Move Over, Virtual Reality—a New Artistic Medium Is about to Emerge

Molly Gottschalk
Mar 1, 2017 1:50AM

Portrait of Studio Drift in their Amsterdam studio by Jordi Huisman for Artsy.

Over the past three years, members of the art world have fallen off a Berlin balcony and into a sea of swaying bodies, explored Brazil’s Mata Atlântica rainforest, and entered a world populated by serpents and trolls—all without leaving the relative comfort of a biennial, museum, or fair. Virtual reality has undeniably become the buzziest artistic medium of recent years and Oculus Rift headsets a staple at every major art event. But this week at The Armory Show, a new technology-driven medium—and a new headset—enters the fray.  

Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality headset, which integrates holograms into the world around you, is making its art-world debut courtesy of the pioneering Amsterdam-based artist duo Studio Drift. Unlike virtual reality, in which a viewer is fully encased in a digital world, or augmented reality, which layers objects onto your existing physical environment (think of Snapchat filters or Pokémon Go), mixed reality fuses the real and virtual worlds.

“Feeling present in your environment is a key aspect of mixed reality, enabling you to move naturally, interact, and explore in three dimensions,” says Ben Porter, director of Microsoft HoloLens and Windows Experiences. “These aspects are unique to mixed reality and make the entire world a canvas for artists.”

The installation, titled Concrete Storm (2017), sees a trio of concrete pillars that are static to the naked eye nearly quadruple in height and animate, as if tree trunks swaying back and forth in a sudden breeze, when visitors don the HoloLens headset.

“We wanted to create a situation that cannot be possible in the real world,” says Studio Drift’s Lonneke Gordijn of the installation, which she made with her partner Ralph Nauta as part of a commission for Artsy Projects. The artists collaborated with members of Microsoft’s HoloLens team to push the technology to its furthest capabilities—and, they say, to challenge the limits of the human mind to differentiate between the physical and virtual worlds.

Gordijn says the duo was interested in beginning to investigate the point at which viewers “might let go of trying to distinguish between what is real, what is not” and accept this new mixed world as simply another version of reality. “Most people spend as much time in the digital world as the real world at the moment,” says Nauta.

He believes that navigating between or integrating the digital and physical worlds is going to be one of the most important topics of the next decade. And mixed reality presents an intriguing solution to better integrate this ever-present digital layer into our lives. For artists, it also presents a new challenge to reimagine the way in which artwork is made, displayed, or how we define it at all.

Studio Drift, who also has a solo presentation at Pace’s booth for this edition of The Armory Show, was uniquely positioned to test these possibilities. The artists routinely use emerging technology to bring about not-yet-attainable ideas. “We have some idea that’s not possible yet or can’t be done and then we work for years on it to actually make it happen,” says Nauta.

Augmented and mixed reality had been on the duo’s minds since they’d discovered the technology online in 2011. Nauta says this project is the first step in realizing a dream he’s had since he was a kid and saw mixed reality in Star Trek’s Holodeck. He expects it will take at least a couple more years for mixed reality technology to progress to the level the two have envisioned for one work.

Indeed, it is still early days for the nascent technology, revered by many as the future of computing. HoloLens was first announced in January 2015 and made available to developers and businesses in March 2016, but the public release date is not yet confirmed. It is, however, available for purchase to artists who are content developers.

Anand Agarawala, an interface designer and software developer at NEW INC, the New Museum’s cultural incubator, says artists working with mixed and augmented reality is still a “pretty primitive state of affairs.” But, like Studio Drift, he sees devices like the HoloLens developing to become “powerful creative tools” in the future due to their “ability to alter your reality.”

As has been the case with Oculus, artists will no doubt flock to experiment with the device. Studio Drift worked closely with Microsoft to produce the centerpiece of Concrete Storm. But aspects of the wider digital installation can be created by any digital artist, without the need for computer programming experience, using a HoloLens app.

One such experience lines the walls that surround Concrete Storm at The Armory Show. Visitors donning headsets will also see a virtual gallery of to-scale artworks that was created using HoloLens’s 3D Viewer app.

“For artists,” says Porter, “it’s a new way to think about creation that enables art to become a natural part of the real world in modes and places that couldn’t exist before.”

Molly Gottschalk