VR Art: As virtual reality infiltrates London's galleries, we speak to three emerging VR artists about their unusual new exhibits.
It’s now only a matter of months until virtual reality (VR) headsets like the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus are released to gaggling crowds of tech-fans.
But it’s not just the world of tech that is set to be rocked; we’ve already spoken to porn stars about how VR is set to bring a “golden age” to the adult industry, we’ve met Trillenium the ASOS-backed company that wants you to browse clothes in their virtual shop, and we’ve glimpsed how VR can affect tourism, letting you time travel through the ages of historic destinations.
Now, virtual reality is taking hold on the art scene, bringing entirely new visual experiences to galleries across the UK.
The Memo spoke to three emerging VR artists from The Trampery’s London-based Fish Island Labs about why they’ve gone virtual, and what art-lovers can expect to experience at their latest installations.
“The installation itself is a plinth,” says Tom Szirtes, the director of digital design studio Mbryonic. “On it sits a simple model of a house made from cardboard.”
This may not sound earth-shattering at first, but as Szirtes says, once a viewer places the Oculus headset on “extraordinary” things start to happen.
“In Veil objects don’t have to obey normal constraints of reality,” explains Szirtes.
Participants are encouraged to interact with a crank on the side of the plinth to enter and even manipulate parts of the house, with each window leading to a new room or landscape.
“We were inspired by the painting Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, a pioneering painting where the artist manipulated the viewer’s perception of space,” says Szirtes.
“There are a number of references to art and early cinema in there which adds another level to the experience, but you don’t need to know them to enjoy it.”
It should come as no surprise that many VR artists already have a vested interest in the field, and Iain Nicholls, who collaborated with Szirtes on Veil, was one of the original backers of the Oculus Rift when it launched on Kickstarter.
“It was the Tuscany demo that really turned our heads,” recalls Szirtes. “It’s very simple, you just wander around the grounds of a house. But it makes a big impression – it was like seeing the future.”
Indeed, both collaborators have a background in video-games, working at Sega for a number of years.
“We take techniques and technology from games and apply them to other sectors,” says Szirtes, who hope Veil transpires the “playfulness and interactivity” of gaming.
Previously, Szirtes has already incorporated VR into his work, creating an app for the music venue Sage Gateshead which allowed visitors to ‘play the building’.
Mixing virtual reality with music is something Szirtes is keen to continue working with in the future, but the VR was “the most interesting part of the project,” he says. “We never looked back.”
Veil will be exhibited at the Herrick Gallery, Mayfair from October 8 until mid-November.
Not every VR artist however, starts as an expert in the field. “I’ve always been keen on VR but never tried personally before this project,” confesses Matter Zamagni.
For Zamagni, Nature Abstraction rose out of broad artistic research into subjects ranging from geometry to quantum physics and astral planes.
“I was looking to show the audience something that it is normally invisible to our perceptions, but maybe visible otherwise,” he explains.
An almost meditation-like experience, Nature Abstraction uses musical scores and never-ending fractal patterns to create a relaxed state of mind.
The participant sits on a stool in a large cube-shaped wooden frame that is cloaked with translucent material.
Images are then virtually projected on the material and the viewer is invited to move between three planets: Birth, Communion and Aether.
“The audience is guided to explore these planets and dive into their vast complexities,” explains Zamagni.
“The cool thing is that these planets are purely abstract, as they originally come from simple mathematical formulas, but they describe very familiar shapes to the human eye. These can be reconnected to natural, biological forms and also man-made geometric ones.”
“I hope that by looking at these peculiar formations the audience will question themselves about the existence of hidden structures embedded everywhere,” Zamagni adds.
For Zamagni, the appeal is not just virtual reality, but digital art more widely.
“The experience the viewer gets out of a digital artwork is greater that looking passively at a canvas,” he says.
“Modern art became so conceptual that it’s always hard to grasp its idea when you’re in front of it, but by embedding tech into ideas, then a new world of possibilities opens up: this is just the beginning.”
See Matteo Zamagni’s website for dates of future exhibitions.
For Nicola Plant, who created Sentient Flux with Alexander Adderley, the attraction to virtual reality was formed long before the Oculus was imagined.
“Everyone has seen VR in old Sci Fi films,” she explains. “That crazy one with Pierce Brosnan is the best, The Lawnmower Man, so bad it was funny!
“As soon as i could afford one I bought a development kit because I wanted to play games with it,” explains Plant, “but mainly because I had a very specific project in mind; this actually turned out to be Sentient Flux.”
So, after trying out a nausea-inducing demo in Paris three years ago, Plant set about creating “decent graphics and interaction” that would inspire a sense of tranquility in viewers.
To experience Sentient Flux, participants put a VR headset and headphones on and stand in front of motion sensing cameras. They then find themselves placed in a new environment, “much like an underwater cave”.
By moving their body viewers interact with glowing particles that flow around movement.
“Sentient Flux is actually based on an experience I had a couple of years ago whilst snorkelling in Cambodia with phosphorescent plankton,” recalls Plant. “I wondered what would happen if it could be recreated but the glowing particles actually respond sympathetically to you.”
Without VR technology Sentient Flux simply wouldn’t be possible: “VR allowed me to easily program the interaction based around the movement of your own body, as they are to you in real life.”
However, not everything is rosy on the VR Art scene and while Plant recognises “a boom in artists working with VR”, she’s wary about the future of the form.
“There’s always the possibility that VR is a novelty and will get old, a bit like 3D cinema,” she says.
“Although I do expect that it could go the other way and we’ll all be sitting around with headsets on not looking at each other.”
Here at The Memo, we hope neither of these outcomes come true.
Sentient Flux will be exhibited at the Fashion Space Gallery, Oxford Circus on the 16th of October.
Kitty Knowles is a Senior Features Writer at The Memo. Kitty previously worked as an online journalist for GQ. She can be found tweeting @KittyGKnowles.