Enter Through The Headset

Enter through the Headset at Gazelli Art House, London was the first proper taste of Virtual Reality Art that I have come across. I have seen works that use VR headsets before, such as at the Carsten Holler exhibition at the Hayward, however this was the first time I have seen the medium explored in any depth.

There were three pieces in the show that involved an Oculus Rift headset, however, one of them was out of order for my visit. Despite this, the works Veil by Iain Nicholls & Tom Szirtes and The Styx by Skullmapping showed two equally interesting ways of using such a device within art.

Veil presents us with a simple cardboard house and a VR Headset with a camera and a sensor held in front of the viewer. Once donning the goggles, we see … a slightly more elaborate, textured but still cardboard house. Prompted to turn our handle, the house (slightly out of sync) turns and reveals a removed window panel and a view of a landscape, that upon inspection takes you through the portal of the window into the scene witnessed. We are now standing on a cliff, looking up at a screen, ‘Lumière’ in large writing above and showing L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895) by the Lumière Brothers. After the film has finished, an actual modelled train comes bursting out of the screen and makes its way past us and off the cliff, referencing the panic caused by this film when first shown.

We are taken back to ourselves, standing as we are, staring at the plinth with the cardboard house. Once again we are prompted to turn the handle, and again a panel is revealed, we stare and find ourselves now in an abandoned gallery. Pictures line the walls from all of history, Velazquez and Holbein’s creations stare out at us. Other paintings lie on the floor, inspection sees them presented to us as if holding, a shake of the head drops it. A minute or two here and the world turns black, a message thanks us for playing and tells us we’re done.

The Styx gives us an altogether different experience. Given a coin to hold, and a wooden bench to sit on we find ourselves in a boat. At this point I remember thinking, ‘Oooh, I’ve never died before’, as the man standing on the rocks began walking down the jetty towards us. Climbing into our vessel, we feel ourselves rocked, he opens your closed coin-holding hand at which point its real counterpart is pried loose and the ferryman takes his payment.

The Styx leads you through its underground trail, past floating corpses, through tight squeezes, under dripping water that finds itself landed our heads and hands, to a great cavern where a three headed hydra is tearing at one of the bloated damned souls. Our guide puts his finger over his mouth as we pass through the hydra’s den. It slips silently into the water before roaring up in front of the little boat, kept at bay only by the ferryman’s staff. We continue on through the underworld and its tunnels, eventually coming out, in front of a pyramid on a sandy shore, perhaps Elysium? The journey is reminiscent of old virtual rollercoasters at theme parks.

The differences in approach between these two works is in how the user/viewer is engaged with the technology and the Virtual Reality world itself. The essential problem here is the mobility of the viewer being very restricted – the VR headsets need to be connected to relatively powerful computers in order to run their programs smoothly.

These pieces present the two major ways of human integration to the world: Veil uses an object to focus the viewer, something that both exists physically before we put the headset on and also that is the major point of interaction when wearing the goggles; Alternatively, The Styx sits the viewer down on a chair that then acts as their root in the new world where they are guided around without moving in the physical one.

Both pieces have a further device to supplant you from reality. Within Veil we are presented with the handle that sits proud on the side of the plinth and we are given prompts when to use it. The virtual representation of this handle turns when we turn the real handle, except no ghostly hand is seen turning it. The Styx has its coin to pay the ferryman and it really is weird feeling the coin being taken out of your hand and seeing a slightly mismatched one doing the same in the virtual world.

The Styx then takes its worldbuilding a step further. The assistant moves around the chair and its platform, mimicking the movements of the ferryman on the boat so we can feel it rocking and reacting to various stimuli through the seat.

Techniques such as these are required for work such as this to match the viewer’s visual and aural experiences with their other senses. It is not so much about tricking them into believing what they are witnessing but a way to reintegrate the experience of being human into the art. Without this, the act of putting on the VR headset is such a massive barrier, a threshold crossed, we are all too conscious of removing ourselves from reality.

Within my own pieces, although I have yet to use a VR headset, I have used similar techniques to both of these works. For our Territories of Practice show in the morgue, the scene of my chair, lamp, carpet, side table and mirror was repeated throughout the virtual work and also acted as the place you played the work from in the real world. In the end of year show, I had a chair made from pallets and a television on the floor in front, a scene that was again repeated within the work itself. I feel that self-reflexivity within a work such as these to be very important, when looking at technologies that challenge and form new modes of interaction, surely the work should be aware within itself of the user experience?

The other works on display were three video pieces by Matteo Zamagni. One of these videos was also the subject of the large cube with VR goggles that was out of order when I visited.

Zamagni created Thodgal using mathematical formula to create fractals that we the can float around in VR, or just on a screen as in my case. These were such beautiful animations, I would like to return to see if I may be able to try them inside the cube.

One of the most interesting segments within the fractal animations was the inclusion of Google’s Deepdream to process some of the frames and create the psychedelic patterns that are now such a definitive style. I don’t really like seeing Deepdream within artists work. Zamagni has done something complicated here before he has added Deepdream as an effect, but the problem with the computer is that it always dreams the same. There are set styles you can change and they all come out distinctively of their origin. The little eyes or pagodas that commonly spring up, the dogs, the seals, when you have seen them once and you hear how they were created you loose the wonder because the variation stops. The computer can’t yet construct an image with a final idea and fudge it all together as an artist does, there is no choice or intention apparent within a Deepdream image just a process, and no thought behind that process either. In a world where no image is printed un-doctored, Deepdream is just another filter albeit a clever one.

Our senses are just the perception of the world, what we see and perceive is not the absolute reality, rather a medium and (computing back?) VR into all these different senses an make something that your brain will actually believe is real.

I decided to create a physical space as well as a digital one in a way so that the audience will step inside the cube and leave behind the one we know to explore the similarities between the real world and this abstract one, created entirely by mathematics.

-Matteo Zamagni

The other other two videos that Zamagni presented didn’t pose as much interest as the fractals did to me, Mass Production a collaboration with Eleanor Greenleaf and TSVI was a hyperactive montage, making use of many effects both digital and analogue to alter, glitch out and destroy the images we are seeing, in his own words ‘The destruction of the footage in the video is a reflection on how information, data and mass production are overwhelming and infecting our systems.’

This show has definitely been one of the better shows I have known in my experience. Most importantly it has presented me with ways to use the technologies I am currently looking into within an art context. It is on until the 25th June 2016, so if you live in London, check it out.

Categories: Art, Exhibitions, ResearchTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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