Virtual Reality Is the Most Powerful Medium of Our Time
It’s one month before the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is released to consumers, and I’m standing in the TriBeCa studio of artist Rachel Rossin, a self-taught programming whiz who began coding at age eight. She has dreamed of working with virtual reality for just as long. And it’s here.
She straps the giant goggles, an early prototype, tightly to my head. And suddenly I’ve left the building. Up a staircase I float, weightlessly, into a baby blue world littered with the frames of burnt-out buildings and fragments of the artist’s memories—vignettes of her home and tiny studio, a mini-fridge here, a laptop there, so real that I try to grab them with my hand. Jaw agape, I look up, down, behind me; each time, the imagery tracks with my line of sight. I wince my eyes the first time I traverse a wall, duck my head as I move through a roof. For two-and-a-half minutes, I no longer feel the wooden, paint-splattered floorboards beneath my feet.
Rossin is the New Museum’s first-ever virtual reality fellow, a program launched as part of the museum’s incubator, NEW INC. The technology is still nascent. But Rossin and an increasing number of other artists have been pioneering its use as an artistic medium. And even before the Oculus Rift has hit the shelves, some go as far as to say that it’s primed to emerge as the most iconic medium of our time.
Thus far, the hoards that have lined up to test out the technology through these artists’ works suggest that may very well be true. In the past year, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s virtual rainforest, Phantom (2015), was the highlight of the New Museum Triennial; Jon Rafman’s Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze) (2015) at the Zabludowicz Collection was the talk of London’s Frieze Week; visitors to December’s Art Basel in Miami Beach flocked to Jeremy Couillard’s Oculus pop-up at the EDITION Hotel. These artists were among the lucky few to score so-called developer kits from Oculus, rough prototypes of the final product, which is slated to ship on March 28th. (The Oculus I donned in TriBeCa was from one of these kits.) But what has made these artists choose to invest their time and energy in creating work exclusive to a platform whose wide adoption is yet unproven?
“When the zeitgeist is moving, art usually goes hand-in-hand with it,” says Rossin, describing a world in which we’re constantly glued to our iPhones, Androids, laptops, and tablets as much if not more than we are to the faces of fellow humans. Mediums have historically risen from the predominant technology and social relations of the time in which they exist. And this crumbling divide between the physical and virtual worlds has no doubt trickled into artmaking. In n=7 / The Wake in Heat of Collapse, another work Rossin shows me, which debuted at Bushwick’s SIGNAL Gallery in 2015, you don an Oculus to enter an underworld filled with surrealist landscapes where yin-yangs rain amongst collages plucked from Picasso’s Guernica (1937) or Klimt’s The Kiss (1907-08). Gravity has been placed on a timer, and suddenly, you fall through the center of the world.
“Because of the level of sensory overload we experience on a day-to-day basis, we need to have this fully arresting experience in virtual reality in order to get a total sense of vertigo from a work of art,” says Rafman, on the phone from Montreal where, coincidentally enough, he’s in the midst of perusing a virtual reality exhibition at Phi Centre. There were times when said vertigo was achieved by paintings. Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) each stunned the bourgeoisie when first placed on public view. But looking at a painting today is not the same as it was even 50 years ago. Bombarded by the sticky, interactive experiences fed to us on a steady drip by media and tech companies alike, we crave more. Enveloping, consciousness-bending experiences aren’t “just to escape life,” says Rafman, “but to create a total experience that will create a feeling that is qualitatively new. That is ultimately the most radical thing.”
The 33-year-old Rafman made a first foray into bringing virtual reality to the art world in a room at Miami’s Deauville Hotel during Art Basel in Miami Beach week in 2014. Junior Suite (2014) saw Oculus-clad viewers step out onto the room’s balcony, peer back through the glass door, and suddenly watch the room and balcony on which they were standing disintegrate, parts flying past their heads in their virtually simulated periphery. Some screamed thrillride, others masterpiece.
An even more immersive experience awaited visitors to the Zabludowicz Collection last fall. Finding an Oculus hidden at the center of an astroturf-hedged labyrinth, viewers saw replacement virtual hedges part in front of their eyes to reveal a tunnel, which again gave way to a tranquil forest landscape. Just as they were about to step into an inky lake, the ground sank away, the Oculus levitating them blissfully up to the forest canopy. “Ultimately, new technology can reveal desires that already exist on a deep level in society,” says Rafman of the works, which pull from and amplify the seductive forces of video games and cinema. “This desire to escape completely into another dimension has existed for a long time.”
Virtual reality, too, has existed for a long time—at least in some form. In 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum planted early seeds of virtual reality with his short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles, having imagined a pair of magic goggles that could transport the wearer into a faraway place—a holographic, multisensory motion picture complete with touch and smell. By 1968, legendary computer scientist Ivan Sutherland (then an associate professor of electrical engineering at Harvard) created one of the first-ever virtual reality headsets, called the Head Mounted Display (HMD). Absent the accelerometers that now inhabit nearly all of our devices to track movements, and due to the HMD’s heft, the device and its connections had to be hung from the ceiling, earning it the nickname “The Sword of Damocles.”
