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BMW's latest art car goes digital with an augmented-reality paint job

Since the 1970s, BMW has commissioned a series of art cars, giving famous artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons the opportunity to use its cars as four-wheeled canvases. The project has resulted in some pretty wild designs, but none like the latest BMW art car.

This, the 18th in the series, was designed by Chinese artist Cao Fei, and is the first of its kind to incorporate augmented-reality elements. To the naked eye, it looks like a plain BMW M6 GT3 race car, painted in a nondescript shade of matte black. But using a companion app, viewers can see the car adorned in ribbons of light.

The real element of artwork here is a video created by Cao Fei based on a traditional ceremony for the blessing of objects. In this case, it’s the car (and its driver) that are being blessed by a “time-traveling spiritual practitioner,” according to BMW. The digital nature of that blessing not only makes new use of technology, but also rethinks the nature of audience participation, since viewers have to do more than simply look at the car.

“To me, light represents thoughts,” Cao Fei said in a statement. “As the speed of thoughts cannot be measured, the No. 18 Art Car questions the existence of the boundaries of the human mind. We are entering a new age, where the mind directly controls objects and where thoughts can be transferred, such as unmanned operations and artificial intelligence. Which attitudes and temperaments hold the key to opening the gateway to the new age?”

Conceptual talk of the digital frontier aside, the M6 GT3 that formed the basis for this piece is still a race car. It features the same basic platform and 4.4-liter, twin-turbocharged V8 from the M6 road car, but with extensive modifications for aerodynamics, safety, and weight savings. M6 GT3s currently compete in Europe and the U.S., although BMW no longer sells the M6 road car here. Cao Fei’s art car will race in the FIA FT World Cup in Macau this November, although it’s hard to see how racegoers will experience its augmented-reality component from trackside.

In addition to Cao Fei’s augmented-reality art car, BMW commissioned American artists John Baldessari to create another M6 GT3 art car. Although it was unveiled in December, Baldessari’s car is considered the 19th BMW art car because he was named to the project after Cao Fei. Baldessari went with a more conventional design, comprising monochrome dots on a white background, with the word “FAST” on one door, and an image of the M6 GT3 on the other.

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