Art & Tech

Is There Hope for Virtual Reality in Art? Why Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons Are Not the Answer


Is There Hope for Virtual Reality in Art? Why Marina Abramovic and Jeff Koons Are Not the Answer
Marina Abramovic donning HTC's Vive. Image via Acute Art.

Later this month, fair goers attending Art Basel Hong Kong will get the opportunity to experience the debut of two new virtual reality works by famed performance artist Marina Abramovic and sculptural icon Anish Kapoor. It’s the first time either artist has explored the medium, begging lots of speculation, excitement, and of course, a tremendous amount of hype, symptomatic of any foray into VR (remember all the buzz when the New York Times debuted their virtual reality division?).

Both works are part of a suite of virtual reality experiences developed in collaboration with a London-based platform called Acute Art. The platform includes VR works by other art-world giants such as Jeff Koons and Olafur Elíasson, and claims to be the “world’s first virtual reality arts platform… a museum without walls that lets you experience the cutting edge of interactive art anywhere in the world.” While that sounds great, it’s almost entirely false. Not only is it not the first, for a platform that purports that its users will be able to experience its content “all around the world,” the fact that the app is only available on the HTC Vive headset reads less as a platform of accessibility, and much more as a bizarre marketing ploy to get you to buy an underselling piece of technology by using more underselling technology (especially when compared to other virtual reality platforms such as the New York Times VR app, or the New Museum's First Look, both of which are available to download as free apps on any smartphone). 

At a $10 per month (or $30 per year) membership fee, users are given access to virtual reality experiences by some of art’s most prominent figures, along with a few works by up-and-coming digital artists such as Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen. Given that no one in the Artspace office has an HTC set, and doesn't run on Windows (oh yeah, Acute Art only runs on Windows), we sadly did not have access to any of the actual content, despite the fact that we paid the membership fee. The previews, however, say more than enough about the work. Ranging from decent to completely inane, Acute Art’s content hardly makes the case for virtual reality as an effective medium. Let’s start with the completely inane:

Marina Abramovic’s piece, Rising, is a mind blowing-ly daft example of how to take a worldwide crisis like global warming and make it entirely about yourself. Inspired in part by a video game she played in Japan where you play the role of a firefighter saving children from a burning orphanage (”I remember the indescribable joy of saving 20 babies”), Rising seems to miss the mark of being a piece about altruism and environmental stewardship by a margin that’s more or less the size of the artist’s own ego. While the work is still in its final stages of development, it’s less the experiential nature of the work that’s the issue, and more the actual premise.

The virtual reality experience opens up with you in a dark room with Marina Abramovic who beckons you from within a glass tank. As you approach, you are transported to a boat at the foot of an arctic glacier, witnessing the now classic image of its melting, titanic sheets of ice cascading, and crashing dramatically into the sea. Looking around your small vessel, you are once again confronted with Abramovic in her vitrine, only this time the glass is filling with water—because like… sea levels are rising. Unless you make a “commitment to help” (the specifics of this commitment are vague, to say the least), and pledge to become more “eco-conscious,” the water within the vitrine will continue to rise, eventually resulting in the greatest tragedy that could possibly come of global warming—The Artist is Drowning! In Abramovic’s own words, “you’re saving the human being, and you’re saving the planet—OR, you’re not saving the planet, and you make the human being die. The choice is only yours.” Apart from blatantly plagiarizing Smokey the Bear (“Only you can prevent wildfires”), Rising uses “groundbreaking” technology to produce an almost laughably cliché and reductive approach to the global warming crisis. 

PhryneStill from Koons' Phryne (2017). Image via FFW.

While Rising is definitely the worst experience on the platform, it doesn’t get that much better. A piece by Jeff Koons offers an animated version of his famous Seated Ballerina, using movements captured from a participating member of the New York City Ballet. Titled Phryne, after the ancient Greek courtesan, the reflective surface of the ballerina seeks to offer its viewers a sense of self-affirmation and peace, as they encounter distorted visions of their own reflection in Phryne. While the concept of self-affirmation within virtual reality is interesting, the glaring issue there is that as far as one can tell based on the previews, that version of “the self” is, though relatively nondescript, definitely caucasian, limiting the experience of self-affirming bliss to non-people-of-color (who can also afford a $10 a month virtual reality subscription). Also, in the words of one Hyperallergic article, "If we’ve really reached the point where we need a virtual Jeff Koons sculpture of a metallic ballerina to help us love living … well, that’s goddamn depressing."

A better approach to self-affirmation might be Anish Kapoor’s In Yourself—Fall, which is set inside the human body, allowing the viewer to navigate one’s own internal landscapes. This, along with Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s piece, Aquaphobia, might be the most that Acute Art has to offer. Just as Kapoor’s In Yourself—Fall is Koons’ qualitative foil, such is Steensen’s Aquaphobia to Abramovic’s Rising. In it, one navigates a surreal futuristic landscape that entangles Steensen's conception of our inner psychologies with the environment as a way to explore our relationship with water levels, and climate change. “Aquaphobia,” says Steensen, “uses a fear of water as a metaphor for a kind of anxiety for the future”.

aquaphobiaStill from Steensen's Aquaphobia (2017). Image via Jakob Kudsk Steensen.

