OUT OF THE FRAME

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Renowned Aus­tralian artist Shaun Glad­well delves into the realm of virtual real­ity.

Renowned Aus­tralian artist Shaun Glad­well has delved into the realm of virtual real­ity and even formed a collective with fel­low artists to push the bound­aries of the vis­ual medium. Here, he writes about the power of VR.

You never for­get the first time you try virtual real­ity (VR), the epiphany (of­ten a com­plete freak-out) when you re­alise you’re com­pletely ‘in’ the ex­pe­ri­ence, no mat­ter where you look or move. You can be trans­formed to an­other time. An­other place. An­other world. VR is truly rev­o­lu­tion­ary. I have spent years cre­at­ing art, yet ev­ery­thing I knew about mak­ing video art and film was turned up­side down when I dis­cov­ered VR.

In one sense, cre­ators of VR now have more power to ma­nip­u­late the viewer. You only have to delve into the world of VR gam­ing to see how en­tranc­ing and ad­dic­tive it can be. On the other hand, those same di­rec­tors and artists have no con­trol over where you ac­tu­ally look or walk. But one thing is cer­tain: there is a greater abil­ity to be­come an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in sto­ries or ex­pe­ri­ences through this tech­nol­ogy.

In the past few years, VR has found seem­ingly end­less ap­pli­ca­tions in en­ter­tain­ment, art, ed­u­ca­tion and health. It has even been used to treat war vet­er­ans with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

But as an art form it is find­ing a new au­di­ence in those cu­ri­ous to delve into the great un­known by sim­ply don­ning a head­set. Don’t de­s­pair if you sound a lit­tle in­sane when try­ing to ex­plain your

own VR ex­pe­ri­ence to friends: it’s as dif­fi­cult as de­scrib­ing a sur­real dream. A good trick is to imag­ine retelling the ex­pe­ri­ence to the late French writer An­dré Bre­ton. That way, any­thing goes. Bre­ton be­lieved: “The man who can­not vi­su­alise a horse gal­lop­ing on a tomato is an id­iot.”

The dif­fi­culty in ex­plain­ing a VR ex­pe­ri­ence is due to its rev­o­lu­tion­ary fea­tures. Paint­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy and cin­ema have all pre­vi­ously re­lied on some type of frame, but with VR the frame has en­tirely dis­ap­peared. Spher­i­cal im­ages now sur­round their view­ers. Even more com­pelling is the next, deeper ver­sion of VR, one that en­ables you to walk through newly con­structed worlds and to in­ter­act with ei­ther the com­puter it­self (through games) or other peo­ple in virtual so­cial spa­ces known as the meta­verse (the pop­u­lar book and film Ready Player One is based on this). The meta­verse is the sum to­tal of virtual sys­tems as they all even­tu­ally con­nect, much like the in­ter­net to­day.

A far as dif­fer­ent VR ex­pe­ri­ences go, Dr Seuss said it best: “Oh, the places you’ll go.” My in­tro­duc­tion to VR started with a sim­u­la­tion of a gi­ant lake. It was very tran­quil and I was just float­ing over a large ex­panse of wa­ter with sur­round­ing moun­tains and a clear, blue sky over­head. But here’s where things start sound­ing like a crazy dream. Soon I re­alised I was on a col­li­sion course with a steam train! Luck­ily, it frag­mented into a flock of birds be­fore im­pact (this was a clever ref­er­ence to some of the pi­o­neers of cin­ema – the Lu­mière brothers and one of their early films). I was then quickly lifted into the sky and gen­tly de­liv­ered into a gi­ant womb. To my sur­prise and de­light, a gi­ant un­born baby reached out to hold me in the palm of its hand. I was pro­foundly moved by this ex­pe­ri­ence, called Evo­lu­tion of Verse (2015). I was also con­vinced its di­rec­tor, Chris Milk, had made a great VR ver­sion of Michelan­gelo’s fa­mous paint­ing The Cre­ation of Adam (circa 1512).

