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Where next for virtual reality art?

4 January 2019

The first consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset – a display device for viewing and navigating computer-generated, or ‘virtual’, environments – was released in the spring of 2016. That summer, I had my first virtual reality (VR) experience. I knew someone who was exploring the use of the technology for surgical simulators: they showed me their project and then we played a game in which you run around an abandoned fort killing zombies with a bow and arrow. A few weeks later, at the ninth edition of the Berlin Biennale, I came across my first VR artwork: Jon Rafman’s View of Pariser Platz (2016), a dizzying three-minute experience in which viewers walk around a simulation of the fifth-floor balcony of the Akademie der Künste before being plunged into a dystopian underwater world filled with carnivorous animals.

Rafman has become something of a poster boy for a generation of young artists who in recent years have begun to experiment with VR – often teaching themselves how to use programming software to create their simulations themselves: Jacolby Satterwhite, Rachel Rossin and Lawrence Lek, to name a few. Many of these artists were already working with new media to explore questions of human existence in the so-called ‘digital age’: having previously worked with applications such as Google Street View and Second Life, Rafman has described the progression to VR as ‘the next logical step’. A small number of groups and institutions known for their particular interest in new media art – such as DIS, the collective who curated the Berlin Biennale in 2016, and the New Museum, whose art and tech incubator NEW INC appointed Rossin as its first virtual reality fellow in 2015 – have supported and exhibited this work from the start. But beyond the field of what is often dubbed ‘post-internet’ art, the impact of VR in art remained minimal.

Over the past 12 months or so, a shift has taken place. In July it was announced that a museum director, Daniel Birnbaum of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, would be resigning from his role to assume leadership of the fledgling organisation Acute Art. ‘I wanted to surprise myself,’ Birnbaum tells me about his decision to join the production company, which collaborates with artists to make work using VR and related technologies such as augmented reality and 360-degree videos. Founded in 2017, Acute Art has already worked on projects with high-profile artists including Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramović and Olafur Eliasson. Also in 2017, the tech company HTC Vive, one of Oculus’s primary competitors, launched Vive Arts, a multimillion dollar programme to fund and support the use of VR in the arts. This spring [2018] it partnered up with Acute Art at the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel to present Kapoor’s Into Yourself, Fall and Abramović’s Rising to the fair-going public. It has also worked with institutions from the National Palace Museum in Taipei to the Royal Academy of Arts in London – at the latter, artists and students exhibited work made using Tilt Brush, a VR tool released by Google in 2016 that allows you to ‘paint in 3D’. The sight of someone in a gallery or at a fair, sporting a chunky headset and gazing up at an invisible world, may never lose its comic edge – but it’s certainly a far less alien image now than it once was.

This level of attention may be recent, but the technology itself, along with artistic uses of it, has been around much longer. In the late 1960s computer scientists invented the first virtual reality headset, which was named the Sword of Damocles because it was so heavy that it had to be suspended from a massive overhead beam. The device was able to track the movements of the viewer’s head, so they could explore the simple wire-frame room simulation displayed on the headset screen. In 1977 the artist David Em joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he held the newly created position of Artist in Residence for seven years. Today Em is considered to be the first fine artist to work in virtual reality, creating a computer-generated navigable landscape titled Aku (1977), a print of which is now held in the V&A’s computer art collection. Reflecting on this period in 1988, Em wrote: ‘Perhaps if the prehistoric painter were presented with Velazquez’s paint box and brushes it would take him a little while to grasp what had been delivered into his hands. And perhaps it will take us a little while to appreciate that the computer, which has so suddenly appeared in our midst, is likewise a wonderful and mysterious gift.’

Although government agencies and gaming companies continued to experiment with VR throughout the subsequent decades, the lack of a commercially viable consumer product meant that most artists did not have access to it. A common reason given for this decades-long delay in the technology’s successful market entry is that it was not capable of meeting the expectations of verisimilitude invoked by the word ‘reality’. Donning an ultra-high-definition VR display device today, viewers may not literally be tricked into thinking they are in another place, but very real sensations can be generated: of wonder, anxiety and terror, as well as the all-too-physical sensation of nausea known as ‘virtual reality sickness’, which is triggered by the brain’s perception of movement. Meanwhile, rapid  technological advances continue to erode boundaries between virtual and physical reality: wireless headsets are now allowing users to roam their environments far more freely, while multi-user systems are able to facilitate social experiences within the previously insular VR worlds. Unsurprisingly, the development of a technology capable of achieving such levels of immersion has led to increasing excitement about its potential uses – whether in surgical simulations, as a therapy for sufferers from PTSD, or as an ‘empathy machine’ that might increase social harmony by placing users in others’ shoes.

