Virtual Russia and Virtual China by John Craig Freeman, 2017



John Craig Freeman has constructed two geo-located augmented reality public art experiences for the Augmented Landscape exhibition at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Virtual Russia and Virtual China. This two part project uses the historic Salem Custom House as a metaphoric portal, transporting users to alternative realities created by the artist on location in the cities of Wuhan in Central China and Saint Petersburg Russia last year. The project is meant to evoke the history and contemporary manifestations of globalization, international trade and revolution.

During its early history, the Port of Salem conducted trade with both the Baltic and China. This history is relevant today as the world struggles to reconcile the discord between globalization and the rise of nationalistic protection and isolationism. We tend to think of globalization as if it were something new.

In 2016 Freeman traveled to the city of Wuhan in Central China as part of the ZERO1 American Arts Incubator. The Arts Incubator is a State Department funded cultural diplomacy program, –or perhaps we should say, ‘was a State Department funded cultural diplomacy program’, as its future funding is in doubt.

The project used virtual and augmented reality technology to examine how change is being experienced by the local people. Considered one of the fastest changing cities in China, Wuhan just might be the fastest changing city in the world.

In the early 20th Century, colonial powers were making incursion into the markets of Central China and many set up concessions, or semi-autonomous trade zones, along the banks of the Yangtze River in old Hankou, one of present day Wuhan’s three sister cities. Foreign concessions included Britain, France, Japan, and importantly Russia. America never developed a concession, but it did run gunboats up the river and traded in tea and other commodities.

One of the many augmented reality experiences Freeman made in Wuhan was created on location in the Russian Concession, including the former villa of a famous Russian tea merchant named J. K. Panoef. Once the richest man in China, Panoef was a relative of Tzar Nicolai and the owner of Buchang Tea Company. He served as the Russian Consul General of Hankou at the time. Built in 1910, today the building is called ‘Panoef House’ or Bagongfangzi by locals.

During the final years of the Qing dynasty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, civil unrest, foreign invasions, and growing resentment of the presence of colonial power resulted in open rebellion. Although the Qing Imperial Court attempted reform, conservatives resisted, and many reformers were either imprisoned or executed. On October 10, 1911, one year after the completion of the Panoef House, armed revolution broke out in Wuchang, just across the river from Hankou and the Republic of China was founded, ending 4,000 years of Imperial rule. Foreigners, including Panoef, were driven out of the country and the Panoef House was subdivided and turned over as housing for common people.

Although today, the former palace is ramshackled and in a state of unhygienic disarray, many of the families living there can be traced back generations. As the historic core of Wuhan is bulldozed to make room for condominium towers, the Panoef House will no doubt be destroyed or redeveloped as luxury housing. Either way, the current residents will be moved, and the rich community fabric the building supports will be lost.
As users explore the Freeman’s augmented reality experience while walking the grounds of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, they encounter the residents of the Panoef House in the virtual building’s interior courtyard.

In November, 2016, Freeman was invited to exhibit work for the Prospect Festival in Saint Petersburg Russia, where he constructed an augmented reality experience based on the Panoef House and placed it in the Anna Akhmatova Museum Gardens.

Anna Akhmatova was a much beloved Modernist Russian poet and critic of totalitarian rule, whose work spanned the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as, the Stalin Regime. Because of her defiance and unwillingness to leave Petrograd, –now Saint Petersburg, Akhmatova spent much of her life under house arrest in her apartment overlooking the garden below. Today this garden acts as a memorial to her.

In 1917, just a few short years after the uprising in China, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the workers’ Soviets overthrew the Provisional Government in Petrograd dismantling the Tsarist autocracy. Uprisings and revolution are most often global in scope and effect, and never unrelated to globalization and colonial power aspirations.

While in Saint Petersburg, Freeman created virtual experiences of the city, including at Nevsky Prospect along the Griboyedov Canal from Kazan Square to the Cathedral of the Savior on Spilled Blood. By locating a virtual representation of Saint Petersburg and Wuhan at the historic waterfront in Salem, Freeman has created a conceptual portal between the three cities.

Research supports the probability that Salem traded in goods from the colonial concessions of Wuhan as well as from the city of Saint Petersburg, including tea. Emily A. Murphy, Park Historian for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site wrote, “The Baltic trade was huge here in Salem, although it hasn’t been studied much, probably because it isn’t as romantic and exotic as China. However, the first vessel that Elias Hasket Derby sent beyond the coast of the Americas after the Revolution was the Light Horse, which went to St. Petersburg in 1784 and opened trade with Russia for the new United States.”

As a public artists, Freeman is interested in the role that the public square plays in the shaping of political discourse and national identity formation. Whereas the public square was once the quintessential place to air grievances, display solidarity, express difference, celebrate similarity, remember, mourn, and reinforce shared values of right and wrong, it is no longer the only anchor for interactions in the public realm. That geography has been relocated to a novel terrain, one that encourages exploration of mobile location-based public art. Moreover, public space is now truly open, as artworks can be placed anywhere in the world, without prior permission from curators, governments or private authorities –with profound implications for art in the public sphere and the discourse that surrounds it.

In the early 1990s, we witnessed the migration of the public sphere from the physical realm, the public square and its print augmentation, to the virtual realm, the placelessness, the everywhere-but-nowhere of the Internet. In effect, the global digital network has facilitated the emergence a new space, –a virtual space, which corresponds to the physical geography around us. The public sphere is now crashing back down to place in the form of place-based virtual and augmented reality, without losing its distributed character or its connections to the vast resources of the worldwide digital network.

Much of what we understand the the purpose of public art to be, is that of monumentality and memorial. Freeman’s work reimagines memory and monuments in the context mobile networks and the internet as public space.

Both augmented reality experiences were created with photogrammetry, a technology used to extract three-dimensional models from sequences of photograph taken of people, places or things at multiple angles. The software detects parallax differences of key features in the images and generates a pointcloud dataset, –points in 3D space along an XYZ axis, with RGB color values assigned to each point. The pointcloud can be converted into a polygon model and placed anywhere on earth. Importantly, this technology allows for the creation of virtual experiences based on real places and real people in the world, bringing the ‘real’ to virtual reality.