Aside from be­ing ex­hil­a­rated by that ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ence, I also felt alone – es­pe­cially with non-in­ter­ac­tive VR (sim­ply called 360-de­gree video). This was not a neg­a­tive feel­ing; at times it was med­i­ta­tive and tran­quil. That’s the beauty of VR, and of art it­self. It can be en­joyed both alone and with friends; it can give you a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of your­self and how you fit into so­ci­ety.

In 2015, I be­gan my jour­ney into mak­ing my first VR an­i­ma­tion, Or­bital Van­i­tas (2017) that played on this sense of lone­li­ness. I also felt the need to of­fer a re­sponse to Chris Milk’s land­mark work that had opened my eyes up to the world of VR. In or­der to make Or­bital Van­i­tas, I spoke to a young, in­cred­i­bly gifted an­i­ma­tor, Matthew Ji­galin.

My brief to Matt sounded rather crazy: was it pos­si­ble to place peo­ple in a high or­bit above the Earth? I wanted to al­low you, the viewer, to ob­serve all its sub­lime beauty. But I also wanted some­thing ex­tra, an ob­scure ob­ject slowly ap­proach­ing the viewer. A me­teor or as­ter­oid, per­haps? As the ob­ject slowly ap­proaches, it be­comes clear that it’s a hu­man skull. Not only that, I wanted Matt to make this hu­man skull enor­mous (or to shrink us, the viewer, to the size of a speck of dust). I wanted us to float from space into the spinal hole (or fora­men mag­num, for the geeks), thus en­ter­ing an enor­mous in­te­rior of the skull, that now re­sem­bles a gi­ant cave. Fi­nally, we would float back out into space through the skull’s eye socket. Af­ter giv­ing Matt what I thought was an im­pos­si­ble task he ca­su­ally replied: “Yeah, no prob­lem.” In VR ev­ery­thing is pos­si­ble!

Like all good things in life, it’s best to try VR both alone and to­gether with friends. This also goes for mak­ing VR. Af­ter see­ing the po­ten­tial for this tech­nol­ogy, I quickly co-founded the Bad­faith collective with my film pro­ducer buddy Leo Faber. We gath­ered to­gether a team of kin­dred artists and film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Tony Al­bert, Daniel Crooks and Natasha Pin­cus, who each make ex­per­i­men­tal and am­bi­tious projects. I wanted to work with peo­ple who not only loved VR, but wanted to push the bound­aries, even break them at times.

A re­cent experiment called Ex­quis­ite Corpse (2018) saw each mem­ber of Bad­faith pro­duce a two-minute VR clip that rep­re­sented a dif­fer­ent part of the hu­man body. Im­por­tantly, no-one knew what any­one else’s body part looked like, un­til we had all fin­ished and con­nected our parts to­gether. Trav­el­ling through our com­plete virtual body, I kept think­ing about how for­tu­nate we were to test out a new cre­ative tool that the orig­i­nal Sur­re­al­ist artists would have loved (or artists from any his­tor­i­cal pe­riod for that mat­ter).

Re­cently, I con­ducted an in­ter­view in­side the meta­verse plat­form called High Fi­delity: I chose to be an old-school wooden Pinoc­chio-type avatar, while my in­ter­viewer, an el­derly, male film critic, ap­peared as an at­trac­tive fe­male cy­borg. The map is not the ter­ri­tory within the meta­verse. To­gether we walked, talked and tele­ported through sev­eral new dig­i­tal worlds.

But it’s not all about show­ing off your new avatar. VR can of­fer many per­sonal chal­lenges: feel­ing the claus­tro­pho­bia of a soli­tary con­fine­ment cell (a project called 6x9 that was com­mis­sioned by The Guardian); or the on­set of fail­ing sight and sub­se­quent tran­si­tion into full blind­ness ( Notes on Blind­ness, 2016).