In the museum sector a similar attitude has been adopted – VR is frequently figured as that wonderful and mysterious gift that could potentially transform the museum-going experience, particularly facilitating access and engagement for younger or remote audiences. When it comes to art, the notion of utility is less relevant: the autonomy of art within the social order is usually considered a moral as well as philosophical necessity. Why, then, are artists being so actively encouraged to explore VR through major programmes such as HTC Vive or, at Google, artist residencies in which Tilt Brush ‘engineers’ teach artists how to use the software? When I speak to Victoria Chang, director of Vive Arts, she acknowledges that ‘we want to grow the whole ecosystem of virtual reality’ – in other words, to cultivate consumers of VR beyond the niche industry of gaming that is currently its primary market. Regarding what artists may have to gain from this exchange, Birnbaum offers a different perspective: ‘What’s the reason for them to paint with oil on canvas and why would they suddenly use a television set? […] I’m quite sure that a technology as visually interesting [as VR] will be explored, and I think that’s an unavoidable thing, just like photography was explored, and film and video – this is the next technological breakthrough.’

By making connections with other media, from painting to video, advocates are able shrewdly to position VR within a venerated art-historical tradition while simultaneously presenting it as a radical innovation that could open up previously unimagined opportunities for its practitioners. This perspective is supported by VR works such as Abramović’s Rising, which builds on her career-long interest in the relationship between artist and audience. An avatar of the artist is suspended in a rapidly filling water tank, her hands pressed against the glass wall. When the viewer lifts their own hands to meet Abramović’s, the wall comes crashing down and they are transported to an Arctic seascape, surrounded by melting polar caps. The viewer is then invited to pledge their support for the environment, and the Abramović avatar is rescued from drowning. Speaking about the project in a behind-the-scenes video, Abramović explains: ‘I hope to explore the questions [of whether] immersive play will increase empathy for the present and the future victims of climate change and how this experience will affect players’ consciousness.’ Although focusing less on the moral than the aesthetic capacities of VR, Kapoor’s work (Into Yourself, Fall) takes a similarly positive view of the opportunities it offers to cross new frontiers of human experience.

Broadly speaking, this kind of approach falls into line with techno-optimism, the belief that new technologies will ultimately improve the future of humanity. For some of the artists who have been associated with the ‘post-internet’, this view is naive at best. When it comes to VR, there’s a question as to whether total virtual immersion is really something we want to attain. In conversation with Birnbaum at the 2018 edition of the Verbier Art Summit on the topic of VR, the writer and artist Douglas Coupland articulated a concept called ‘post-VR sadness’: ‘People put these things on and they come out, and they never quite return to the full world, and part of them is invested in this machine.’ When I speak to Rachel Rossin, a self-taught programmer who describes a childhood ‘immersed in video games’, she enthuses about VR’s ability to create the sensation of embodiment and expresses a cautious ‘hope that we don’t fall out of love with the physical world’. Yet, for her, using VR feels as ‘natural’ as using paint – the line between virtual and physical space has already been eroded, and the technology itself is the most potent symbol of this new reality. Take I Came and Went as a Ghost Hand (Cycle 2) (2015), a rendering of Rossin’s studio, created using 3D scans of the space and its contents, which include a painting on an easel and a woman at her laptop. As viewers navigate the environment, it gradually distorts and deteriorates – ‘carried away by all the viewers who have taken a part of the piece away with them’, as Rossin puts it. The sense that we are in some way already resident in a virtual world is similarly explored in projects like Lawrence Lek and Kode9’s Nøtel (2015–): a ‘fully automated, evacuated luxury’ hotel complex whose seemingly endless labyrinth of unpopulated corridors uncannily invokes the isolation of our increasingly virtual existences.

Many other works have been made using VR over the past couple of years – some technically experimental, some more philosophically ambitious – that are worlds away from the spectacular, high-octane experiences that might be expected from the medium. Through its use they defamiliarise the technology, creating a space where it can be seen all the more clearly. When I speak to Birnbaum in September, he has not yet taken up his post at Acute Art, but suggests that he is looking forward to taking on these kinds of artistic projects – those that don’t ‘do exactly what the medium expects from you’, but rather ‘sabotage the medium or turn it on itself’. Perhaps it’s here that the significance of artistic experimentation with VR lies – in the ability of artists to work in a different direction from the technology they use, so that it becomes not just the tool but also the subject of a practical investigation into its fundamental nature. Yet, even as artists push against the seduction of the virtual, VR is becoming increasingly ubiquitous – assisted in part by its integration into the cultural sphere. According to Coupland, ‘VR is this asteroid that’s going to hit the planet, apparently, in 2023.’ At the current rate of propulsion, Coupland’s estimate seems fairly probable. Virtual reality may be a gift, but the question remains of what we stand to gain from this discovery.

From the November 2018 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.