Most proponents of virtual reality insist that the medium is a groundbreaking force in expanding media’s empathic capabilities. Jordan Wolfson’s controversial virtual reality experience Real Violence at last year’s Whitney Biennial, however, proved that if anything, virtual reality might offer the possibility of total desensitization. While the experience of watching Wolfson beat a man to death on the streets of New York City in his virtual reality simulation was absolutely disturbing, it begs the question—what if this technology was ubiquitous, and not a novelty? When the Lumière brothers first debuted their short film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, theater goers, unaccustomed to the moving image, would often run out of the theater upon seeing a train hurtling towards them at full speed. While we may feel a greater sense of empathic connection in virtual reality now, what happens when the medium becomes normal? A good litmus test for whether or not a virtual reality piece is effective as such is asking yourself whether or not you’d feel the same if you were simply watching it on a screen. While Wolfson’s Real Violence is certainly uncomfortable and problematic, its use of virtual reality is actually pretty compelling, forcing viewers to come to terms with the passivity of viewership and what it actually means to be “immersed” in an experience when, at the end of the day, you can walk away from it. It's a good use of the technology's novelty.

While empathic expansion is its high selling pitch, in my own experience, virtual reality might be more sustainably effective in its ability to bring us beyond our corporeal limits. In both Anish Kapoor’s In Yourself—Fall and Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Aquaphobia, the viewer’s scale is shifted, giving you an immersive perspective of what it would look like to be microscopic or gigantic. Similarly, many of the artists hosted on “First Look: Artists VR”—a virtual reality platform developed by The New Museum and Rhizome that actually fulfills all the claims of accessibility and innovation that Acute Art fails to deliver—make good use of virtual reality's innate ability to make its users levitate and float, evoking a sense of the spiritual and transcendent. 

man maskStill from Rachel Rossin's Man Mask (2016). Image via The Architect's Newspaper.

"First Look: Artists VR" is not only free to download and incredibly easy to use, the works on it are also by artists who are genuinely interested in the medium's capacities, not just a novelty PR stunt. As a digital art commissioning and exhibition program, First Look has supported over 35 works, as of last year. In Rachel Rossin's 2016 piece Man Mask, users are taken on a guided meditation, floating through landscapes sourced from the video game "Call of Duty: Black Ops" and drained of its violence and transformed into an ethereal digital dreamworld. By remixing these landscapes, Man Mask becomes a visually compelling investigation into the culture of masculinity—a kind of subliminal debugging of the violent macho-performativity of video games. As Rossin softly narrates, "as you continue to relax deeper, I want you to focus on the words that I am saying and quietly repeat them to yourself in your mind: 'I am becoming more open and good humored. Happiness, peace, and cheerfulness are now becoming my normal state of mind.'"

Another moving experience hosted on First Look is Jayson Musson's 2017 piece, An Elegy for Ancestors. An astral memorial to victims of police violence, viewers are invited to look up at the night sky, scattered with the cosmos. As your vision lingers on a star, you are transported to the star's constellation, and a description of its significance. With each constellation's shape and name deriving from an African symbol, Musson's Elegy is a beautiful reclamation of the night sky as a place that has been more or less dominated by Western astrology. As my own gaze lingers on a star, I am transported to the memorial constellation commemorating the death of Akai Gurley—a 28-year-old African American Brooklyn man fatally shot by police in 2014. Represented by the Ghanian Twi (a dialect in Ghana) word, "Sankofa" loosely meaning, "go back to fetch  it," Gurley's astrological symbol is accompanied by the description, "Sankofa means, 'Go back to the past in order to build for the future' or, one should not forget the past when moving ahead. In the symbol, there is a bird turning its head backward and its long beak is turned in the direction of its tail. The Akan liken this action to looking backwards; a symbol of looking to one's past, or returning to the source." 

With every emergent creative technology, hits and misses and backlash are bound to occur—novelty is a troubling cross for technology to bear. All new media has had its share of skeptics. Pre-Renaissance audiences were even resistant to the introduction of perspective! What makes any form of new technology salient, however, is whether or not it's actually useful. Unfortunately, it's hard not to feel as though the virtual reality industry is really trying to forcibly shove its relevance down our throats. "Progress," if we dare call it that, typically happens fairly naturally. Platforms like Acute Art utilizing high profile artists to create visibility and hype with mediocre work are probably the least effective way for virtual reality to actually grow. As a still-developing medium, many of its artists are still trying to figure out how to make the best use of it, both practically and conceptually. Hope remains on the virtual horizon thanks to the sincere explorations of the medium from artists like Rossin, Musson, and initiatives like Rhizome and The New Museum. So pay the giants no mind; there is a lot of great work being created underfoot.



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