Meet Lisa Walker in her workshop, 2018. 360-degree view, VR artwork. Courtesy Brian Goodwin/I Want to Experience and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Meet Lisa Walker in her workshop: VR in the museum

The New Zealand jeweller Lisa Walker sits in her apron at her workbench. The surface before her is packed with an array of tools: a drill, a glue gun, pliers, paint brushes. The shelves behind her overflow with fossicked, found materials and objects. She reaches for the taxidermied ducklings sourced from an online auction site and explains, “They have an awful history and reason for existing. I’m intrigued by making them into a beautiful, cute, fluffy necklace. So there are two extremes happening and I wanted to test how it would be to throw them together.”

This is the sort of insight one might expect from a visit to an artist’s studio; the kind of exclusive experience to which museum visitors rarely have access. Turning this around, earlier this year, hundreds of people attending Walker’s survey exhibition, Lisa Walker: I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered at Te Papa’s new art gallery, Toi Art, were invited to enter the world of the artist through a unique VR experience, Meet Lisa Walker in her workshop.

A jeweller, renowned for producing experimental and radical work that mines art, fashion, photography and contemporary culture more broadly for ideas, Walker’s practice pushes the definition of jewellery with her bold use of materials that reveal their origins, bigger narratives and fault lines (including exposing the traditionally hidden glue that binds the objects). Trained in Dunedin at the Otago Polytechnic (Dunedin School of Art), before undertaking postgraduate study in Munich at the Academy of Fine Art under Swiss jeweller, Otto Künzli, Walker returned to New Zealand in 2009. In 2010, she was presented with the Françoise van den Bosch Award, in recognition of her position as a jeweller of international standing. Since this time, Walker has continued to inspire jewellers and supported opportunities in New Zealand for closer contact with Munich and progressive European jewellery circles. Her work also sits comfortably when viewed within the broader context of contemporary art.

Installation view, Lisa Walker: I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered, Toi Art, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Photo: Justine Olsen
Installation view, Lisa Walker: I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered, Toi Art, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Photo: Justine Olsen

The Toi Art exhibition, surveying 30 years of practice, was grouped into three main phases (selected and installed by Walker) demonstrated her progress through metalwork in the early years in New Zealand to the introduction of everyday materials and objects in Germany, and her recent work. The survey structure demonstrated Walker’s free‑flowing method of unexpected juxtapositions and elegant groupings to highlight the jeweller’s evolving interests, including the democratisation of materials through the readymade, as well as her engagement in environmental politics among other social concerns. The challenge was to present Walker’s ideas in a way that would bring to life the stories behind her idiosyncratic objects.

Te Papa’s Head of Art, Charlotte Davy saw the opportunity to deepen the strategic engagement with audiences in employing digital platforms. Prior to commissioning the VR video work on Walker, she experienced a prototype that captured a visit to the studio of Warren Warbrick, a maker of Taonga Puoro or Māori musical instruments by Brian Goodwin, creative director of I Want to Experience, a graduate of Te Papa’s technology accelerator programme, Mahuki. Goodwin, a passionate advocate for the power of VR, supports the potential of the medium to enable the conversation with artists, historians and curators in an intimate and authentic setting. For the Toi Art team, Goodwin’s prototype application sparked an immediate connection to Lisa Walker’s captivating workshop space by offering the potential for a virtual encounter.

Walker’s open‑minded approach and interest in the uses of technology like mobile phones and laptops also suggested that the artist could be open to experimenting with a VR experience. Walker’s preference for the exhibition environment to be free of text labels, a decision that not only complemented the idea of storytelling through VR, made this opportunity all the more compelling, through providing an alternative form of creative interpretation as an introduction to the artist’s practice and methodologies beyond the scope of the physical exhibition. Walker responded enthusiastically, “I was curious about the technology, how it would work, what the outcome would be.”

The Lisa Walker VR experience. Photo Justine Olsen
The Lisa Walker VR experience. Photo Justine Olsen

In collaboration with the jeweller a range of objects, tools, and materials connected to the exhibition were chosen as subjects for discussion, and the filming (with a 360-degree VR camera rig and binaural audio recording) took place over a day in December 2017. Walker reflects back on that day: “It felt quite new to (the production team) too and I liked that. The action of speaking to a ball (the cameras), knowing there were no editing possibilities … and not being able to bounce off another human with interview questions or conversation … also felt very bizarre and uncomfortable! But I got through.”

Unrehearsed, Lisa Walker’s clear and unmediated commentary was packed with insightful observations, such as her account of the sweepings from the workshop floor that were gathered into a pendant, or seeing the beauty in her son’s broken skateboard. On arrival in Walker’s virtual studio, the VR visitor was invited to browse and choose objects of interest via visual cues within the experience to activate a series of brief scenes of the artist talking to the camera about the selected object. Visitors could appreciate the pendant made from a telephone and mobile hanging on the wall and the pin cushion, among other objects, tools and materials in view, while hearing the muffled wind in the trees at the window, or the soundtrack of City Of Orion II by Walker’s close friend, German musician, Pollyester.    

Meet Lisa Walker in her workshop was available for limited hours during the exhibition and attracted a cross‑generational audience and a more sustained period of engagement than other digital experiences in Toi Art. But it is the content, not the form that ultimately drives the quality of the engagement, and its potential as a creative tool, a sentiment echoed by Brian Goodwin: “Whilst the medium acts as a vessel the content itself is what will truly transport the viewer. As of right now, the average viewer can distinguish they’re seeing a recording of a set or setting. I feel that in less time than the iPhone has been around we’ll reach a point where this distinction will dissolve. So it’s an exciting space to be in as we will see virtual reality as an immersive medium blossom.”

For Toi Art, VR has proved a powerful tool in contextualising an exhibition intensive with materials and ideas. For a brief moment, it has enabled visitors to be transported into the artist’s working world.

“Lisa Walker: I want to go to my bedroom but I can’t be bothered” was an exhibition at Toi Art, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, 17 March – 22 July 2018. Curator: Justine Olsen.

“Meet Lisa Walker in her workshop” was produced by Brian Goodwin, I Want to Experience, working with Toi Art at Te Papa team: Curator, Justine Olsen; Digital Producer, Prue Donald; UX/UI Designer Karyn Brice; UX Researcher Kate Wanless; Project Manager, Charlotte Hinton. Audio production, Piers Gilbertson.