Virtual Reality Art Show View with the Body
The first people who get to explore the rare potentials of new technology are artists and through most of the modern times, theorists gave more importance to word than images, bringing about a world that is dominated by one of or both word/image constructions. But the art in Virtual Reality emphasizes what was already being speculated: that we are indeed present in a different world in which our words have been relegated to a position behind images. Through virtual reality, images have attained a level of importance which would only have been possible in times past as only paradoxes. Virtual reality art brings us into a conversation with the global changes in our way of understanding the world.
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There are three virtual reality characteristics that radically change the viewing experience and popularly believed assumptions with basis on traditional binary patterns of thought included in the exhibition by Curator and artist Christopher Manzione, Space Between the Skies, at New York’s Apexart.
Once you enter the gallery as a visitor, every assumption you have ever held will start getting changed. The works on view invert the axiomatic gallery practice of presenting objects (whether material or filmic) for collective viewing. There are five pieces included in the exhibit and only one of them, Nicholas O’Brien’s “Cross Timbers” (2016) allows a group visual experience. It is a projected video game situated at the back of the gallery. Although in Seth Chuett’s “Breaking Economies” (2016), the visual component (a 35mm photographic transparency) is too tiny for group viewing, its sound does get through the entire gallery. But in the case of the virtual reality pieces, only a single well-equipped viewer can see or hear the art at any given time; the rest of the audience will be unable to see any of the colorful picture scenes that can be viewed through the headset. The works cannot be viewed simultaneously but not individually or consecutively. The external housings are, however, directly visible: three black headsets and three pairs of black headphones dangling limply from the ceiling by heavy black wires. To be honest, aesthetically, the picture is not all that appealing.
The question then comes, why compose virtual reality art? It’s inarguable that the late 20th and early 21st centuries technologies — the internet, smart phones, Twitter, Snapchat e.t.c — are creating new relationships, not only in communication but in our definition of self, our access to the world, and our grasping or understanding of it. But cognition comes only after sensation. Technological changes are often a result of the want for improvements in systems that are already in place. But as we have known at least since Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, technology has its own voice, causing unexpected consequences in social systems. Since they don’t really have significant effects in appearance or in their immediate effects, most times, these are quite difficult to detect. The changes occur not as radical modifications to objects but rather a shift in the relationship amongst things and in the framing of categories, changing dynamics between people, objects, and, for lack of a better term, the phantasmagoria of space and time.
In the largely uncharted technology of virtual reality, artists must invent the medium as they engage with it. Every virtual reality artwork places us in a position that changes our own view of things we see things from inside out in contrast to the normal position where the audience is outside the art looking in. Experiences of both time and space are shifted from their naturalized relationships, hence they function dialectically. Contradictory attributes now inscribe and reconfigure one another. Opposite possibilities are present at the same time thus bringing into fruition the predictions of Merleau-Ponty in his 1964 essay, “Eye and the Mind”.
The VR works in this show bring to us a world that changes our expectations by putting us in unexpected relationships because we only recently emerged from a reality based on dualisms.
John Craig Freeman’s “Portal to an Alternative Reality VR: Minsheng Courtyard” (2016) acts as a passageway between the viewer’s world and a part of China the viewer can move within with a joystick. The “China” portrayed in the work is at once realistic and a construction, a present experience of the not-present-anymore. Viewing Freeman’s artwork, the viewer finds herself in two spaces at the same time.
Rachel Rossin’s “Lossy” (2016) gives no motor control to the viewer, immediately immersing him in a world of broken parts, as if some entity has broken and its remains have become independent of one another, approaching and receding at varying speeds.
Seth Cluett, Ricky Graham, and Christopher Manzione came together to work on “To Notice and Remember” (2016), which puts the viewer in a forest full of trees comprised of points of light. Viewed with peripheral vision, the curtain of glimmering trees appears bright, but when gazed at directly, it fades away. Viewers can try to chase the light with a joystick, using a glide-like movement, floating over large dark pools of deep black that seem to reflect a smattering of the lights from the trees above.
Viewing art in ‘Space Between the Skies’ at Apexart
The impact of virtual reality is only comparable to the confusion, alarm, and exhilaration felt by the viewers of the Lumière Brothers’ first public film presentation in 1895, who jumped from their seats when they saw a scene of a train that seemed like it was speeding toward them.
Virtual reality art disentangles elements of space and time that were bound together very tightly before and also plays with fixed notions. They seemed to be inseparable. The three artworks on display in this show had a quality that can be likened to viewing a city from the windows of a flying airplane. The fragments were unified by distance into a single visual field; the inability of proximity to fixate and the temporality of its cohesion. But then there is a need to revise distance and proximity. The notion of time in childhood fairytales, where a lot of years pass in the magic world of protagonists while no time passes at all in their home world but in the virtual reality world, no time seems to pass at all.
Artists who want to explore are usually eager to try out new technologies. Herbert Brün, a pioneer who used a computer in music composition early in the 1950s, wrote in the essay “Music and Information and Communication and Chaos and…”: “Nothing is sooner lost than new ways and new languages, and the privilege to walk the new path and to utter the new tongue is given to us but for a moment. In no time, the gift of a present turns into the possession of a property.” Inevitably, art helps create the social conditions that advance technology.
Space Between the Skies has provided us with the privilege of experiencing the condition of the new and of enjoying the creative dislocation created by the unfamiliar medium before it becomes defined to us.
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