VR and art: experience as creativity

To VR!

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.

It’s been a while!

spontan super

It’s been a while since I have written here – about time for an update! Somehow blogging about things has led me to giving talks about things, and this has turned out as rather time consuming. I have done quite a few talks in the last months, and plan on publishing at least parts of it on this english blog of mine, too, starting with the VR and art one. There were:

That’s why the lady is a fan” – On the power of fangirling – female fan culture and the internet. I wrote this for the fan culture exhbition “PASSION” and held it a second time last week at Katana, at the Salon der unerfüllten Wünsche. I will hold this one again at Ladyfest Mannheim in July. I haven’t been to a Ladyfest in years but the ones I visited or organized myself were a wonderful experience, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Reclaim The Night” – About why sexual harassment in nightlife happens as regularly as it is invisible, and what can be done about it. One to encourage people to get loud about this still far too neglected topic. It was for a night that aimed at giving the audience that comes to our (musikverein, the promoter collective I work with) shows and club nights a possibility to talk about this and join together for solutions. I will hold this talk once more at Klangtherapie Festival – a 3 days open air electronic music festival. We’ll see how that goes. 😉

Virtual Reality and Art – I tried to give an overview about what I find special about the medium, e.g. the perspective and disappearance of a narrator, and why I wish more *independent* art would (be able to) explore it. I did this one for re:publica conference and it was a great experience to be there – I filled my head with as many talks I could visit in those three days in Berlin. I had offered them another talk but was asked if I could do one about this topic instead and it definitely is one that I enjoyed wrapping some thoughts around.

Soft Resistance – an older one (a few months) about how digitalisation is interwoven in our everyday lives and about how images led and lead to digital dualist misunderstandings. I had a really wonderful time holding this one in Hamburg and Bremen for data/city/explosion – great people!

Another new date: I have the pleasure to do an ORCHID floor (my queer underground club night) at Munich’s Pride at the venerable huge townhall, and I will bring my wonderful mate DOUBLE U CC of Trouble In Paradise, an all female underground hiphop night, with me as co dj. It’s the second time I spin at Pride Munich while there’s still no connection between my local Pride and me. For reasons. Even in 2015 it still labelled itself only as “lesbian gay”, as if visibility wouldn’t be one of the cores of Pride. What about trans/inter/bi folks? “LGBT” is the minimum you should go for if you claim to represent the whole of your bloody rainbow. If Pride is just about making friends with and about fitting nicely into a society that still is quite hostile to many queers instead of making the problems of the weakest amongst us more visible, it’s just a carnival for the oppressors. If I had a lot of time I would sooooooooo like to start a little alt Pride in Nuremberg, without sponsoring, religion and conservative party politics.


The main part of my time I have – as always – spent with plotting shows and club nights with my musikverein mates and we have such great shows coming up: Astronautalis + Ceschi, Mr. Heart + Chimney, and pleaaaaase don’t miss Downtown Boys! And Tommy Genesis. And Zu! And Le1f! My next night djing will be our fabulous 80s night: Dancing With Tears In My Eyes and then Orchid end of june. For that one I have decided to offer karaoke from 22-midnight and have yet to figure out how – this should be fun, the figuring as well as the night itself! Can’t wait. A girl has no shame.

That’s it for now as an update and first step back into blogging. Now that I have reclaimed my balcony from snow and rain, and now that I have finished rewatching all of Gilmore Girls and have caught up with all of Game of Thrones, there is no holding me back! \o/
Hope that there are some readers left after this long break.