KAWS is no stranger to digital art. He is largely known for his signature set of cartoon-like figures and is one of the most successful artists to emerge from the New York graffiti scene of the 1990s and early 2000s.
KAWS inhabits a unique space within the world of contemporary art. Balanced at the intersection of commercial and fine art spheres, the artist has recently become well-known for his bold, large-scale experimentations with technology and the digital.
Originally a graffiti writer, KAWS started out his artistic career by painting traditional letter-based forms in situ. He first gained widespread recognition for producing what American critic Mark Dery once famously dubbed ‘subvertisements’.
Equipped with a skeleton key, KAWS would remove adverts from bus stops and phone booths in his adoptive home of New York City; embellishing them with his own designs, these would then be replaced the next day. Birthing a graphic mixture of ‘real world’ ad campaigns and eminently fantastical cartoon characters, this subversive artistic methodology has since bled into the Models series.
In recent years, KAWS has developed his highly innovative hybrid approach, this time turning his attention towards the artistic possibilities of so-called ‘augmented reality’ (or ‘AR’) technologies. These technologies, which are sometimes referred to by the moniker ‘virtual reality’ (or ‘VR’), superimpose a computer-generated image onto a user’s view of the real world.
In the last two years, augmented reality has been at the centre of two major exhibitions by KAWS. In March 2020, the Expanded Holiday exhibition was launched; this was a free, outdoor exhibition that took place across 12 different locations simultaneously. At its heart was a downloadable application, which allowed viewers to ‘uncover’ otherwise invisible monumental sculptures with their smartphone camera.
Describing the formative stages of the ground-breaking exhibition, KAWS noted, ‘we’re going to have a new app where we can invite people, and they can only see it through their device’.
Active in as diverse locations as Hong Kong, Melbourne, London, Doha, and São Paolo, this unique app was created by developers Acute Art. When deployed in certain public spaces, the app would unveil a digital version of the KAWS Companion sculpture, Companion (Expanded), first made famous following its appearance as a gigantic 41-foot long and 24-foot wide balloon at the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City.
In 2022, KAWS announced another augmented reality-based exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Entitled New Fiction, this was the artist’s first major exhibition in the English capital.
Planned in collaboration with acclaimed AR specialists Acute Art and video game developers Epic Games, New Fiction enabled users of the video game Fortnite to access a digital recreation of the gallery in real time. A curatorial world-first, this allowed millions across the world to experience the artworks on show no matter what their location. On show was a combination of the artist’s more expressive painterly works, such as Mirror (2018) and Sleepless (2018), and recognisable character-based sculptures, including Family (2021) and Untitled (2019).
KAWS cites practical concerns and the changing nature of street art as two of the major inspirations behind his recent use of augmented reality-based technologies.
Commenting on the many challenges incurred by the production of his large-scale sculptures, such as those exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2016, KAWS has said, ‘when I do a sculpture project, the logistics just weigh in… the weight load, getting it into the building… this is just kinda air, it’s non-existent. I think [augmented reality] is going to give me the opportunity to put sculpture where it wouldn’t normally exist’.
With major international cities including London, New York, and Tokyo undergoing the stresses and strains of gentrification, artists – and particularly street artists – are responding to an increased lack of accessible ‘art ready’ space for the showcasing of their work. KAWS’ use of digital technologies as a means to exhibit artworks in a free and unregulated fashion – without having to erect them ‘in real life’ – offers a particularly clear idea of the direction of street art in the 2020s.
Harnessing a greater diversity of tools to stage large-scale artistic interventions in public space, but without the hassle, KAWS is (by his own admission) utilising the digital to create works that exist in ‘the same way’ that his street projects and graffiti existed ‘in the beginning’.
No longer tasked with waiting for Thanksgiving to come around, KAWS can exhibit digital works 24/7, 365 days a year. Moving away from the street, the artist no longer has to fear what graffiti writers often refer to as the ‘Buff’ – those tasked with the removal of graffiti-based artworks.
Recalling the burgeoning NFT market, augmented reality-based exhibitions also offer something new and accessible to a tech savvy generation of budding collectors. As part of the Expanded Holiday exhibition, for example, an edition of 25 AR sculptures were released. These works, which remain highly collectible despite their intangibility, signpost the emergence of a completely new art marketplace. Combining real and digital worlds like no other artist, it is no surprise that Kaws is leading the charge in this emerging technological space.