It was in the ’90s—teenage years for Rossin and Rafman—when virtual reality devices first filled our arcades, movie theaters, and malls. “A lot happened in virtual reality 20 years ago,” says MIT Media Lab’s Mike Lazer-Walker, who works on bringing narrative storytelling to virtual reality platforms. “But at a basic level, the technology wasn’t there yet.” No player of Oregon Trail will recall feeling catapulted into the bumpy back of a 1850s covered wagon, save in their imagination. Nineties computers were far from up to snuff when it came to photorealistic graphics, and early headsets paled in comparison to those of today. Nausea, headaches, and motion-sickness quickly earned early virtual devices a bad rap from green-faced naysayers and faded off into the synthetic, stereoscopic sunset.
Even still, artists were intrigued. In 1995, Canadian artist and virtual reality pioneer Char Davies produced Osmose, an immersive virtual reality experience incorporating interactive 3D computer graphics as well as interactive sound. Donning a head-mounted stereoscopic display and a motion-tracking vest, participants floated through an imagined landscape by breathing in and out. “Upon emerging, some people inexplicably wept,” recalls Davies. For the last five years, the artist has been working on a 3D virtual representation of an immersive, real-life thousand-acre forest—a return to the natural world amid one predicated on screens.
Davies is less bullish about virtual reality’s art-world push than those newer to using VR in their work like Rafman and Rossin. Can it become a dominant artistic medium? “I think a more pertinent question would be: Can artists overcome the inherent biases of the technology, and the profit-driven imperative of the gigantic corporations gathering behind it, to create meaningful, relevant work?” says Davies rhetorically. “Time will tell.”
But a critical mass of goggle-wielding artists and developers alike say that this time around, the answer is yes. “There is a lot about this wave that is fundamentally different, technically and culturally,” says Lazer-Walker. “At a basic historic level,” he notes of the ’90s, “there were a lot of people creating virtual reality, culturally dreaming of online virtual worlds. It fizzled out because the hype far outpaced what was actually possible.” Now, he suggests, the hype just scratches the surface of what’s possible.
Virtual reality’s recent resurgence in prominence begins with Oculus and its visionary 23-year-old founder, Palmer Luckey. In 2012, the then-18-year-old with an affinity for retooling defunct ’90s VR headsets took a hacked-together model to Kickstarter with a funding goal of $250,000. A month later, over 10,000 individuals contributed $2.4 million to the campaign for what was at the time mainly aimed at being a gaming peripheral. Two years later, Facebook wrote a check to buy Oculus VR for $2 billion.
“It changed the nature of the entire industry,” said Eugene Chung, founder and CEO of virtual reality startup Penrose Studios and former head of film and media at Oculus, of the Facebook acquisition. “What I thought was going to take 10 years to develop is only going to take one.” Shortly after, Google announced Cardboard (a device nicknamed “Oculus Thrift”) and Samsung collaborated with Oculus to launch Gear VR. At $15 and $99.99, respectively, both are a markedly lower-cost VR solution than the Oculus Rift (projected to sell for $599) thanks to their cooptation of users’ existing smartphones as their screens.
“This is not a drill. It’s real. It’s a moment,” says Michael Naimark, Google’s first resident virtual reality artist (like Char Davies, he’s listed as a pioneer of VR on Wikipedia). “And the arts community can play a huge role in propagation.” In doing so, artists are challenged to balance their ideas with an evolving toolset—without instructions or explicit forebears. “You have to basically define the medium as you go,” notes Chung. “It’s almost like you’re trying to create the paintbrush while trying to create a painting.”
Artists have to negotiate between their technical chops (or those they can hire) and the ambition behind their projects. According to Rossin, who works independently of outside developers, “That’s analogous to any artmaking process, but it’s somehow exacerbated when you’re trying to pull something off that actually has to work.” For others like Rafman, who collaborated with a developer named Sam Walker on his project at the Zabludowicz Collection, Oculus brings together members of the art and tech communities to a perhaps unprecedented extent.
Like any new medium, virtual reality is tasked with defining its language—and particularly, one that can divorce itself from the specific narratives of cinema and enter into unexplored territory. As artists are unearthing, virtual reality is more than a 360-degree bubble around your head in which you’re allowed to dive past the front row and into the movie screen itself. There’s a real opportunity to develop a wholly new aesthetic experience, unique to our time. “Art tries to take reality and fix it in an object, but reality itself is in flux,” Rafman says of our current moment. “I think it’s the new medium, we’ve just got to figure it out.”
Throughout art history, art has reflected the prevalent social relations of the time. It makes sense, then, that the most relative and innovative art forms being produced today would mirror our reality—one defined by a perceived sense of agency in a world filled with invisible algorithms and clicks baited to us by past clicks. The internet spoils us with infinite choice: opportunities to invent our personas, refashion our self-brands, optimize our lives, and enhance our experience. But with mega-corporations quietly holding the joystick, can we really self-determine our destiny?
Virtual reality mirrors this perceived agency. With its head-tracking and 360-degree views, immersive storytelling touts the viewer’s ability to look anywhere—to choose their own adventure in a visual medium no longer confined to a single point of view. Somewhere between cinema, where you’re taken for a drive, and video games, where you’re driving, virtual reality emerges. But, as Naimark says, “there’s a difference between agency and the illusion of agency; control or the illusion of control.” Think of stage magic—think Houdini—he tells me. Here, artists aren’t abdicating their responsibility to present a critical vision of the world, but rather, guiding the viewer to find their own way to that vision. It’s that sense of self-discovery, of the viewer’s feeling of having their own aesthetic, artistic, and conceptual revelation, that makes virtual reality so powerful.
Cover image: Portrait of Rachel Rossin by Corey Olsen for Artsy.