Creative Escapism: Entering the Inspired Simulatio...

Creative Escapism: Entering the Inspired Simulations of MUTEK’s “VR Salon”

On November 10 and 11, MUTEK unveiled the highly-anticipated third edition of their “VR Salon,” a multimedia exhibition showcasing the latest in virtual reality art and technology. Presented in the context of “Mixed Realities,” a multidisciplinary conference hosted by the organization’s digital arts arm, MUTEK_IMG, the event offers participants a tantalizing glimpse of an inevitably virtual future.

Though better known for their eponymous annual music festival, MUTEK’s foray into the rapidly expanding world of VR technology is neither new nor surprising. As the organization’s head VR rep Frédéric Guarino was quick to point out, VR headsets have already been incorporated into their live music events, and new ways to integrate the technology are actively being sought out. The goal? To create unprecedentedly multi-sensory experiences, paving the way for new approaches to the creation, transmission, and interpretation of art. “We’re getting into the creative process much more with this edition – we’re covering each step of a project’s progress, from its inception to its completion,” explains MUTEK co-founder and director Alain Mongeau.

Additionally, the salon seeks to de-compartmentalize the different sectors of the VR industry, both geographically and creatively. According to Guarino, Montreal represents a “crossroads” between Europe and North America, providing a setting where artists from both continents can connect with each other. “Our goal is to create a space for sharing, where people can create new personal linkages and get exposed to different points of view.” Indeed, the geographic diversity of participants gave the event an unmistakably cosmopolitan feel, with conversations and presentations unfolding with a bilingual flexibility familiar to many Montrealers.

For a perspective on the production side of things, Graphite spoke to the National Film Board of Canada’s Vincent McCurley, a VR enthusiast who’s worked on various virtual art projects since learning the trade two years ago. McCurely holds a promising view of the medium’s future, and is confident that the current limitations of VR technology – manifested through wires, spatial confinements, and unconvincing resolutions – are destined to be obliterated by the linearity of R&D.

At MUTEK’s VR Salon, a new kind of social experience? Photo: MUTEK_IMG

At MUTEK’s VR Salon, a new kind of social experience? Photo: MUTEK_IMG

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the staggering volume of investment capital flowing in (Fortune puts the number at $4 billion since 2010). Despite his excitement, the artist is quick to warn that, as with any new technology, the growing capabilities of virtual and augmented reality equipment must be regarded with a healthy degree of caution. “VR has the ability to tickle the chemicals in our brain to a level beyond anything we’ve witnessed before,” he posits. “If we think phone addiction is a problem now, well…I think there are important ethical considerations that can’t be ignored.”

McCurley’s initial interaction with VR left him fascinated, not only with the visual immersiveness of the medium but with its ability to evoke surprisingly organic emotions in the user as well. Donning a headset for the first time at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, McCurley was transported into the world of Nonny de la Peña’s “Hunger in LA,” an 360° animated experience which has been described as “immersive journalism” for its socially-oriented focus.

In this short film, if one may call it that, the user finds themselves waiting in the line of a Los Angeles food bank, eventually witnessing a nearby individual collapse in a state of diabetic shock. Initial uncertainty quickly turned to feelings of helplessness as McCurley realized that his avatar was incapable of helping the victim. The feelings of empathy and disorientation-bordering-on-nausea aroused by the experience opened his eyes to the boundless potential of the medium, inspiring in part the car accident-centered virtual cartoon he had on display.

No stranger to big thinking, MUTEK had about 20 VR headsets of various makes on hand, including some with gesture controllers which allow users to grab, move, and otherwise manipulate simulated objects. Each of the works your correspondents explored, including careful pairings of compelling visuals and rich soundtracks, reflecting MUTEK’s strongly artistic focus. In one of the works, beatbox superstar Reeps One is seen dropping beats in various beautifully desolate locations, often harmonizing with cloned versions of himself, who surround the user at various points.

In another, the gigantified, neon-adorned members of Cuban-American rock band Aloud surround the user with a haunting dance ritual, making one feel small and powerless yet thoroughly enthralled. The most striking aspect of the experience was how genuinely engaging the simulated worlds of each piece proved themselves to be. Incoming projectiles felt like they would hurt, overhangs induced vertigo, and scenery was, of course, strikingly beautiful. The mainstream potential of films, concerts, and social connections in the virtual world is not difficult to imagine with such impressive simulative avant-gardism already on display.

If the objective of MUTEK’s VR Salon is to illustrate the limitless possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration and integration, it has certainly achieved its goal. The question now seems to be where virtual reality technology won’t be able to take us. In an era where millions of people already spend the bulk of their free time navigating the pseudo-virtual universes of MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, issues of VR over-attachment are unavoidable. But for now, it seems that the technology holds the key for digital art as a whole to be taken to the next level.

As much as some may jump to criticize the supposed artificiality of the VR art and gaming experience, one thing is clear: this technology is here to stay, and its influence will only grow. By positioning themselves at the center of this movement, the minds behind MUTEK have ensured their organization a place in artistic history. Ready or not, the age of virtual reality has arrived.