Faculty member adds technological twist to Philly’s mural landscape

January 27, 2023

In Philadelphia’s Brewerytown neighborhood, a new immersive mural dedicated in December called “Future Valley Plaza” entices viewers to ponder, “Where have we been, and where are we going?” The work, one of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s 3,000-plus in the city, combines art and a dramatic virtual environment envisioned by Adjunct Associate Professor of Illustration Brian Yetzer on a site where past and future collide.

Brewerytown, as its name implies, contained nine commercial breweries within its boundaries and was the historic home of the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team at the turn of the 19th century. Since Prohibition’s repeal in 1933—after which those breweries failed to resume operations—the neighborhood has been marked by significant change, shifting demographics, and, today, gentrification. “Future Valley Plaza,” which occupies a site where a ruined brewery once stood, probes the neighborhood’s history and the delicate relationship between the natural world and the built environment.

Physical artwork created by muralists David Guinn and Robert Goodman is supported by colorful LED light installations on the exterior walls of two new apartment buildings. They straddle a concrete plaza that comes to life and completes the multilayered mural through Yetzer’s implementation of augmented reality. Guinn and Goodman’s work was completed in 2019, and the duo approached Yetzer last year about handling the augmented reality component.

When visitors approach the space, they’re encouraged to download the Future Valley app on their smartphone, which, when launched, reveals a towering, neon-like beer fermentation tank on the plaza as their phones pan across it. Together, the linked realities explore what mysteries contemporary structures may present to future generations of Philadelphians and what opportunities for adaptive reuse they may offer.

“We build the present on the ruins of the past,” Guinn said of the work’s intent. “One hundred years ago, there was a brewery and massive brewing tank on this site. One hundred years from now, what will Philadelphia look like? Who will live here?”

Linking technology with the arts has been Yetzer’s abiding passion since his studies at Bowling Green State University in the late 1990s, where his fine arts instructors pushed back on his computer-generated 3D models and animations. But his BFA in computer art was rooted in hands-on classes in glassblowing, printmaking, ceramics and other physical mediums, shaping the foundation for his explorations and the eventual founding of his company Yetzer Studio, which has focused solely on creating compelling augmented reality experiences for more than a decade.

“I think it's important to remember that it all comes back to the fundamentals of art and design and how important they are because the computer doesn't do it all. You have to tie the traditional to the digital,” Yetzer said. “I even say in my classes at UArts, ‘We've been augmenting reality since we were painting in caves.’ Now it's just with advanced technologies.”

“Future Valley Plaza” is Yetzer’s latest contribution to Philadelphia’s cultural landscape. His past endeavors include a 40 x 70-foot interactive mural at the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavilion that features a monarch butterfly, the wings of which flap when scanned with a smartphone, and an augmented reality app that enhanced the Franklin Institute’s exhibition of China’s ancient terracotta warrior statues. Perhaps more importantly, in his New Media Illustration class at UArts’ Center for Immersive Media, he encourages artists in the School of Design to consider a path similar to his, one that seamlessly blends the arts and technology. It’s essential to do so, he says, for their future success.

“I think [teaching] is the perfect situation for me to be in with UArts, because this is stuff students are going to be required to know this content for employment purposes,” Yetzer said. “Technology is changing the game, and you have to be a part of it.”