We’ve been waiting a long time, and it’s finally here: an artwork, made using virtual reality platform, that actually delivers on the medium’s potential to create truly immersive experiences. Recent efforts like Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s Oculus Rift-based Phantom (kingdom of all the animals and all the beasts is my name) at the otherwise-excellent New Museum Triennial earlier this year seem strangely static, but Sarah Rothberg’s Memory/Place: My House (2014-15) at bitforms’s summer group show “Memory Burn” give us some hope. In Rothberg’s capable hands, VR technology is pushed beyond merely instrumental use into a personal, idiosyncratic realm that hints at the wonders to come.
The physical installation for Memory/Place: My House includes an Oculus Rift, a magenta computer monitor, a carpet, and a swivel armchair with an arcade-style joystick and button, also magenta, installed. Putting on the VR goggles places you outside a digital rendering of Rothberg’s childhood home, meticulously re-created using her family photos, diaries, and home videos. The result is a kind of literalization of the ancient Greek practice of creating “memory palaces” as mnemonic devices, updated for the 21st century.
To allow for both experienced and new Oculus users to access the piece, Memory/Place: My House has “Tour Mode” and “Roam Free” options for experiencing the work. Tour Mode is a guided walkthrough of the home, more akin to watching a video than playing a video game. You’re led through each room of the house, giving you a taste of both the digital decor and the bits of home videos inserted at strategic locations. The stitching of the flat video screen to the 3D environment isn’t perfect, but the juxtaposition is effective insofar as it shows that this is (or was) a real place, with real memories stored inside.
There’s a sense of removed nostalgia throughout the piece, akin to flipping through a stranger’s scrapbook or photo album. Details like the plastic Fisher-Price kids’ table in the living room or the rows of family photos on the wall are touch points that allow you to access this memory/place; you can imagine how uncanny the experience must be for people who have actually been in the house. Tour Mode concludes somewhat dramatically, with your disembodied avatar floating up through the roof of the house to look down at the house in the valley.
Roam Free allows for a similar experience at your own pace, giving you time to really examine the house and watch the videos. In contrast to the more narrative Tour Mode, this leisurely walk-through allows time to appreciate some of the more whimsical aspects of the piece, like the oversized GameBoy in one of the children’s rooms, and to tool around with the Rift’s controls.
Roam Free also allows for what is perhaps the most visceral experience I’ve had in a virtual world. Rothberg’s stately suburban house is placed in a desert canyon surrounded by blue mountains. Instead of exploring the house, a free roamer can scale these mountains with ease. Looking down from the first peak shows a genuinely scenic vista of the canyon, but ascending the next ridge leaves you on a precipice overlooking a massive drop into an even deeper canyon.
Peering over the ledge made my palms sweat and my stomach churn even as I reminded myself that I was seated on a comfy old armchair in a Lower East Side gallery—try thinking of a time an artwork evoked a response like that for you. Walking off the ledge leads to a kind of inverse to the ending of the guided mode: as you fall, you can look up and see the rectangular form of the house’s digital foundation high above you. This aspect of the piece may well be an unexpected consequence of Rothberg’s digital tools, but faced with the almost sublime infinite expanse of her canyons, it’s hard to care too much about the artist’s intentions.