I have been re­duced to tears in VR af­ter be­ing dropped into record­ings of war zones, and then asked to con­sider the plight of trau­ma­tised chil­dren. The doc­u­men­tary The Dis­placed (2017) gen­er­ated great em­pa­thy for its chil­dren sub­jects, and pre­cisely be­cause I felt so close to them, as there was no vis­ual, or seem­ingly emo­tional, dis­tance – no frame. How­ever, I was also aware that ver­sions of the same VR tech­nol­ogy will as­sist weapons op­er­a­tors to keep a dis­tance from their tar­gets, and this is the cause of mis­ery for so many. It’s al­ways a ques­tion of use and in­ten­tion: the tech­nol­ogy it­self is neu­tral.

I’ve also used VR to bring au­di­ences closer to the plight of oth­ers. Last year the Bad­faith crew and I made Storm Riders, which fol­lowed my two friends Chad­nee Shah and Farhana Hus­sain, Mus­lim women from Lon­don who love skate­board­ing. View­ers were given a close-up per­spec­tive of th­ese two coura­geous women as they bat­tled op­po­si­tion in or­der to ex­press their in­di­vid­u­al­ity as well as their faith, without com­pro­mis­ing ei­ther.

While some VR doc­u­men­taries aim to bring us ‘closer’ to the drama of con­tem­po­rary life, and more so than other forms of me­dia, VR can

That’s the beauty of VR, and of art it­self. It can be en­joyed both alone and with friends; it can give you a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of your­self

equally of­fer es­capism. You can sky­dive, ride roller­coast­ers, drop into vol­canos or float off the edge of Ni­a­gara Falls. Most of us would find this kind of sim­u­la­tion ex­hil­a­rat­ing, es­pe­cially when it’s so vis­ually be­liev­able, and more so for those peo­ple re­stricted due to health, age, eco­nomics, or all three.

Ac­cord­ing to fu­tur­ist vi­sion­ar­ies, we are cur­rently in an early hon­ey­moon pe­riod with all this im­mer­sive sim­u­la­tion tech­nol­ogy. Amara’s law states: “We tend to over­es­ti­mate the ef­fect of a tech­nol­ogy in the short run and un­der­es­ti­mate the ef­fect in the long run.”

One ex­am­ple of this could be the fact that VR and aug­mented real­ity (AR) now al­low us to trial clothes, hair­styles, tat­toos or cos­metic surgery, and this will af­fect the way we present our­selves.

Soon, with in­creased power, res­o­lu­tion and even tac­til­ity of VR and AR sim­u­la­tions, we will have the abil­ity to try on dif­fer­ent bod­ies and gen­ders. This level of flu­id­ity and free­dom will have a pro­found long-term ef­fect on how we see our­selves, each other and the world we share.

One breath­tak­ing VR ad­ven­ture I highly rec­om­mend is I Saw the Fu­ture (2017). The work is based on a TV record­ing of Bri­tish science-fic­tion writer Arthur C. Clarke from 1964. You don’t do much phys­i­cally in this one, other than float be­fore Clarke’s gi­ant face while lis­ten­ing to him pre­dict – with great pre­ci­sion – things like the in­ter­net, com­puter games and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. So here I was, fi­nally in a func­tion­ing and ac­ces­si­ble virtual real­ity, and only af­ter read­ing tons of science fic­tion, and watch­ing Hol­ly­wood de­liver its many fu­ture vi­sions of VR (my favourite of which, by the way, is Christo­pher Walken in Brain­storm, 1983). There I am, still stand­ing in front of Clarke’s gi­ant face, hyp­no­tised as it pix­e­lates, atom­ises and re­forms. Clarke calmly de­tails a wild, dis­tant fu­ture that has now ei­ther ar­rived, or is just around the cor­ner. In 1964, scep­tics deemed Clarke’s pre­dic­tions com­pletely in­sane, but he was sim­ply de­scrib­ing what no-one else had seen, but what we are see­ing now: the fu­ture. Shaun Glad­well: Pa­cific Un­der­tow opens at Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in July. Go to www.bad­faith.co.

With in­creased power, res­o­lu­tion and even tac­til­ity of VR and AR sim­u­la­tions, we will have the abil­ity to try on dif­fer­ent bod­ies and gen­ders

Or­bital Van­i­tas (2017) by Bad­faith.

Ex­quis­ite Corpse (2018) by Bad­faith.

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