The Gut-Wrenching VR Work That’s Got the Art World Talking about Violence

Isaac Kaplan
Mar 17, 2017 10:09PM

Jordan Wolfson doesn’t like violence, he told me. The statement may surprise anyone who has experienced the artist’s virtual reality piece at the Whitney Biennial, in which he forces viewers to witness a brutal beating on a city street. In a scene that unfolds over 90 seconds, an anonymous man (played by the artist) takes a baseball bat and then his shoe to the head of a kneeling victim. A Hebrew prayer plays over the scene until what was once a face is reduced to pulp. And then the video cuts to black.

Even if you know the victim is an animatronic dummy, one made to look perfectly human in post-production, Real Violence (2017) is perhaps one of the most viscerally disturbing works of art ever created.

The work provides no context, no story, and no reason. There is only a pure distillation of violence delivered through one of the most powerful uses of virtual reality to ever grace a museum’s halls. Without a narrative to hold onto, what you’re left with after witnessing the work is an overwhelming feeling of brutality, the sound of a bat striking against a skull, and incredibly graphic imagery seared into memory.

This total gut-punch is, of course, not an accident, nor is the choice to use virtual reality. Wolfson set out to create a piece that explores the guttural human reaction he felt while trying, and often failing, to watch violent videos online.

One particularly disturbing video clip he’d seen showed an attack in a parking lot. The scene, which will be appropriated for a forthcoming video piece by the artist in April, stuck with him. Wolfson mined similar videos to determine exactly what about the violence made him so uncomfortable. He settled on repetition and passivity. Both are present in Real Violence, as the victim refrains from fighting back against his steady beating. For the artist, virtual reality up to this point has been too interactive. Replicating the haunting feeling of being a passive bystander, watching a passive victim, was key to the work’s conception.

Wolfson’s use of VR means the simulated scene is completely devoid of the potential for even the most tepid intervention by the viewer to stop the attack. Stare at it or try in frustration to look away (my reaction)—once you’ve strapped on the Oculus Rift headset there is nothing to be done. And once you take it off, there isn’t all that much to be done, either, except feel the strange discord between the violence of the work and the calm hum of the Whitney.

That jolt of taking off the headset, the feeling of disorientation, and then the experience of watching others, still in headsets, react to what you know they must be seeing is also part of the piece.

Viewers are arranged at a table to stand across from one another, holding onto metal bars as they don headsets. The bars were a relatively late addition to the piece, which itself was filmed in January and completed last week. Prior to the exhibition’s opening, one of the biennial’s curators, Christopher Lew, called Wolfson to suggest including metal bars so that people would not fall over while experiencing the piece. The bars had the added effect of keeping people faced forward, looking towards the brutality.

If the piece came with a narrative or story to go with the attack, it would have a framework through which a viewer might intellectually parse what, as it stands now, is unintelligible murder. The desire to find such meaning in a work intentionally stripped of most everything other than overwhelming brutality means that Real Violence has become subject of timely projections by critics, who have primarily critiqued the piece for its gratuitousness.

Jerry Saltz, writing in New York Magazine, said Real Violence “feels like metaphor for the unfocused furor I gleaned at Trump rallies.” Saltz isn’t the only one to see Trump’s America written in the blood of the work’s victim. But Wolfson finds this genre of interpretation interesting, given that he first had the idea for the piece in 2014, before Trump entered the political arena in a real way. Others viewers see overtures of a rising tide of anti-Semitism, as the work includes the Hanukkah prayer. But in speaking to Wolfson, I got the sense that the prayer is something of a formal slight-of-hand, priming the viewer to absorb and remember something ritualistic and sacred—only that porousness is filled with something horrific.

Though Real Violence is undoubtedly successful in distilling the emotion one feels watching violence, one shouldn’t walk away from the piece without reservations, or without being thoughtful about how the work attains that success: What does it mean to treat violence like a distant specimen for curious study in a virtual world?

But the critique of the work—that it has no meaning beyond shock—misses that the work’s value arises not when you map politics onto it, but when you understand what separates the simulated art and say, the real-life violence of a Trump rally. Both are emotionally impactful but only the latter has actual consequences. In exploring the pure distillation of violence without context, Wolfson has created a piece that captures the difference between Real Violence and real violence.

Isaac Kaplan