Virtual reality and art
I had the pleasure of thinking about VR and art for a talk at re:publica TEN. Some of the first questions I have asked myself are: What’s special about virtual reality, what makes this medium so radically different, why is it considered as significant a moment as when perspective entered painting? I will blog some fragments of my thoughts split up into a few blog posts.
Immersion vs narration
A fascinating point about VR for a user is the disappearance of distance to the piece of art, to the world of experience. Pimentel and Texeira already have written about this anti-semiotic character in the 90s: In VR you don’t need signs that you have to translate – like letters in a book, or pictures on a screen. In VR you can immerse directly into the work of art. They wrote: “Simply, virtual reality, like writing and mathematics, is a way to represent and communicate what you can imagine with your mind. But it can be more powerful because it doesn’t require you to convert your ideas into abstract symbols with restrictive semantic and syntactic rules, and it can be shared by other people.”
To restrict thinking about VR art to only this point would do it no justice though. VR as mere anti-semiotic immersion into a virtual world would mean to only be fascinated by the perfection of the illusion, if not get high on your powers as creator. It would mean to only see the medium as an extension of things like 3D film effects. Something, that helps the audience feel even more like being inside of a fictional world. Yet this is how many makers think about the possibilities of virtual reality right now: as immersion into an experience or as identity tourism. If it’s a rollercoaster ride through cosmos or the stay in an isolation cell, both means thinking VR as possibility to make a user experience the author’s version of a story more intensely.
This already hits on problems when you consider storytelling: How do you lead a user along your plot when she is *in* the story? Classic storytelling doesn’t work when the user becomes an autonomous character in the story. How can a linear story be told if users can look and go whereever they want? Incentives and rewards, copying ideas from games? Well, possible but that means but applying other media’s means onto a new one.
What about forgetting about plot? Could a space to explore be enough? There already exists wellness VR with spheric sounds and meditative landscapes. Or take the Guardian’s VR experience about life in an isolation cell: It works this well because an isolation cell per definition is a small limited space. There is not much to explore and to interact with. Same goes for Notes of Blindness, in which the audio diary of John Hull – who slowly went blind – got made into an audio-visual VR experience. Sounds of the world that surrounds you, original voices telling you their story: both VR experiences mix narrator voices and an experience of a somehow restricted space. It works by setting limits to the user’s possibilities. That’s not really a satisfying solution for the storytelling problem though. It just means not exploring the great specific possibilities of the medium but instead limiting them. The user’s leash gets just a little bit longer. He or she is allowed to take a 360° look, do a few things they get led to do but the author wants the audience to stay passive and under their control. The user is thought as a character in the author’s play.
If VR stays limited like this it might be quite fascinating for a while but the novelty will wear off. Then this path might lead to VR fizzling out like 3D tech for ages, to not much more than a special effect.
VR experience as creative act
A more adequate approach is to see the audience as co-creators of this virtual world. Not placing them into a fixed plot but only creating an environment: a world of potential experiences in which the user forms their own experiences. No complete and linear story that the user plays through. Let the autoritarian narrator disappear. The experiencers (the users) bring their own wishes, ideas, their whole background and context into the VR world. They only create the virtual work of art by how they interact with this world.
So as a theory VR art could mean an ephemeral and personalized virtual experience as work of art: No second person will be looking around in the same way, no second person will interact with the virtual environment in the same way, no second person will create the same story in that virtual environment. Thinking the user as co-creator seems to be more appropriate for the medium. Unlike with books or films you have no finished product / object but it only comes into existence when the user puts on their VR gear and starts interacting with the artificial reality. And it no longer exists when they take it off.
Isn’t it a kind of nice and empowering thought that this way, somehow, about 50 years after Roland Barthes has declared him dead already, with the VR medium the author could die a second time? With Barthes it was about wether or not a work of art should be interpreted against the biographical background of its creator: He emancipated the individual approach. In VR the author dies the death as plot-crafting, storytelling hand. Virtual reality as empowerment of the audience, of the user: Experiencing becomes a creative act.
VR as erotics of art
Or even: In VR experiencing becomes a passionate creative act, a sensual creative experience. Immersed in a virtual world you can act more free of consequences. It is an ephemeral world: there’s no product, no archive. What happens in VR (could) stay in VR. Susan Sontag wrote – even a few years before Barthes (jouissance) – in Against Interpretation that art is not about one correct interpretation. Approaching art can not be restricted to assuming a fixed meaning that quasi was hidden by the creator. She denied that experiencing art correctly would mean to figure out that hidden meaning. Instead she called for an erotics of art and shifted the focus to the emotional sensual individual experience of a work of art.
If you transfer this to the creative experience of VR, you could say VR not just liquifies and personalizes interpretation but does that to the very form of the work of art. It makes for an erotics of art in which the user is audience of and creator of and character in the VR artpiece at the same time, by each user’s very own individual VR experience/creation. Like a wave of pleasure the VR art of work only exists in the moment of interaction with the individual user. Creating while VRly immersed as erotic exploration. It is a medium in which you no longer have a fixed work of art but a liquid plurality of a work of art: all the different threads of experience/creation that different user experience/create are equal ephemeral works of art. The autor who creates the VR environment is but a designer, an architect, is but the maker of tools.