in Istanbul, Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, the Surry Hills Festival in Melbourne, and Gurzenich Koln Museum in Cologne. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Visual Arts and Technology at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ.