Los Angeles-based artist Nancy Baker Cahill works in drawing, sculpture, video, and new media art which merges technology with landscape. She created a free smartphone app called 4th Wall for viewing (AR) augmented reality works made by herself and other artists. Baker Cahill’s 4th Wall pieces are often in direct dialogue with each other, addressing environmental concerns, earth art, technology, and social and political issues, one of which was “In Plain Sight,” a skywriting campaign against immigrant incarceration.
Baker Cahill studied art at Williams College in Massachusetts and afterwards worked at a Boston TV station where she wrote descriptive narration for blind and visually impaired people. She stopped making art for more than a decade while she was raising her children.
When she returned to art, she first worked with drawing and painting. She did collaborative work in Los Angeles with members of Father Boyle’s organization, Homeboys, which gives guidance and help to young people with troubled lives. Baker Cahill encouraged them to tell their stories through collage, and they in turn gave her advice on paintings she made before shooting them with a gun. They told her which bullet holes to choose as the center for flowers she painted around the holes. Loving the collective spirit of this project, Baker Cahill returned to video art and experimented with (VR) virtual reality to make a connection with others. While VR was “magical and amazing,” she found it to be exclusive, limited, and expensive.
In 2018, she developed her own (AR) augmented reality app, 4th Wall, with the help of developer Drive Studios. Contrasted with VR, Baker Cahill states, “AR is a far more democratic medium, nearly everyone has a smart-phone.” Her use of AR allowed for a public art experience in different settings since she could place her artworks in specific locations and give people an opportunity for community engagement.
Baker Cahill’s 4th Wall “Defining Line” project was part of her global public art project, “Coordinates.” For “Defining Line” she placed eight immersive AR artworks along the L.A. River to reveal the river’s history of environment, immigration, and gentrification. She has created AR activations at Facebook’s office in Los Angeles and organized a city-wide AR exhibition across New Orleans.
She contributed two works to the 2019 Desert X Biennial in southern California. Her “Revolutions” was a digitally rendered image of enormous, exploding desert blossoms in brilliant colors visible from a Palm Springs wind farm. This work called attention to our demand for energy. Another AR work in the show was “Margin of Error,” which showed a swirling vortex of matter – possibly shell, sand, or salt crystals – in a whirling mass over the Salton Sea. This work called attention to the man-made toxicity of the Sea and the fragility of its ecosystem.
Baker Cahill’s “Liberty Bell, 2020,” was an animated AR colored drawing of the Liberty Bell. It’s location was in front of the obelisk at Washington D.C.’s National Monument and showed the National Monument’s Reflecting Pool. The shape-shifting animation was accompanied by sounds inspired by the Liberty Bell.
Last year Baker Cahill created “Contract Killers,” which addressed broken political and social contracts by placing an AR work of dissolving handshakes in front of L.A.’s City Hall and Hall of Justice. Her 2021 “Motherboard” placed an abstracted butterfly with a human spine over City Hall to suggest the abuse of power in politics and the need for collective human care.
Her AR artwork “Mushroom Cloud” first appeared in Miami Art Week in December, 2021. It was shown again in 2022 as “Mushroom Cloud LA/Proximities” on the West Coast during the Frieze Los Angeles Art Fair. This huge, site-specific piece appeared in the sky over the Pacific Ocean just beyond the Santa Monica Pier. It appeared differently depending on when it was viewed. Standing on the pier and looking through a mobile device held up to the sky, viewers could see an enormous, fiery mushroom cloud rise from the ocean and then explode. There was a soundscape of the sudden boom and accompanying strong wind that mirrored the action of the piece. Yet, this work gave off hope as a beautiful web of lacy threads spread across the sky. To make this AR work, Baker Cahill made a digital drawing of the images in virtual reality software. “Everything I do starts with drawing.” Then her team at Shaking Earth Digital animated it. Baker Cahill also created a two-minute video work “Proximities” which can be seen on her website. It is an abstracted collision of fire and water and features a sound collaboration.
Baker Cahill has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants, which include a Bicentennial Medalist, Williams College; Facebook artist in residence in Los Angeles; and Fellow at Santa Monica’s Berggruen Institute; among others.