Björk, Black Lake, 2015, 360-degree video. Photo: Andrew Thomas Huang

Virtual reality and the museology of consciousness

A familiar trope of science fiction is that journeys into alternate realities leave neither the travellers nor their worlds unchanged. In Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall an implanted memory of a fantasy holiday to Mars sets in train a sequence of events through which construction worker Douglas Quaid becomes a secret agent who terraforms the planet’s atmosphere. In Tron software engineer Kevin Flynn, digitised and ingested into the virtual worlds he creates, finds he is able to change the system from within, defeating the Master Control Program and ultimately finding justice for himself in the real world. When Alice goes through the looking glass she is promoted from child to monarch, usurping the Red Queen’s rule over her domain. The portals through which the characters move have a destabilising effect, and each traveller wonders whether their actions were the dreams of another. But there is a common thread: when narratives are formed where consciousness is a medium, the system itself becomes the subject.

What then do we make then of the following journeys? A visitor to the Courtald moves through the gallery’s Wolfson Room, admiring canonical works by Gaugin, Van Gogh and Monet in the ambience of the room’s architecture in the morning light. Approaching Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère she leans forward close enough to inspect the surface texture before—whoosh—suddenly she is inside the painting’s visual space, admiring the barmaid, visualised bodily in 3D, from an impossible position. The encounter has taken place across the world, via a virtual reality headset.[1]

A visitor to an exhibition of Chinese antiquities at the Art Gallery of NSW ducks her head to pass through an open doorway. She raises her eyes to find herself 1,400 years in the past, in a Tang dynasty cave virtually reconstructed in real time on the tablet she hold in their hands. A Björk fan queues in anticipation of a performance at Carriageworks. Instead of standing in a mosh pit she sits quietly on a stool, ensconced in a headset that transports her to an Icelandic shore where the digital avatar of the artist serenades her.

Art galleries, museums and performance spaces are by nature places in which time and space are simulated and suspended, but in these encounters in alternate environments there is a certain amount of system shock. When consciousness becomes materiality, what becomes of the conventions that govern the representation and reception of works of art and the intention of their creators? How are the traditional relationships between audience, artist, artwork and institution reconfigured? A number of recent exhibitions in Australia posed questions about how these modes of public spectatorship might evolve.

The first concerns the presence of the artist in performative encounters. When Walter Benjamin lamented the loss of the aura of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, he spoke of the absence of the exchange between actor and audience in the transition from stage to screen – the wandering eye of the audience replaced by the fixed view of the lens.[2] The restoration of this theatrical agency through virtual reality was a theme of the recent Carriageworks exhibition Björk Digital, an artist-driven experiment in a new form of public intimacy. The exhibition comprised the dual-channel work Black Lake, commissioned for the artist’s 2015 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as three virtual reality music videos from the artist’s album Vulnicura and a suite of interactive tablet apps.

Björk, Björk Digital, 2016, Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo: Santiago Felipe

Björk’s interest in virtual immersion lies in the medium’s ability to unite the sensorial components of music videos, and her virtual reality works, deployed on headsets, are interesting for the form of spectatorship she pursues. In the panoramic video Stonemilker, we stand on a bleak shore in Reykjavik while the artist, dressed in an almost fluorescent green, orbits us in the landscape. The premise is simple, but it creates a privileged intimacy between artist and viewer by relocating of the eye of the camera around the consciousness of the observer. The artist describes this viewpoint as having an “almost Wagnerian theatricality, it’s almost like you’re in the middle of a stage like in a huge opera or something … this is not just touching a screen but more like experiencing the world”.[3]

It is easy to see a parallel between Björk’s experiment and Wagner’s concept of the holistic, overwhelming Gesamtkunswerk, though her bleak Icelandic aesthetic evokes a second, more apt motif from German Romanticism—the wanderer of Casper David Friedrich’s sublime paintings, whose communion with nature through the awe-struck gaze was a vessel for self-revelation. This seems to be the crux of her early forays into the medium. Evoking a sense of the sublime through impossible human transformations gives Björk’s virtual worlds meaning.

The sensualised rendering of the inside of her mouth in Mouth Mantra is both disturbing and alluring, almost biophilic. More seductive is Notget, in which viewers dance closely with Björk’s glowing digital avatar as she grows in size and morphs into a surreal, overwhelming and spectral constellation of bodily light. There are two forms of presence operating here that are particular to virtuality as opposed to other forms of new media. The first is the sensory immersion of the viewer in an another world, the second the presence of the artist as both the creator of the world and its subject.

The carnal nature of these viewings reveals that this is essentially a scopophilic form of spectatorship, and in the exhibition environment there is something a little unnerving about these deeply intimate experiences as public spectacle. They are a form of performative isolationism that in some ways runs counter to the tropes of the moving image in public—in popular culture cinemas are places for romance, galleries are spaces for exploration, for looking at paintings and watching others. A similar observation may be made of the Australian Museum’s 2016 headset-based exhibition David Attenborough’s Virtual Reality Experiences, experienced by viewers on individual headsets while they sit in a tiered lecture theatre (though here the medium as a pedagogical device finds a more natural fit in the context of a natural history museum).

It is possible for virtual encounters to be both transportive and to maintain the social dynamics of the public spaces in which they are displayed, a problem explored by Sarah Kenderdine and Jeffrey Shaw’s augmented-reality installation Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, exhibited in the recent Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of Chinese antiquities Tang: 唐 Treasure From The Silk Road Capital.[4] The installation, a life-size visualisation of a seventh‑century Buddhist cave recreated from laser scans and high-resolution photographs, is activated by visitors via a motion-tracked tablet device.

