App Developer & Augmented Reality Artist Donald Shek talks about adapting his outdoor site specific work ‘Augmented Chinatown 2.0’ available on the Apple Store and Google Play

Originally situated in Limehouse, the East End of London before the Second World War, Chinatown – now currently situated just off Shaftesbury Avenue since the 1970s in West Central London has continued its tradition of being an important cultural hub for the Chinese community as well as being an iconic fixture of the West End. Initially shown as part of Chinese Arts Now’s inaugural festival in 2019, Donald Shek’s Augmented Chinatown fused a real life tour with imaginative augmented reality structures – an inventive work exploring beyond the physical boundaries of Chinatown. Awarded a Digital Commission this year to develop his work, Donald tells us more about his updated Augmented Reality 2.0 – a virtual tour/audio drama available on Google Play and the Apple Store from 15th September.

Hi Donald, your immersive site-specific tour ‘Augmented Reality 2.0’ will be available to purchase on either the Apple Store or Google Play from 15th September. How are you feeling ahead of the release?

I’m looking forward to something which has been in the pipeline for a long time finally coming to fruition. It has been a rollercoaster journey. In one sense, I’m sad that it’s nearing the end but I’m also ever so slightly relieved that I won’t have to look at code for a few days!  It’s been two years since I started using this medium for my work, yet I feel I’ve only scratched the surface.  

Initially shown in 2019, the site-specific tour took place in London’s Chinatown. What did you take away from the experience?

Because the tour had to be structured, I had to think about narrative a bit more than I usually would. I normally let my ideas come together, almost haphazardly, sometimes to the point of chaos! I enjoyed the challenge of thinking more about a coherent narrative line. Looking back at the stories and research around the mythology and history of the Chinese diaspora has ignited more ideas for the future which I am looking forward to developing. 

What inspired the creation of the experience?

I grew up in Chinatown in Liverpool and the idea of Chinatown has always been a fascination for me, not just the place but the people and culture that surround it. On the surface we see the usual but there is a rich, and sometimes very dark, underbelly and there are still noticeable boundaries. I feel like I can see both sides and realised that deep down we are not so different. Having said that, being on the receiving end of racial abuse always confounded me since I grew up here. By finding stories and similar archetypes from both eastern and European mythology, I was trying to highlight how, if you look far enough, all cultures and ideas stem from very similar beginnings.  

The idea of an actual tour stemmed from my early ideas, inspired by groups like the Situationists. Taking the tour is as if we were drifting through the city, removing oneself from the day-to-day.  I think I was reading Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard so that definitely fed into it a little, specifically the choice of using augmented reality to create the digital sculptures.

Due to the ongoing Covid crisis, this has seen the theatre industry having to adapt to new ways of working. How have you found creating work during this time?

It has been ok, since a lot of my preparatory work and production is on the computer so it hasn’t felt too different from my usual day-to-day.  However, it was hard not being able to go to the studio to work on my painting.  Breaking from the screen and being able to use my hands more was definitely missed!

Augmented Chinatown 2.0 sees you collaborating with Chinese Arts Now’s Artistic Director An-Ting Chang, who directs and is a co-composer, writer Joel Tan, co-composer DJ QuestionMark and sound designer Michal Kuligowski. How have you worked together to create the experience?

It was quite an interactive/organic process from how the ideas and the story developed.  Each artist is super-talented and, without a team like this, it would be impossible for one person to create this sort of work. We always started with a general discussion and throwing our ideas onto the table.  Individually or in pairs, we would do research, in the form of site visits, interviews with locals and reading, to gather some initial development on the subjects we discussed.  We would share sounds, images and stories and it would slowly form an overarching idea that would eventually take form. I would start building the world in 3D from the research and the team would work on the composition.  This would then go through levels of iteration so that all the elements started to weave into a relatively cohesive piece.  

You studied architecture at Liverpool University, graduating in 2009 and create artwork mixing screen printing, drawing and etching. What inspired you to study architecture? How does this feed into your work?

I kind of fell into it.  My parents were not keen on me applying for art school but I wanted to do something relatively creative, either Graphic Design or Architecture.  The rest is history! In the final year of my Masters, which was my sixth year, our tutor, Felipe Hernandez, gave us a task which involved a week or two of solid reading from a plethora of sources.  He was like, read till your eyes bleed, before you draw.  And bleed they did or so it felt.  The books themselves rarely had any imagery and one of the books was The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.  Those books have seeped into varying forms of my practice which I am grateful for.

After the app’s release, are there any future plans for the experience?

I think I will always want to tweak things here and there. And as technology develops, it could become something bigger and more complex. The city is our stage to set, there are no bounds to what could be done.

What can audiences expect from the experience?

The experience is pretty big yet it emanates from a relatively small device.  Expect a small history lesson, dream-like visuals, original music, elements of drama and storytelling, all inspired by the people and culture that exist around the area. It’s a chance to create your own audio drama journey as you drift through London Chinatown.  

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

Augmented Chinatown 2.0 will be available to download on either Google Play or the Apple Store on Tuesday 15th September 2020. To find out more about the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop