Claudia Hart: AR and Reviving Medusa


KikiObj (Feminist Manifesto), 2017

Themes of identity and representation have figured strongly in Claudia Hart’s work since the early 1990’s as she forged her creative path through 3D animation. She was an early pioneer of experimental virtual imaging, using 3D animation to produce media installations/projections and through her professorial position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, developed an Experimental 3D program which became one of the first teaching simulation technologies in an art school context.

As technologies evolved, her process included simulation technologies such as AR (Artificial Reality and VR (Virtual Reality), creating objects and phantasmagorical worlds to empower female allegories/mythologies such as Medusa, one of three daughters of the Gorgan sea gods and Alice in Wonderland. Hart describes AR as an emerging technology that “permits users to see media embedded in physical objects or linked to specific locations in the real world”; where an object or image can be “trackable” through an augmented app as if it were a common QR code networked to the Cloud. The artist expounds that Augmented Reality as an emerging technology that “permits users to see media embedded in physical objects or linked to specific locations in the real world” (181.2 About the Romantic App) and reminds readers that AR is currently available through custom applications, but will soon be a common feature in every smart device

The 2015 Romanic app project was created by Hart’s virtual installation class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and focused on the 18th and 19th century paintings of the European Painting and Sculpture Wing in the Art Institute of Chicago. When the app is open, one can glimpse visions and optical illusions superimposed on selected museum artworks. It thus became a dynamic exhibition platform created by young artists where moving images disrupted the canonical painting collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

Inspiration for her 2015 Channeling Medusa comes from the Art Institute of Chicago’s Antonio Canova The Head of the Medusa bust from 1801 and recalls that his Medusa compelled her to create her first AR creation. Her resulting Channeling Medusa self-portrait draws from Hesiod’s Theogony mythology where Perseus cuts off the head of Medusa. Once a stunningly beautiful mortal, she attracted the attention of Poseidon, god of the sea, resulting in her rape and impregnation in the temple of Athena. The desecration incurred the wrath of the virgin goddess of war who transformed Medusa into a monster whose beautiful hair became a coil of serpents that would turn man to lifeless stone upon viewing. For Hart Medusa represents “a symbol of female empowerment, a true warrior princess; the symbol of all things feminine who holds the status of a queen,

Channeling Medusa, GIF

On the artists' first visit to the Art Institute in 2007, she was spellbound by Canova’s Head of the Medusa bust In much the same way I was spellbound when confronted with the power of Caravaggio’s 1597 Medusa shield at the Uffizi in Florence. Canova’s Medusa bust screams through pupil-less eyes as her snake familiars’ coil around her violated neck. Caravaggio’s Medusa is painted on a convex wooden shield that at the time provided a visual technique that helped accentuate the horror of the moment. The nightmare portrayed by the screaming mouth and the anguished darkened pupils of his Medusa captures the exact moment when she awakens to see her own reflection in Perseus shield realizing that her head has been separated from her body by his weapon.

Caravaggio uses a convex shape to not only represent a convincing illusion of a 3D face on the wooden shield, but also uses a convex mirror to paint a startling self-portrait of himself as the Medusa figure the moment he/she is executed by Perseus. In her Channeling Medusa piece Hart projects/overlays an image of herself atop Canova’s head of the Medusa bust. Much like Caravaggio, Hart chooses a specific moment from Medusa’s origin myth to create an impressionable selfie through her use of contemporary technology in her Channeling Medusa. The artist uses a selfie video that is digitally projected onto an interpretive 3D model using animation software to portray a convincing otherworldly apparition bust of slumbering trepidation

In Channeling Medusa, Hart also employs the simple technique of timing that transmits a startling affect on the viewer. We first view the artists projected face deep in meditation for a convincing amount of time. The slight movement of the eyelids foreshadows an arousal that then culminates in a sudden anguished opening of the eyes. The figure’s face has not been awakened from death itself, but from a deep immersive contemplation; a contemplation that is not to be disturbed. The unsettled pupils arise from a COVID slumber and widen to witness raw reality; a petrified fear that seems to subside as soon as it arrives.

Viewers feel a powerful jolt to the body, like watching the earth open where something or someone is being violently offended. In the mythological sense, we are disturbing a Pandora’s box where we have needlessly provoked a sleeping giant. The artist has projected an image of herself on top of Canova’s Medusa bust. Her eyes startle as they wake into reality and then close shut, repeating the abrupt awakening on a continuous loop of unsettled agitation. The Hart selfie face that “channels” Medusa is not slain, but awakens time and again to the realization she has been violently startled from her meditative state. Thanks to the timing of the blink and the looping technique, Medusa has the power to return to a sublime state of contemplation, thus representing a heroine forever teasing her assassin who can never complete his grisly task. 

Hart’s imagery/theme of Medusa also featured prominently in her site - specific installation at the Alter St Mattaus Cemetery/Friedhof in Scheonberg, Germany. The cemetery foundation is known as the gatekeeper’s house and coined by Hart as a “romantic ruin”. Hart built a series of virtual sculptures that she called the Serial Mortification series in 2015. She originally built a series of models using 3D software recalling classical sculptures and explains in her artist statement that the resulting images are a “merging of photography with a 3-dimensional virtual model that exists only inside a computer”.

After the models are digitally constructed, the artist simulates the process of their aging by using computer game industry software to create skin for zombies and all varieties of different monsters. The large-scale Medusa print has a room to itself in the gatekeeper’s house, conjuring the power and strength of her mythological past. Her hair stands straight up like thick stalks of vegetation, ready for a harvest that never happens. The room is imbued with a haunting quality that encases the majesty of the Medusa head, honoring the contemplation she deserves deep in a crypt-like room in the gatekeepers house.

Extending her persistent empowerment of female forces, Hart recently created a “female Manifetsa of the Blockchain” as part of her Kiki.Object piece inspired by an earlier 2019 NFT work made by Eve Sussman for Snark art called 89 Seconds Atomized. Snark art also hosted Hart’s ongoing Russian Roulette project, an NFT “Game of Life (and Death),” where players spin a digital roulette wheel in a “dark theatre of the absurd” that raises questions about NFT culture. In Hart’s TV show version, the more you win, the more you lose; a precipitous chance of risk that speaks to the hazards of NFT/Blockchain culture. 

Russian Roulette

Claudia Hart is represented by bitform Gallery in the US and was invited by Koenig Gallery to feature Channeling Medusa in their curated NFT marketplace August 2021 on blockchain.

Claudia Hart emerged as part of a generation of 90s intermedia artists examining issues of identity and representation.  Since the late 90s when she began working with 3D animation, Hart embraced these same concepts, but now focusing on the impact of computing and simulations technologies.  She was an early adopter of virtual imaging, using 3D animation to make media installations and projections, and later as they were invented, other forms of VR, AR and objects produced by computer-driven production machines. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, USA, where she is a Professor, she developed a pedagogic program based on her practice - Experimental 3D - the first dedicated solely to teaching simulations technologies in an art-school context. 

Hart’s works are widely exhibited and collected by galleries and museums including the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA, Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, and the Albertina Museum, Vienna. Her work has been shown at the New Museum, New York, USA, produced at the Eyebeam Center for Art + Technology, New York, USA, where she was an honorary fellow in 2013-14, and at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology, UC California, Berkeley, USA, where she is currently a fellow.