Against realism: The badly rendered potential of VR

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Kenny Smith (developer), Andrew Clarke (sound design), Ixian Gate, 2015, virtual reality artwork. Courtesy the artists, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland; Jack Hanley Gallery, New York
Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Kenny Smith (developer), Andrew Clarke (sound design), Ixian Gate, 2015, virtual reality artwork. Courtesy the artists, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland; Jack Hanley Gallery, New York

One of the great potentials of VR is in the glitch, the error, corrupted data and bad compression. All of which is wonderfully at odds and runs counter to the standard (yawn) cultural narrative of VR as a wondrous new medium of infinite possibilities and lifelike immersion. Isn’t it the job of artists to be disruptive? Particularly when it comes to technology like VR which is often hardwired with a particular cultural narrative, before one even unboxes it. The glitch, together with badly rendered graphics, fake looking 3D spaces and animation explores the disappointment and failures of such technologies, which is certainly more critical, self‑reflexive and playful than to buy wholesale into the current commercial hype surrounding VR.

Hollywood movies have always been a good barometer of how the narrative, hype and spin of technology plays out in culture. Films depicting the internet for example almost universally see that the precise data required can be quickly and effortlessly retrieved at super speed at any moment driving the narrative forward. The Circle (2017) provides plenty of suffocating and disturbing West Coast feel good moments about making the world a better place through enhanced data analytics via its new social media platform. Steve Jobs’ iPad swipe interface was first suggested in the gesture-based interactions of Tom Cruise’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), itself an adaption of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi techno fantasy.

Movies that deal with virtual reality have a special place in this category. One of the more downright embarrassing examples is The Lawnmower Man (1992), appearing at the height of the first wave of 1990s VR hype. The very term “virtual reality” has quite possibly forever been tarnished with the overtones derived from this film. Virtuosity from 1995 was another movie to capitalise on the emerging promise of VR, forever destined to the $1 VHS pile. More recent VR eye candy like Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) both feature a computer-generated world that is indistinguishable from the real one.

It’s important to consider Hollywood in the history of VR. As Simon Penny points out, the sci-fi fantasy of VR was one of the engines which drove the conceptualisation of VR art works in the 1990s: “The 1990s decade was definitive and formative for digital art precisely because the technology was new and in rapid transition, and the imaginations and aspirations of artists—fuelled no doubt by sci-fi, as well as by mathematical and technological metaphors, outstripped both the available technology and theoretical contexts.”[1]

While VR has now fully emerged in pop culture, it’s a technology that was always destined to emerge in a year as futuristic-sounding as 2018. Self‑driving cars will be next, which like VR is a technology that has a futuristic marketing campaign written all over it. And again like VR is an advancement driven and pushed forward by the pop‑cultural narrative of “the future.” VR for Hollywood is also a strange vehicle, for the futuristic VR fantasies the films are depicting dispense with the present model of “watching” Hollywood movies which are about to be dramatically superseded by fully immersive technologies like VR.

The current fascination for VR in movies like Ready Player One is one that embraces the real world as one of absolute digital fabrication. This mimicry of the real, like CGI forms part of the aesthetic value system of such technologies. If VR appears artificial, fake or unrealistic in its verisimilitude and simulation it is often perceived to have failed as both a technology and an aesthetic. This depiction of “reality” in VR runs in parallel to the quest for photorealism by digital animators, compositors and motion trackers to deliver CGI that is indistinguishable from the real world. The success of CGI is often based on the idea that you didn’t notice it, so successful was it in its simulation of reality that it remains undetected and invisible.

But there are other things going on with VR which make it a compelling medium that has nothing to do with its ability to convey lifelike realism and behaviour. In the same way that some new media artists in the 1990s took William Gibson’s cyberspace of Neuromancer (1984) to be a real place, with little or no sense of irony, artists working with VR need to be aware of the dramatic level of artifice hardwired into such technology, in addition to the overblown and clichéd Hollywood VR tropes (The Lawnmower Man again) that drive its cultural narrative.

One particular holy grail for VR is porn, the promise of an orgiastic sensory overload of lifelike POV simulation. But the reality of VR porn is the unreality of the body, a sensory weirdness that is heightened while in no way realistic. VR provides us with a new kind of non-space, which is caught between realism, simulation and artificiality. The movie Brainstorm (1983) comes to mind here, directed by Douglas Trumbull, well known for generating the special effects for the star gate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In Brainstorm Trumbull has opened up a new portal in the spacetime continuum: technologically mediated sex. While not strictly VR (this is 1983 after all) Brainstorm features a headset/helmet for producing real‑world sensory simulation where one of its inventors dies from a never ending POV orgasm loop feed directly into the brain. Porn has always driven the tech industry after all.