Sarah Kenderdine and Jeffrey Shaw, Pure Lane: Inside The Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, 2012–16, augmented reality edition, produced in conjunction with the Dunhuang Academy, China. Photo: Jenni Carter/Art Gallery of NSW

Holding up the device to the walls of the cave, the virtual space resolves on the screen in real time in response to their movements and gestures. It again offers a privileged form of access, this time to a now-closed heritage site and to a time and culture far displaced from our own. But it is also a shared performative space, where groups of visitors spontaneously interact, miming the actions of an archaeologist examining the walls with a torch and sharing the wonder of discovery as they explore the work together.

Yet even this social application creates anxieties around virtuality as a medium. The cave is, after all, a replica exhibited alongside its real life object contemporaries. When the aesthetics of simulation impose on the perception of original cultural artefacts, what happens to the agency of objects and to the authority of the exhibiting institution as a gatekeeper of knowledge? What happens to an artwork’s claim to unique materiality and authorship? These are questions heightened by experiments in artwork augmentation such as the 3D rendered Folies-Bergère with which I began.

Borrowing Bruno Latour’s concept of the migration of aura from original to copy, Kenderdine argues that immersive high-fidelity virtual objects that respect cultural context enhance the authenticity and status of the original, while also possessing a unique digital materiality in their own right.[5] When produced in conjunction with artists or cultural custodians—in the case of Pure Land the Dunhuang Academy who manage the caves—virtual objects can serve both the artists’ intention and the mandate of museums and galleries to democratise access and preserve history.

There is of course a potential for virtual reality platforms to be adopted by artists and institutions for technology’s sake. The medium might hold the potential to transform museology by moving exhibiting institutions away from being repositories whose value is defined solely by the physicality of their collections, to being conceived of more as active stages that aggregate new forms of engagement and interaction within and without their walls. It might allow artists to produce new channels for the distribution and consumption of media parallel to the class-stratified commercial gallery network and its systems of marketing, investment and individual ownership. And yet it might not. Can we read an ironic hint of this ambivalence in Shaun Gladwell’s raw virtual reality iteration of Reversed Readymade, in which Duchamp’s bicycle sculpture is upended and ridden around the artist’s studio, restoring its material function and reversing the conceptual revolution of the found object? It is possible that the current allure of the virtual might entrench conventions of the real.

Shaun Gladwell, Reversed Readymade, 2016, digital virtual reality 360 degree video (optimised for Samsung GEARVR system), Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, Samsung Gear VR, Beats by Dre wireless headphones. Performer: Simon O’Brien. Cinematographers: Joseph Heks (VR) and Judd Overton (HD). Producer: Leo Faber. Courtesy of the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

But while the great auteurs of virtual reality are yet to emerge, it is maturing as an artistic medium that offers a gateway to an impossible aesthetic. In John McGee’s Inside —Topologies of Stroke exhibited in the current touring exhibition People Like Us, we are able to walk along cellular paths, like the shrunken submarine crew who venture into the human body in the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage. In McGee’s work biology becomes topology; ‘we don’t necessarily see science, we see landscape’, he says, ‘we see shape, we see colour, so basically visualising the invisible’.[6]

In her work Ixian Gate, exhibited in her 2015 National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Wurm Haus, Jess Johnson imagines a world from Frank Herbert’s Dune in a riot of geometry and abstraction that spills out from fictive consciousness into the real world of the installation space. Wurm Haus is a worm hole, a metaphor for exhibitions and galleries as portals. Adopting the conventions of science fiction, here the system again becomes the subject. As more institutions embrace the challenges of virtuality, we may see a new museology that privileges the consciousness of viewers of works of art as an essential medium in the transmission of cultural materials.

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Ixian Gate, 2015, virtual reality animation. Developer: Kenny Smith. Sound Design: Andrew Clarke
Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Ixian Gate, 2015, virtual reality animation. Developer: Kenny Smith. Sound Design: Andrew Clarke

Footnotes

  1. ^ The Wolfson Room app is produced by Woofbert VR. See woofbert.com/thecourtauldgallery. Similarly, Bosch VR, an app created by BDH to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Hieronymous Bosch’s work The Garden Of Earthly Delights allows the viewer to enter the garden as an embodied virtual character. See bdh.net/work/boschvr
  2. ^ Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1968
  3. ^ Quoted in Sharon Verghis, ‘Bjork’s Vivid Sydney show at Carriageworks a homage to pop provocateur’, The Australian, 28 May 2016
  4. ^ everal iterations of this work exist, including a 360 degree virtual reality cinema version. See Sarah Kenderdine, ‘”Pure Land”: Inhabiting the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang’, Curator, vol. 56, no. 2, 2013, 199–218. As a joint research fellow at the Art Gallery of NSW and the University of NSW I managed the production of the installation for the exhibition alongside Sarah Kenderdine
  5. ^ Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe, ‘The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original through its Facsimiles’, in Thomas Bartscherer and Roderick Coover (eds.), Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology In The Humanities And The Arts, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010
  6. ^ Broadcast on Catalyst, ABC TV, 16 August 2016. Transcript: abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4519963.htm

Andrew Yip is a researcher in experimental new media at the Laboratory for Innovation
in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums, UNSW.

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