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Mural Arts Philadelphia debuts its first augmented reality mural, ‘Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny’

On October 9, Mural Arts Philadelphia is set to debut its first augmented reality mural, Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny, a collaboration between artist Joshua Mays and musical composer King Britt, along with app designer Blue Design.

Mural Arts Philadelphia unveils Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny, a new augmented reality mural that involved students from Haverford School and Mastery Shoemaker Charter School at 53rd and Media Streets.
Mural Arts Philadelphia unveils Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny, a new augmented reality mural that involved students from Haverford School and Mastery Shoemaker Charter School at 53rd and Media Streets.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer .

Mural Arts Philadelphia is bringing art to life with the city's first augmented-reality mural, Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny. The project invites viewers to experience a large-scale painting completed on a warehouse at 53rd and Media Streets through the lens of a smartphone app that casts holograms and generates a changing soundtrack as you move from left to right.

Picture a metaphysical version of Pokémon Go in which the power of a screen momentarily alters reality around you.

To see the augmented-reality mural, you'll need to download the free app, created by the local production firm Blue Design. It's available in the Apple App store under the name "MuralArtsAR." (Unfortunately, it's not available for Android users.)

To see the augmented reality, point your phone screen at the mural. Immediately, elements such as light beams, colorful orbs, floating crystals, and sculpturelike figures will begin to pop out from the painting, covering a wall the length of a city block. You can start your AR experience at any point along the mural, but it's best to begin at the left side, where the story of the mural begins.

"I simply wanted to take my work to the next level. I like making art that the viewer can look at for 15 or 20 minutes and really get lost in," says muralist Joshua Mays, who conceptualized the project with Philadelphia DJ and producer King Britt, the mastermind behind the audio component. "Both King and I are futurists, so we enjoyed the idea of going deep in order to create further realms to discover. "

The project is part of Mural Arts Month, running through October as a celebration of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Other works of art, including an interactive, inflatable You Are Magic pop-up sculpture, will be presented at Aviator Park on Oct. 26, and events including a storytelling workshop, a town hall to encourage civic discourse, and mural dedications will be held.

With the yearlong Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny project, Mays and Britt set out to visualize possible futures for West Philadelphia, involving students from Mastery Shoemaker Charter School, across the street from the mural, as well as from the Haverford School. The collaboration marks the first Mural Arts Philadelphia partnership to connect public and private high school students.

"We were really just trying to plant seeds into the minds of the kids to prompt them to think about the potential of their neighborhood and what it could look and feel like 20 years from now," says Mays, who worked with about 30 students. "I want them to always remember to aspire for something greater but to also continuously stretch their imaginations — and their imaginations really ran wild with this."

Thinking about the destiny of West Philadelphia, the students dreamed up imagery ranging from an undersea world full of squids and water spirits to a landscape where robots intermingle with humans in everyday life.

"I picture clean energy, no smog, with holograms suspending all around us, and a soundtrack of Kanye West's Graduation album playing on repeat," Haverford School senior Garrett Johnson says. "It was really cool to be a part of this and witness just how much art can build community. The project brought a bunch of strangers together to talk about art and music, resulting in the creation of something really beautiful for the neighborhood."

Including the students' ideas in his design, Mays developed a progressive series of abstract images that start with a representation of the African diaspora and end with a portrait of a woman holding a shining seed between her fingers, the focal point of the mural.

"The seed is meant to unveil a world of future possibilities, radiating out to a past that reconnects the main character with her ancestral heritage," Mays says.

Between the first and the last sections of the painting, viewers can find influences of the 1960s and '70s era of jazz in America, as well as futuristic-styled sequences, including prisms, orbs, and the face of a man resembling an android.

The audio component, which you can hear through the app, follows the temporal transition of the painting. Drums, chants, and other tribal percussion notes mark the beginning, shifting to trumpet and electric piano tunes inspired by '70s jazz, and ending with rhythmic, hip-hop-inspired beats mixed with futuristic sounds.

"At the end, you'll hear lots of sci-fi-style noises, with trippy, electronic notes and laser sounds meant to represent far into the future," says Britt, who compared the composing process to scoring music for a video game.

Some of the audio comes from sounds made by students that Britt captured while visiting the Mastery Shoemaker.

"I recorded them doing things like riding the elevator up and down, banging on the water cooler, and closing classroom doors," says Britt. "Then I manipulated the recordings into musical notes — so, for instance, the water cooler became the kick drum, and the elevator was worked into the sound of a keyboard."

Britt also incorporated snippets from interviews conducted with three  neighborhood elders.

"I had the kids come up with a list of questions to ask them, such as, 'How do you think the mural will affect this neighborhood?' and, 'What did the neighborhood look like 20 years ago?' and, 'What kind of music do you like?' " says Britt. "I felt like it was really important to not only get people from the neighborhood involved but to include them in the actual mural."

Through the Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny smartphone app, the stories of the community come to life as sculptural figures emerge on the screen, shifting the soundtrack from music to spoken word.

The app is expected to be available indefinitely, or for as long as the mural remains.