Jeremy Couillard Uses Virtual Reality to Have an IRL Out-of-Body Experience
“The code of any piece of software, just like sentences from a book, contains a certain amount of ideology that comes out when you use it,” says the artist Jeremy Couillard, whose virtual reality project Out of Body Experience Clinic (2015) recreates the dizzying, uncanny sensation of astral projection.
In Couillard’s case, some of the software used to create the experience is also utilized by studios rendering aliens and monsters, which explains how the materials employed in this surreal and terrifying virtual reality installation—seven years in the making—feel so genuinely cosmic.
It’s a relatively recent development that high-quality virtual reality has become accessible enough for artists to make good use of it, and this past year has seen some ambitious projects, including Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s gorgeous recreation of a rainforest at the New Museum Triennial and BeAnotherLab’s Girl Mirror Look, in which VR headsets allow participants to simulate the experience of another gender’s body. Couillard’s project joins these ranks, blurring the boundaries between the real and the imagined from the audience’s first step into Louis B. James gallery, which has been specifically designed to resemble not an art space but a waiting room.
It’s unsettlingly mundane, with free coffee and couches ripped straight from a dentist’s office in which stock photography might adorn the walls. Here, however, Couillard’s digital paintings and 3D-printed sculptures—confounding works in neon colors that combine New Age and space-age imagery—abound. As viewers settle in to wait for an appointment, they’re treated to the Bob Monroe 24/7 Out of Body Experience News Network, which, among other snippets, shows a talk show that recalls The View, dedicated to the titular figure, one of the early proponents of astral projection as a Western practice during the ’70s.
The real action, however, takes place upstairs: once the Oculus Rift headset is strapped to one’s face, it takes a moment to adjust to the odd sense of disassociation. At first, the video experience recreates the room you’ve just left, but soon it floats you above the stark white environment and into a wild tableau full of chunky, sculptural monsters and undulating blobs. In his creation of this environment, says the artist, he was interested not so much in the actual, potential out-of-body experience but in the ways in which it’s reported. In a recent interview, he noted that, given his research, many who say they’ve astrally projected actually describe what, “deep down, [they] think should happen.” But, as the artist says of his installation, “if I had a ‘real’ OBE, something like this would happen.”