Crispin LordDirector, Artist & Researcher

The Role of Virtual Reality in Visual Art

by Sarah Wolffe

If we define Virtual Reality as simulating the illusion we exist somewhere we are not, VR originates with panoramic oil paintings of the C19th. However, our modern, digitalised concept had a superficial existence confined to Sci-Fi community fantasy until 1950-60, when cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the ‘Sensorama’.  Building upon these foundations, esoteric university research labs run by Ivan Sutherland and Myron Kruegere developed the first immersive head-mounted display systems, despite extremely primitive hardware and realism. As with any scientific endeavour, funding was indispensable. By 1970 VR research bloomed due to military investment financing the development of devices for medical, flight, vehicle and battlefield training applications. This era lasted until Smartphone technology - gyroscopes and motion sensors, small HD screens, and lightweight, fast processors - enabled independent VR developers’ access to affordable tech for gaming. By now, VR has progressed to modernize almost every domain, including: education; design; medicine; marketing; engineering; sports and (in full circle) the visual arts. However, despite digital VR’s humble beginning in Heilig’s attempt to draw viewers deeper into the screen, some digi-sceptics question the place VR has in the Art world. Admittedly, having been gaming and military territory for so long, it is not unusual to be confused about VR’s role in visual art, even better to be curious.

The first unique advantage VR offers visual art is an evolution in how organisations may exhibit. VR brings the potential to experience any space in incredible realism, without leaving your living room. The ability to attend an auction in Paris, walk through exhibitions in New York or stream 3D imagery live from Rio de Janerio, wherever you may be, democratises the experience of art and allows wider audience engagement. Secondly, VR provides a groundbreaking new medium which transforms the creative process. New methods go hand in hand with new tools, one of the most successful being Google’s Tilt Brush which utilises motion-tracking controllers and headsets so users may paint life-size three-dimensional strokes in virtual space.  This leads to the third, main motivation of utilising VR in visual art: the ability to create entirely original experiences, liberating artistic expression. The VR method gives a new sense of space and dimension, allowing direct address of metaphysical topics that artists have grappled with for centuries. Movement, identity, time, change, being, perspective and light can all be played with via VR in ways which are otherwise just impossible.

Elizabeth Edwards “Spaceship Scene”

Christian Lemmerz “La Apparizione”

While VR has already lead to astounding artworks such as Christian Lemmerz’s “La Apparizione”, Elizabeth Edwards’ “Spaceship Scene” or Stuart Campbell’s Tilt Brush series, one main drawback is that ‘sick-to-your-stomach’ feeling. Like motion sickness, common symptoms of ‘Virtual Reality Sickness’ include headaches, nausea, vomiting, pallor, sweating, fatigue, drowsiness and disorientation. Technology will improve, but the time this will take combined with the vulnerability one feels under a headset, long exhibition queues, expensive kit, tech glitches and years of artist training to generate quality graphics, motivates many to question why we should bother. We already have methods for artworks which don’t make you feel sick. However, many classical works are vomit inducing in their own way. “Saturn Devouring His Son” is one of Goya’s most admired pieces, but it depicts Saturn looming out of the darkness with a gaping mouth, bulging eyes and partially erect penis, digging his fingers into the remaining flesh of a son he consumes. This horrific and unforgettable mural is acclaimed for its raw expressive power and the burning provocation of its meaning. Does Saturn symbolise the autocratic Spanish state of Goya’s time, whose demonic greed for power devours its own citizens in war and revolution? Perhaps it reflects Goya’s descent into depression and paranoia, personifying emotions such as fear and anger at mortality?

“Saturn Devouring His Son” illustrates how, fortunately for VR art, the artistic value of a piece is not determined by its experiential pleasantness. In fact, it is well established artistic ambition to produce content which exceeds aesthetics by incorporating moral character, emotional impact, ideological or ethical value in socio-historical context. 17th century Vanitas painters’ depicting still life in Dutch realism used medical instruments to symbolise flesh’s frailty and rotting fruit for the body’s decay. Impressionists Monet, Renoir and Cezanne tried to capture the transient effects of sunlight en plein air.  Parisian Surrealists aimed to release the unconsciousness’ creative potential through dreams and psychic automatism. Whether symbolising mortality, capturing the shifting patterns in nature or concept blending for dreamlike surrealism, artists mirror and explore human subjectivity. VR is so exciting for visual art because of its enhanced power to examine and investigate human reality via fully immersive experience-based content.. Ideas; emotions; feelings; beliefs; perceptions; doubts; desires; morality; corporeality; senses; imagination and dreams can all be communicated with the added impact of first person perspective.

While VR’s artistic merit is becoming clearer, it’s still in its adolescent phase, accompanied by growing pains. Firstly there is cost and usability. Cutting edge technology does not come cheap. Neither does the on call technician, compatible computers, wiring, third-person viewing screens and 1:1 guides for audiences. Next are the intellectual property wars. Who owns VR art, the artist or technology provider? Google retains a worldwide license to use or modify Tilt Brush creations. Furthermore, how does one maintain the value of art which is just digital files, downloadable, replicable and usable by anyone with a headset? Galleries normally price in relation to relevant art; however with a new market there is almost no context against which to value pieces, and massive threats from hackers, pirating and hijacking. After all this there is the issue of how buyers and sellers will keep up with technological changes. Unless we develop a systematic means to update VR art to new platforms it could be lost when its medium becomes obsolete, causing a dilemma for artists deciding whether to present work now or to wait for new upgrades but miss opportunities. Finally, there is the ethical matter of whether to restrict access to disturbing content. Jordan Wolfson’s (2017) ‘Real Violence’ comes with trigger warnings and age restrictions, as it positions the viewer as eyewitness to scenes described as disturbing, repellent, nauseating and P.T.S.D. inducing.

Jordan Wolfon’s “Real Violence” on show at The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.

Despite these drawbacks, VR brings so many advantages to visual art that it is surely here to stay. The psychologically immersive nature of VR content directly evolves and redefines the relationship between artist, audience and artwork, creating some provocative questions. For example, head-tracking, 360-degree views and interactive storytelling gives the viewer agency to choose their own adventure, or at least the illusion of control. How much free will is possible within a simulation where everything being seen  is an orchestration by the artist? While we may have the feeling of discovery, the likelihood is we are being guided to the artist’s vision. By analogy, what makes the controlled freedom we have in VR worlds different from the controlled freedom we have in the ‘real’ world of advertising, mega-corporations and the internet offering countless catalogued avenues to happiness? ‘Real Violence’ illustrates perfectly how VR makes the confrontation of philosophical issues unavoidable. What is the role of the viewer, are they next in line, filming on a Smartphone, the brutalized, the brutalizer, or a bystander allowing the event to unfold? Artists have been struggling to draw viewers deeper into their artworks for centuries, and with VR heralding the ability to push at the boundaries of human experience, we should all keep an ear to the ground, or rather, an eye in the headset.