Probably no contemporary technology is imbued with so much utopian promise as VR. This evangelism was very much alive and well 25 years ago. I can still remember Simon Penny giving a presentation on VR in 1992 at TISEA (Third International Symposium of Electronic Art) in Sydney, donning a shiny cape and playing the part of an evangelical hustler. Twenty-five years later not a lot has changed, we are again reliving the hype and promise of VR through various tech companies like Google, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and a host of others where faster processing speeds, higher-resolution real-time rendering will deliver us to VR nirvana. VR has replaced “interactivity” as the new frontier of digital technology for artists and tech companies alike. One has to remember that the hype of VR in the mid 1990s was oversold as this incredible, state-of-the-art interface at the turn of the millennium. But with its crude, clunky graphics and scuba gear helmet it was at that time unconvincing, so we can expect to be a little cynical about the second wave now before us.

The rhetoric of such tech companies is all about the wondrous possibilities of VR and AR “where the only limit is your imagination.” But why limit your imagination to realism? If this is indeed the narrative of the tech companies and blockbuster film fantasies, should artists working in VR rehash and duplicate the same aspirations and desires? Shouldn’t artists take VR down a less conventional path to the more unknown and weird spaces? Previous screen technologies – from VHS, super-8, pixel vision, to 8-bit computer graphics, 16-mm films, night-vision, and digital video – provided a view of the world that was clearly not realistic, they gave us a grainy mediated lens onto the world which brought with it a unique set of aesthetic languages for artists to exploit.

Current VR tends towards a new kind of artifice for contemporary screen technology, a resolution and flatness as pure surface that like so much in consumer culture is reproducible as cheap, plastic junk. For example, recently The Royal Melbourne Show (a great barometer of popular culture) featured VR, from the Goat franchise (also available in shopping centres around Melbourne). The VR kept malfunctioning and the graphics glitching out, possibly from overuse by kids high on sugar, yet it perfectly distilled the plastic crappola experience which VR technology can sometimes lend itself to. It also served to reinforce that VR is a developing, and emerging technology that has yet to find its optimum output for a price and niche markets.

In the meantime, we have David Lynch’s quip to ruminate over when discussing shooting his film Inland Empire (2006) on low resolution digital video: “The quality reminds me of the films of the 1930s. In the early days, the emulsion wasn’t so good, so there was less information on the screen. The Sony PD result is a bit like that; its nowhere near high-def. And sometimes, in a frame, if there’s some question about what you’re seeing, or some dark corner, the mind can go dreaming. If everything is crystal clear in that frame, that’s what it is, that’s all it is.”[2]

One only has to spend a few minutes in today’s VR headsets to perceive that the technology is like having video monitors pressed up against one’s eyeballs, while the flyscreen resolution clearly announces its artifice and a trade-off occurs between immersion, resolution and computer processing speeds. One quickly realises that the future is not all it’s cracked up to be. But VR’s clunky low‑resolution is exactly the kind of thing Lynch was referring to—the imperfection of the digital image takes the viewer somewhere else. There is a built‑in mystery to VR’s current crudeness, all of which is entirely at odds with the drive for more realistic, lifelike immersive experiences.

Like all those perfectly rendered chrome balls, Grecian columns against checkerboard vistas, devoid of irony and so very popular in the early 1990s, this aesthetic was more about demonstrating the technical prowess of the software than anything else. In 2018, mainstream commercial VR is still in this chrome ball phase, demonstrating what the software can do. Producers and artists are also often guilty of waxing on about VR’s “vast potential,” rather than embracing its current pitfalls, shortcomings or indeed failings.

Theo Triantafyllidis, Holly Waxwing (sound design), Jenny Rodenhouse, Elie Joteva, Lander (On-site team), Regis Boissenin (additional photogrammetry, Polina Milliou (3D scanning, 3D modelling, exhibition design. Commissoned by NRW-Forum Dusseldorf, Staphyloculus, 2017. Courtesy and © Theo Triantafyllidis
Theo Triantafyllidis, Holly Waxwing (sound design), Jenny Rodenhouse, Elie Joteva, Lander (On-site team), Regis Boissenin (additional photogrammetry, Polina Milliou (3D scanning, 3D modelling, exhibition design. Commissoned by NRW-Forum Dusseldorf, Staphyloculus, 2017. Courtesy and © Theo Triantafyllidis

There is great aesthetic potential in VR for the badly rendered graphics, crude simulation, generic 3D models, digital artifacting and virtual bodies breaking apart—errors which offer great possibilities for artists to also subvert the dominant narrative for lifelike realism which plagues VR and CGI in general. While not strictly VR, the work of Cool 3D World comes to mind here, as does the VR/AR work of Theo Triantafyllidis, to embrace the artificiality of the digital as a new kind of materiality. Cool 3D World and Triantafyllidis trade in imperfect, default-generated 3D imagery/animation which probably offers a more truthful depiction of our times than the drive for photorealism. From fake news, reality TV to the kind of plastic surgery witnessed daily in customised selfies, we are immersed in a world of simulation and artificial hyperreality where the fake is the new real.

