In the space of a fortnight in April and May, I saw two works made in virtual reality (VR) in London galleries. The first was that of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster Alienarium, the artist’s second major VR piece, produced for the major exhibition of his recent work at the Serpentine South Gallery in London. The second was cold lighta collaborative work by Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent, part of a multimedia installation at the new Matt’s Gallery in south London.
I was struck in both cases by the same realization: that software, ambition and content have come a long way since the first VR piece I saw in 2015, by Jon Rafman, and other works from this period. Both have been extraordinary experiences, proving that the VR space is fertile ground for artists. But the hardware “user experience” in the gallery (UX, as it’s called) seemed to be almost exactly the same as when I first put on a VR headset: a kind member of the gallery team helps you put on the headset and sometimes gives you a handset. Any slight mishaps with the latter could lead you to a menu where you really shouldn’t be.
Alex Boyes, arts tech producer at Serpentine Galleries, says this “cradle” is an ongoing aspect of virtual reality in galleries. “What VR is trying to establish is a new way of designing UX, not just with the ability for artists to experiment with [the UX], but also from an audience perspective, in terms of agency,” he says. “So when you’re putting on a VR show, there’s all these elements of integration, monitoring, and a ticketing system that can’t necessarily move nimble to better rock the experience.”
Boyes’s colleague at the Serpentine, Curator of Arts Technologies Eva Jäger, says: “Where technology and material are developing the most, where the most experimental things are happening, is actually at film festivals. , rather than in galleries. She adds that the film industry has created a “huge opening for the intersection between filmmakers and artists who are building worlds for virtual reality” and, furthermore, there is “expertise” around this birthplace and the infrastructure of the VR experience.
Gretchen Andrew, curator of The arts journalThe panel of experts reviewing extended reality (XR) projects suggests that a key part of the relationship between the art world and virtual reality is that “there really isn’t a demand for headsets insofar as the art world or the gaming world expected it. Market penetration and adoption is just extremely low.” It remains, she says, “a low-key experiment, where it’s been very well designed by the tech companies to be something that they thought, maybe ten years ago, everyone would have at home in three year”. Like an X-Box or a Playstation? “I got the feeling they thought it was like a cell phone.” It’s telling that even Andrew, an artist who works immersed in digital technologies and reviews a huge range of work in the field, doesn’t have her own headset, which she says she finds “physically unpleasant”. The clunky hardware and UX feel “stuck a decade ago,” she says.
Art is not a game
But few doubt that once the cradle is complete, virtual reality offers rich and diverse artistic experiences. In 2016, Oliver Miro co-founded Vortic, which creates 3D exhibitions on web, mobile and virtual reality. He is also Sales Director at Victoria Miro Gallery, and various gallery-driven projects have featured VR components.
Vortic has built its own rendering engine to better present the virtual recreations of the works and the spaces in which they are located. “Everything we make now is beautiful, and everything is automated.” It is also more user-friendly than other software of this type and more faithfully reflects the physical qualities of the works. “Most of the time the problem with VR was that there were these game engines, that people were using, and it just didn’t fit the art…you always felt like being in a video game.”
At the heart of Vortic’s work so far, whether for museums like the CAC Málaga or the Wallace Collection, London, or commercial galleries, has been creating a more authentic experience of real objects in a space exhibition than in online viewing rooms. that have become familiar during the pandemic.
And virtual reality has particular advantages, he says. “It’s the first digital technology from which you actually create memories,” suggests Miro. So instead of seeing something mediated through a screen like on an Instagram feed, with VR, “you feel, ‘I was standing in front of this room,'” he says. “And that’s such a big difference.” He speaks of his capacity for “humanity” and “natural interaction”.
