As an Ottawa-based artist, Paul Sharp is used to having more ideas than he acts on. But a few years ago on one the walks he’d take to find inspiration for his own work, Sharp was struck by an idea that he couldn’t quite shake. “I thought, ‘Jeez, there’s all this space here. And it would be really amazing if it was full of art,'” says Sharp.
“While I was walking, I just kind of came up with the idea of having an augmented reality app that had art everywhere,” he says. Inspired at that time by the then-ubiquitous Pokemon Go app that combined digital technology with physical spaces, Sharp says he saw an opportunity to take advantage of the possibilities that augmented reality affords.
It was from this seed that Sharp’s idea for Ottawa Art City emerged: a free augmented reality art festival in Ottawa’s downtown core. The festival will debut on July 10 and run until July 18, allowing anyone with an iPhone to take part by downloading the free Hidelight app (developed by Sharp) and peruse local artists’ creations. The outdoor art exhibit will take place within the Byward Market.
“I’m hoping that this is novel enough that people are interested in trying something new,” says Sharp. “It’s a little bit like a treasure hunt for art.”
Art institutions like the Ottawa Art Gallery, The Ottawa School of Art, and The City of Ottawa’s Public Art Collection will be showcasing work alongside independent local artists. While some participants may take down their work once the festival officially ends, artists can decide to keep their artwork up after the end date.
Sharp says he designed the app and organized Ottawa Art City because of the damaging effects the pandemic has had on artists’ abilities to carve out a living. As public health restrictions prevented people from physically gathering, particularly in indoor spaces, the usual places where artists could connect with potential buyers were closed off.
“We’re watching all of these things in our life just disintegrate before us,” says Sharp. “All the events in the art community have been canceled or gone online.”
“I know how difficult this has been for artists. And I know culture is not at the top of people’s priority list right now,” he adds.
The festival suits the current moment: because it’s outdoors and asynchronous, people can enjoy cultural events without the same potential health risks of a large gathering for the same extended period of time, like a gallery exhibit or concert at a music venue.
Sharp says he’s hoping the festival will not just entice the community to show up and enjoy local art, but will encourage artists to reengage creatively as well.
If a festival-goer likes a certain piece of art, they can tip the artist using an in-app feature. Artists can also set up an e-commerce shop with Shopify that will be connected to the app.
There is also the ability for fellow artists to collaborate and co-create an art installation that is greater than the sum of its parts. Explaining how the feature can be used, Sharp says, “Somebody might see something that one artist did, and build on that and create something bigger, and somebody else can come along and add to it as well.”
“Artists do collaborate, it’s an important way that we work,” he says. “And I wanted that to be present in the app.”
Sharp says he thinks people are willing to travel and enjoy digital art.
“I’m really excited about the opportunities that this holds,” says Sharp. “And I really hope that other people will be excited about this as well.”