One of the great things about VR is its ability to capture the feeling of being trapped within a self‑contained, closed-off and claustrophobic space. In this, there is great potential for VR to extend the psychological dimension, an aspect of the technology that was clearly in overdrive in Paul McCarthy’s recent foray into VR, presented as a satellite exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale. McCarthy’s C.S.S.C Coach Stage Stage Coach VR Experiment: Mary and Eve (2017) produced in conjunction with Khora Contemporary, is VR that is just wrong in so many ways. The viewer finds themselves confronted by numerous virtual bodies in an overbearing psychodrama of debasement and humiliation (typical for McCarthy) based on a scene from John Ford’s Stagecoach. The work is wonderfully disturbing on so many levels, but principally because one is trapped within the VR space with no escape.

Further, the McCarthy work used digital glitching, which like his recent sculptures of Disney figures with missing body parts and disfigured elements, represented the side effects and mistakes of the molding process. His VR work also contains virtual bodies that are shown breaking apart or rendered in a crude unfinished state, an aesthetic which clearly adds to the damage unfolding before us. The digital errors in McCarthy’s VR world link to the idea of something very wrong. McCarthy’s work often uncovers the fault lines in American pop culture and is here extended into new and freakish dimensions in his not-quite-right VR experiment with broken and damaged bodies. Most disturbing of all was the ability to walk through digital bodies, as they broke apart and fractured, adding to the spatial and human dislocation of the VR space.

Paul McCarthy, C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment Mary and Eve, 2017, virtual reality artwork. ©Paul McCarthy and Khora Contemporary. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Xavier Hufkens and Khora Contemporary
Paul McCarthy, C.S.S.C. Coach Stage Stage Coach VR Experiment: Mary and Eve, 2017, virtual reality artwork. ©Paul McCarthy and Khora Contemporary. Courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth, Xavier Hufkens and Khora Contemporary

There is a strong link in McCarthy’s VR work to the historical freakshow of the pre-cinematic sideshow or carnival. Here the narrative of VR is implicitly tied to earlier deformations of the body and in so doing manages to short-circuit the narrative of VR as a cutting‑edge advancement in technology by underscoring the nineteenth-century freakshow element. In this way, the distortion of the body underpins many new forms of technology, from the digitally altered and enhanced selfie to the amplified and exaggerated bodies in computer games (Mortal Kombat, for example), the emergence of deepfake pornography and the manipulation of representations of the female body. Like much of McCarthy’s oeuvre, C.S.S.C Coach Stage Stage Coach VR Experiment: Mary and Eve fuels a compulsion to view and participate in it against one’s better judgement. The sheer audio-visual sensory overload of the work creates a sense of entrapment – like a deer caught in the headlights, the viewer is frozen into inaction before the unfolding horror.

Another recent work which explores this psychological space is Jess Taylor’s creepy VR piece All You Have To Do Is Ask (2018). Here the viewer is implicated in the aftermath of a crime-like scene or nightmare. As the user surveys and navigates the terrain by torchlight, one encounters a series of digitally damaged sleeping female bodies. It’s a particularly uncanny and disturbing VR experience that, like the McCarthy work, prompts a sense of helpless inaction.

All You Have To Do Is Ask operates on another level as well. The photogrammatic scans of the artist’s body in the work take on a monstrous reading as incomplete, distorted simulations in this minefield of the unreliable body. Here the female form functions as a kind of corruption lurking within the VR space. The digital distortion of the body seems to be a direct result of our gaze and the very act of looking. Based on a walking simulator, the user navigates the space not with any enhanced sense of realism, which is what a walking simulator implies, but rather to experience it as loose and free‑form, almost self‑generated.

Jess Taylor, All You Have To Do Is Ask, 2018, virtual reality artwork. Courtesy and © Jess Taylor
Jess Taylor, All You Have To Do Is Ask, 2018, virtual reality artwork. Courtesy and J© Jess Taylor

Surrounding the distorted sleeping bodies, the viewer is confronted with 360 views as a wall of silent faces. There is an acute sense of watching and of being watched, all of which contribute to the overall feeling of voyeurism that permeates the VR experience. The audience is implicated in not just watching but being silently judged, as feminist critique sits within a digital horror show of the body remastered. The light source coming from a single torchlight also contributes to the sense of a Manson Family home invasion in which the viewer as perpetrator is implicated.

Ixian Gate (2015) by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward is another work that would not have been possible in the mid 1990s first wave of VR given the degree of irony and humour incompatible with the po‑faced artists working with VR in this period. The flat VR terrain produced by Johnson and Ward is entirely self‑reflexive in terms of VR’s seductive and kooky sci‑fi aesthetic and accompanying iconography. Forget realism when we can instead have a VR world populated with mutant humans, impossible geographies and architectures from another dimension. As demonstrated here, VR that has escaped the clutches and more importantly the limitations of conventional real estate to take us into even stranger, darker, weirder, unknown and unseen spaces is a VR world worth taking the trouble to engage in.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Simon Penny, Desire for Virtual Space: The Technological Imaginary in 1990s Media Art, 2009: http://simonpenny.net/2010Writings.
  2. ^ David Lynch, Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, consciousness and creativity, Penguin Group, 2007. 

Ian Haig is a senior lecturer in the School of Art at RMIT. He is currently developing a VR project about the confrontation of the body and is also developing a feature film project.

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