The problem most of the time with VR is that there were these game engines that people were using, and it just doesn’t fit the art
Olivier Miro, Vortic
Vortic was also used to create a bespoke VR exhibit by Doug Aitken, where the artist designed the environment for his works, and collectors received headsets, creating a kind of virtual private view (very successful, says Miro ) in the space designed by Aitken. Still, Miro describes the awkward rocking that went along with this process – talking to collectors throughout the setup, etc. This may be more manageable in a private setting, but is still rather awkward in public spaces. Indeed, when Vortic uses virtual reality in fairs and galleries, says Miro, support is always provided. “I would worry too much about someone stepping into a wall or something. Someone has to take care of it.
It is therefore crucial for the development of virtual reality – in terms of adoption described by Andrew and accessibility in galleries – to know the extent to which its hardware can be made more portable and affordable. Both Boyes and Jäger mention the power of the work We live in an ocean of air, produced by the Marshmallow Laser Feast collective for the Phi Center in Montreal. “I could feel my breathing, my heartbeat, I could be in the [work] with a friend and see their breathing and movements. There are really interesting, more haptic things happening,” says Jäger. But to achieve these effects, visitors carried “a backpack with a battery in it,” she says. “And it’s very awkward.”
Miro suggests that the obvious trajectory for VR is “just to be a small pair of glasses” and notes that some products are closer to that shape now, but not to the quality required. But the consensus is that it may be years before more minimal technology becomes the norm. For now, Boyes mentions that social media company Snapchat is developing “more wearable eyewear technology.” Then there’s the rumored entry into the VR scene from Apple, possibly even this year, with what could be a “mixed reality” headset. “Once Apple gets into a market, you know you tend to see a really good quality product, something that’s really well designed and that people want to wear and look cool,” says Miro. . Boyes says Apple’s loyal consumer base means the company’s VR product would “be mainstreamed and introduce a wider audience” to the field “which would generate potential opportunities in the future.” Or I hope so.
Another factor in realizing the artistic potential of virtual reality will be how easily artists can embrace the technologies and, as artists, subvert or critique them from within. For example, almost immediately after Microsoft released its Kinect motion sensor add-on for the X-box, digital artists hacked them, resulting in some notable works, including those by artist Ed Atkins.
“I don’t know of any artist who explores virtual reality from the material side,” says Andrew. “In some technologies, you have artists who deal strictly with the software side – the early days of Net Art, for example. But then you also get things in robotics and artificial intelligence, [where] artists simultaneously push on hardware and software. And I think the cost of doing it [with VR] really prevents creatives from messing with the material as a creative process.
Jäger also suggests that controlling corporate access to technologies can limit the potential for artistic interventions. “Tech companies are trying to make it out of the box, out of the box,” she says. “And it causes problems for artists who pirate it. And also, I guess it influences the type of artists who are able to do these interventions, which is why it’s really important for public art institutions like ours to advocate for new relationships with tech companies. Sometimes we’re very well equipped to work with a partner, but for the most part, on our team at least, we’re really advocating for artists to use whatever material they want to use, and for people who helping them implement that material so they’re not the same people trying to sell the material.
With current hardware and user experience, fewer gallery visitors could experience virtual reality than, say, a video installation or augmented reality projects on their smartphones, artists worry they access limits of the medium? Jäger suggests that it might be more useful to think about virtual reality in the gallery within a larger network of spaces available to artists. They are committed to “concepts around creating a persistent world where you can have multiple users. And that, for these artists, has very little to do with the gallery space, [which] is a node inside of that. They think about their audience on a much larger scale. Hardware such as VR headsets, however developed, are not the “central technology” of artists’ work, she says. “The core technology is more the game engine that you build the world in. And then in terms of hardware, there’s still a lot to do.”
The ability of technology to allow audiences to effortlessly enter the space of the artist’s imagination is fundamental to art and the future of virtual reality. “For me, as a producer, it’s basically about creating portals to these narrative worlds,” Boyes says. “And the more friction points there are or fewer friction points are introduced when creating that user experience, the higher the rate of success in getting the artist’s vision across and protecting the integrity of their work.”
• Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: Alienarium 5Serpentine South Gallery, London, until September 4; Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent: Cold LightMatt’s Gallery, London, until July 17