Unlikely things tend to happen in El Segundo.
The town famously played an outsized role in the Allied Forces victory in World War II, churning out 41,000 aircraft to power the air campaign many believe was a decisive factor in war’s outcome. And those docking modules that made putting a man on the moon possible? Made in El Segundo, of course. The city of 16,798 contains more Fortune 500 companies than any other municipality in California other than San Francisco, headquarters four major league sports franchises (five when the LA Chargers arrive), gave birth to the potentially revolutionary fake meat industry, was once the (somewhat) secret headquarters of both Mike Tyson and Roseanne Barr.
“It’s true. El Segundo punches above our weight,” said Mayor Drew Boyles, who calls the city the “most important five square miles” in California.
The project this unlikely partnership has created will be unveiled at ESAW this weekend.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that this Saturday an extremely large fox painted on an very large mural on Grand Avenue will leap out of the wall and sidle up to those attending the El Segundo Art Walk. Still, the way this will come to pass – via an emerging technology called Augmented Reality, utilized in an almost bizarrely ambitious project envisioned and commissioned by ESAW, funded by the City, enabled by Snapchat, and executed by a rising “reality designer” Christian Enriquez (see related story) – is a combination so unlikely as to be nearly unfathomable.
“It’s unusual,” said John McCullough, ESAW event producer. “To say the least.”
The project this unlikely partnership has created will be unveiled at ESAW this weekend. It uses Augmented Reality to do three things: to bring to other-dimensional ART flourishes to the two murals that were commissioned by ESAW for the previous two art walks, “The Fox” by Bunnie Resiss and “Moving Forward” by Andrew Hem; it will create an ongoing AR map that shows how to find public art throughout the city; and, finally, it will create an AR installation that actually shows all that public art all in one place, at City Hall, during the Art Walk.
The only similar use of AR and public art that has occurred in the region is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s $250 million “Monumental Perspectives” Augmented Reality project, which likewise was done in partnership with SNAP. This project, which cost $30,000 and was funded by the City’s Cultural Arts fund, is smaller in scope but almost as broad in ambition: the idea is to bring more people to public art, and to bring pubic art more vividly to people.
“Augmented Reality has been around for a while, but it hasn't reached critical mass,” said George Renfro, ESAW’s creative director. “Maybe we take photos with selfie filters with AR, but in terms of how it’s used in other areas, we are still experimenting. So I think this is the perfect use of it.”
What’s also unusual is that most of the key players who made this project happen are from El Segundo, including Enriquez, SNAP’s head of platform partnerships Matt Cano, and, of course, McCullough and Renfro.
“It’s like we have an affinity for this town, and we want to see something cool like this happen,” Renfro said. “And then we all work in some version of tech or design, so we're really able to have the opportunity to capitalize, and really push this event.”
By push, Renfro means pushing the envelop of what is possible, both for the Art Walk and for public art in El Segundo. This urge to evolve something has characterized ESAW since McCullough and Renfro took the reins six years ago and turned a spontaneous, wildly unexpected and beautiful expression of El Segundo’s thriving creative scene and made it one of the signature art events in all of Southern California.
“We are not complacent because I think we want to make ourselves excited,” said Renfro, who is fourth generation El Segundo and graphic designer who runs his firm and undertook ESAW for the love of his hometown. “Because if we're excited about something, hopefully other people are, too.”
McCullough was the driving force behind making the AR project happen. ESAW featured an AR installation last year, but when McCullough met Enriquez – a young AR designer who’d graduated from the SNAP Lens Academy and created a stunningly inventive AR component for an exhibit at ESMoA featuring the work of movie production designer Rick Carter (of Star Wars, Avatar, Back to the Future, and The Polar Express fame) – both saw the possibility of doing something on an entirely different scale.
McCullough is a problem solver by nature. He is part of a group that owns and operates 18 restaurants, and he is also an event producer who this year organized LA Beer Week. What McCullough saw in the AR project was a way to both solve an existing problem, the lack of “discoverability” that exists for the dozen or so major works of public art in El Segundo, and to expand the very conception of what public art can do.
“It's kind of part of my everyday job, to understand and solve lots of different kinds of problems when I'm looking at restaurants, right?” he said. “And part of the problem was…how do we get all this great public art on a usable platform? For example, L'Oreal came up with this amazing butterfly sculpture. But how does anyone know it is there? So we started asking, what is the next step? How do we make El Segundo at the forefront of art? What big ideas can do that?”
As if by Augmented Reality, the solution almost magically appeared – in the form of Enriquez, who shared McCullough’s vision, and SNAP, whose leadership team, particularly Cano, fully supported augmenting the El Segundo Art Walk. But McCullough brought it all together, along the way meeting with every member of the City Council, as well as working closely with Enriquez and SNAP.
Renfro has been working a long time with McCullough – who on top of his multiple jobs, also happens to be a husband and the father of two young children – yet found himself newly amazed.
“I'm honestly fascinated by John,” Renfro said. “He has enough drive to give me drive, and I have a lot going on, too. I was like, ‘Are you sure we want to try and make an entire customized AR map?”
McCullough praised the City for supporting such an unusual project.
“AR is still a very new thing,” he said. “The City of El Segundo took a chance on the Art Walk. The City trusted that we would guide this somewhat risky project to completion. The ‘Big Ideas Start Here’ motto is real. And the results are real.”
Boyles, El Segundo’s tech-savvy mayor, said McCullough and Renfro had earned the City’s trust.
“John is just on top of it,” he said. “Both he and George are just tireless advocates for the Art Walk. They are constantly looking for ways to innovate, improve it, and make it better not only for the people who visit, but for the City.”
And there’s yet another creative and very local twist: SNAP worked with kids from Da Vinci School, teaching three classes on how to design and build some of the AR “lenses” that people will view through their phones in order to augment their experience of public art.
“It's really exciting,” Renfro said. “Snapchat is obviously a huge global company. They don't necessarily need to do anything special for El Segundo, but they did.”
McCullough said much of the same team that worked on the LACMA AR project worked alongside Enriquez to bring El Segundo’s AR project to fruition.
“Christian is a big cog,” he said. “You have to have six or seven different skills – coding for websites, coding for SNAP, 2D animation, 3D animation…he was trained in all of those. And what he doesn’t know, we had the full resources of SNAP – I mean, their best people. It’s the top of all their leadership teams helping us do this.”
Though AR is a new technology, in a sense, art has always been about slightly tweaking our sense of reality, helping us to see what already exists with a fresh lens. Renfro said Enriquez’s work on the two murals simply enhances what is already there.
“A mural is flat,” he said. “It's just that – paint on a flat plane. But like it says right in the name, AR, it's augmented. It's sort of a different take on reality. It's making reality better, or at least more fun. It's a way to make this art more memorable, so you are going to have more of a connection. AR gives the art another angle to say something else.”
McCullough has a picture in his minds eye. He imagines a father in an El Segundo park with his kids, looking at his phone and asking, “Hey guys, do you want to go to another park, or do you want to check out the new art installation on the other side of town?” Together, they go to the Art Walk and check out the AR installation. The L’Oreal butterfly sculpture pops up right before their eyes. They embark on a journey of discovery, and drive to the sculpture. It’s made of composite metal, and as you move around it, the color changes and it becomes a second butterfly.
“Oh my gosh,” one of the kids says. “I’ve never seen that happen before.”