Your Device Becomes a Portal in Headlands’ ‘Twilight Engines’

Vishal K. Dar, 'Edge of See: Twilight Engines' (app view), 2019. (Photo: Tom Ide)

Twilight Engines is not, as it sounds, a fanfic crossover between the Twilight series (vampires and werewolves in the Pacific Northwest) and the Mortal Engines series (futuristic steampunk cities on wheels), though it is a bit fantastical, and a bit futuristic.

Indian artist Vishal K. Dar’s Edge of See: Twilight Engines (full title) is an augmented reality installation commissioned by Headlands Center for the Arts at three former military batteries—and a surprisingly seamless combination of technology, environment and imagination.

Viewing the works is a multi-step process (outlined in the exhibition brochure) that involves downloading a free app (only available on iOS devices), walking, driving or biking to three batteries spread across the Headlands’ hills, and positioning yourself at “activation points” to summon the gently undulating and epic arching lines of Dar’s sculptures into view. As a final step, because "pics or it didn't happen" is real, you can document your view with an in-app camera function, saving to your device a series of otherworldly landscapes.

Vishal K. Dar, 'Edge of See: Twilight Engines' (app view in gallery), 2019.
Vishal K. Dar, 'Edge of See: Twilight Engines' (app view in gallery), 2019. (Photo: Tom Ide)

The exhibition brochure also recommends visiting the third floor of the art center’s main building before you venture out into the Headlands’ beautiful wild. There you will find wooden models of the batteries with miniature versions of Dar’s AR effects issuing from them, along with a small display of the artist’s sketches and project notes. While the models’ sleek lines makes the batteries appear more like spaceships than they do when nestled into hills with weeds sprouting from cracks in their cast-concrete walls, this gallery space slightly spoils the surprise of encountering the “real” thing. Be forewarned.

Out in the field is where things get a bit fantastical. You know in your rational brain that Twilight Engines is a digital overlay of orbs and arcs onto your iPhone or iPad’s view of Battery Smith-Guthrie, Battery Wallace and Battery Mendell. But somehow the process of looking at your device’s screen—and simultaneously at the world outside of it—creates the effect of a magical window into another level of perception. It’s like they’re always there, you think. Whoa.

Vishal K. Dar, 'Edge of See: Twilight Engines' (app view), 2019.
Vishal K. Dar, 'Edge of See: Twilight Engines' (app view), 2019. (Photo: Apollonia Morrill)

Compounding this is the sensation that the sculptures are alive. They seem to ebb and flow with the sound of the waves crashing below. When I visited, the breeze felt like it was responsible for the slight movement of the white lines I traced above me.

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What brings the experience back to reality are the expected hitches of using technology in public spaces: the embarrassment of swinging your arm (and device) around you like a madwoman who cares nothing for nature, the awkwardness of slowly approaching strangers who happen to be sitting in the spot you need to point your camera in order to produce Twilight Engines. (I gave up at several activation locations where it looked, from the outside, like I was stalking someone else’s child with my outstretched phone.)

Except for a few moments of self-aware shame, the experience of Twilight Engines was a thrilling one. The lines, which somewhat resemble long-lasting condensation trails (a.k.a. “chemtrails”) emerging from or curving around the batteries like the paths of joyful fireworks, hold none of the threat of violence these military outposts once did.

And if you visit as the sun is setting, may I recommend saving Battery Wallace, with its digital ring of orbiting moons set perfectly along the horizon line, for last. It's transportive. B.Y.O. sci-fi or fantasy fanfic.

‘Edge of See: Twilight Engines’ is on view at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Battery Smith-Guthrie, Battery Wallage and Battery mendell throughout 2019. The artist will be present for guided walks on Feb. 3 (1–3pm) and Feb. 7 (5–7pm). Details here.

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