From the neoclassical sculptors, who strove to carve the image of physical perfection from smooth white marble slabs, to the first filmmakers, who transported their viewers to other realms through the moving image, it seems that for artists, the medium has always been inextricably linked to the message.
This message is fundamentally grounded in the context of its creation, and thus bound up in questions of artistic representation. Today, the advent of virtual reality and augmented reality technologies have brought about new modes of representation for contemporary artists. Not only have advancements in real-time computer simulation created endless possibilities for communication, education, and recreation in general, but new media theorists have been investigating the cultural impact of virtual reality, as it takes the form of a technological simulation of consciousness, and as the creative process of knowing is collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.
This is reinforced by the central role of the web as a highly effective mode of presentation and dissemination within the realm of contemporary art. The investigation of the following artworks from the past twenty years will confront the uses of electronic environments and virtual reality as they reveal the development of an entirely revamped experience of art. While many are calling 2016 “the Year of Virtual Reality”, a number of artists have been exploring its avenues since the early 90’s. Catherine Richards’ Spectral Bodies questions the role of simulation and subjectivity in VR technologies through narratives about inhabiting our bodies (proprioception), and then losing this sense of habitation.
The piece consists of a five minute video, which uses a spectral (disembodied) hand and arm made up of spectral dots and lines in a virtual environment, which is then controlled using a data glove. Spectral Bodies is an interactive work that re-configures the physical body as a virtual one, and thus destabilizes the subject’s understanding of their own body. The artist creates “body illusions” or impossible arm and hand transformations through virtual experimentation. Media theorist Katherine Hayles suggests that by manipulating the sensation of proprioception (the sensory system that makes us aware of existing within our bodies), Spectral Bodies expands the viewers awareness of bodily boundaries. In a sense, Richards is integrating the material body directly into VR technology, and thus creating a space in which human and information systems intersect.
In her discourse on Embodied Virtuality, which tries to eradicate the idea that the body exists independently from cyberspace using examples of virtual reality artwork, Hayles sheds light on the figure of the posthuman, or what she describes as a “techno-bio-subject.” This denotes a body that has been recreated and reconfigured through its interaction with VR technology. Brenda Laurel And Rachel Strickland’s Placeholder (1993) brings the relationship between viewer and environment under question by creating interactive and dynamic virtual spaces. The duo use the ideas of landscape and narrative to explore the possibilities for narrative action on the part of the players in a simulated landscape.
Placeholder features actual locations from the Canadian rockies as well as elements of local mythology, and uses three-dimensional videographic scene elements, spatialized sounds and voices, and simple character animation to construct locations in a virtual environment, which can then be explored simultaneously by two physically remote participants wearing virtual reality headsets. While Spectral Bodies expands the limits of the human body as it allows participants to perform physically impossible movements by integrating them into VR technology, Placeholder allows two bodies to undergo a simultaneous experience despite physical distance, and thus creates the possibility of a kind of shared consciousness through the use of VR, thus enhancing human interaction and perception.
More recently, the use of VR technology has changed the way that art is being displayed and consumed. In 2003, the virtual world of Second Life was created, which many artists used as a platform to install galleries and stage virtual exhibitions. The Dutch team, Art Tower, stage exhibitions and sell art in Second Life, and Cao Fei, who represented China in 2007 Venice Biennale reproduced her exhibition in the Chinese pavilion in Second Life. The media theorist Ted Nelson, who was concerned with the complex nature of the creative impulse in the 1960’s, felt that computers would have the ability to reveal the interdependence of ideas, connecting aspects of literature, art, music and science, since, as he said, “everything is deeply intertwingled.” In 2002, Langlands and Bell created a virtual reality tour of Osama Bin Laden’s hideout, which audiences were then invited to navigate using a joystick. How do we categorize this type of work? Is it art? historical record? a video game? The virtual reality platform, in addition to many other technologies made readily available in the 21st Century, has created new possibilities for interdisciplinary work, and has changed the way that we perceive and experience this work.
In some cases, the use of VR as an artistic medium begins to blur the line between art and life. Jon Rafman’s installation ‘Junior Suite’ (2015) at the NADA art fair in Miami explores the intersection between the virtual and the real by overlaying virtual space on top of a real Miami hotel room. The audience is then invited to occupy the space using a VR headset. Eventually, the floor and ocean beneath the viewer disperses, and the virtual world that the viewer inhabits becomes an array of randomly generated crystal-like abstraction, which appear to be real. Rafman plays upon the idea that the dichotomy between virtual and real is disappearing as we spend most of our lives in front of a screen. Rather than creating a dichotomy between reality and virtuality, we should instead understand that there are simply various levels of what we consider to be “virtual.”
Another theory explored by Nelson involves the extension of the power of human memory through emerging information technologies. Sarah Rothberg’s Memory/Place: My House (2014) is a testament to this idea, and is being called by some, “the first true virtual reality art masterpiece.” The work is said to be a completely immersive experience, which takes VR technology beyond its instrumental use and into a much more personal realm. Rothberg employs the Oculus Rift, a magenta computer monitor, a carpet, and a swivel armchair with a joystick, to transport viewers into a digital model of her childhood home. Viewers may take a guided tour of the house or roam freely if they are familiar with the Oculus device. The piece combines archival material from the artist’s childhood as well as more whimsical elements. She has incorporated family photos, diaries, and home videos as “artifacts” from her life to create a contemporary version of the ancient Greek “memory palace.” One may explore the virtual mountains and cliffs surrounding the home, and viewers have even reported feeling a sense of vertigo while peering over a precipice, forgetting for a brief instant that they were in fact situated in a cozy Lower East Side Gallery.
The use of virtual reality as an artistic medium not only creates new possibilities for representation, but can also enhance human interaction and perception. It destabilized notions of self, body, and location by creating a space in which materiality and information (technology) intersect. Virtual reality art allows us to understand how we manipulate virtual environments and how they manipulate us, and thus how the “language” of this technology structures our consciousness.