OUT OF THE FRAME
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.