VR is not only a platform to play an endless succession of spooky space-based games or a more-immersive Minecraft - it’s threatening to revolutionise how we experience creative media altogether. (Try VR for yourself - rent Oculus or HTC Vive from Grover now!)
As well as allowing new artistic approaches, we can start digging into old art too, the spatial and temporal looseness of VR allowing us to slip through art’s traditional boundaries. Suddenly we can begin to prod, traverse and manipulate artwork that has been stranded in galleries and behind glass for hundreds of years. But if we start to fiddle with existing art, are we democratising access to it, or lessening its impact?
The changes that VR will bring to the art world are the sweeping, all-encompassing kinds of change that happen every few hundred years. Grand shifts in the past have involved the discovery and implementation of forced perspective, the use of camera obscura lenses to more accurately depict the human figure, and the reality-shunning shift of Cubism.
And the effects of VR may not be simply experiential or creative: they may well revolutionise what the artist-viewer relationship is, and might - whisper it - reduce the monetary value of art as we know it to almost nothing.
Let’s look at three different ways that existing artists are using VR. It’s instructive to consider artists who have grown up and learnt “art” in a pre-VR (Pre-R?) environment, rather than artists who have readily adopted VR technologies as they developed their creative sense. Why? Because then we can see the changing of the guard, and how this changed is negotiated. The liminal periods are always the most exciting.
“One of the things I noticed with VR is a tremendous sense of centre… Knowing that I am within a space and understanding the parameters around me. I have also noticed that one’s affirmation of existence is always missing. You look down at your feet and there’s nothing there, so there’s a lot to be said about defining your own presence.” - Jeff Koons, Dazed
Both the physicality and concept of Jeff Koons’ art is welded to the trashiness of modern consumerism. His art is a deliberate conundrum: grotesque and fun, silly and serious, lightweight and astonishingly expensive.
Jeff’s interest in VR arose via his collaboration with a new VR-Art experience, Acute Art. His commentary on VR in relation to art is telling: this is something that anyone playing a first-person-shooter video game has experienced too. Could it be that the art-world elder-statespersons are a bit… behind the times?
Well, maybe, but this gap also feels a little gauche, and his initial collaboration feels like a very 1.0 iteration of a bigger work. Jeff has been rattling the cage of our reality for a long time: his giant chrome dog-balloons feel like they have been tipped out of a virtual world into our own.
There’s no denying that for Marina Abramovic’s work, Virtual Reality makes sense, albeit in a different way. Her work has continually explored human connection, intimacy, and the uncomfortable clarity that accompanies truly looking someone in the eye.
For those who queued for hours (or days) at Abramovic’s MoMA retrospective, The Artist Is Present, where Abramovic sat in situ for 750 hours, and allowed anyone who waited long enough to gaze deep into her eyes, VR may be a line-skipping treat.
Klaus Biesenbach, MoMA curator believes that, “Marina is never not performing. The audience is fuel to her, in effect, a lover.” - which raises the question: does interacting with a virtual Marina, who can’t gaze back and bathe in your attention, even count?
VR undoubtedly allows at least a one-way version of intimacy. The scanned-and-digitised virtual-Marina responds to you and your actions - as if you were there, face-to-face. It’s just that, well, you’re not: VR can’t yet quite close the gap.
It’s undoubtably a start: but does embracing the technology necessarily undermine both Abramovic’s Modus Operandi and her je ne sais quoi?
Perhaps it’s existing pop-culture artists who are best able to pivot to the new medium. If VR allows big-name art to find a new audience, then it also democratises access. Pop music is about connectivity to the masses, so surely pop music — the most successful practitioners of which have taken complex new music and made it accessible to the many — should be best positioned to take advantage.
Inevitably it was Bjork, the endlessly restless artist-with-a-capital-“A” of the pop world who would pioneer in this virtual space. Her last few songs have been accompanied by increasingly complicated and boundary-poking videos: starting with an intimate 360 video, and most recently with a video that is part-performance, part-VR.
Bjork considers VR differently to Jeff Koons’ self-focussed observations. She sees it as a “private circus,” that is also, “a theatre able to capture the emotional landscape of performance.”
Bjork has tailored her VR output to be in line with the accessible, exciting and democratising nature of new technology: it’s there for you to experience, you just need the gear to experience it.
At the moment, that VR gear is not common-or-garden enough for us to all be kicking back on the sofa with a tub of popcorn, ready get up-close-and-personal with our Icelandic art-pop hero. So right now your best opportunity to experience Bjork in true VR is at a series of retrospective exhibitions that offer a necessary halfway house between our democratised art-future and the ages-old mechanic of queuing and paying for access.
Maybe for us to make a real leap into the future of an art-existence where “value” becomes about the experience and not the price tag, and “art” becomes fluid, sticky and malleable, we should embrace death, jumping back in time, and some true artistic license.
Questions around mortality and life itself are soon brought to the surface the moment you dip a toe into VR. If our computing power enables us to recreate anything in a pseudo-reality, then life itself becomes an easily surmountable barrier.
Salavdor Dalí’s work lends itself well to virtual investigation: after all, he created famously surreal work that encourage the viewer to imagine themselves wandering around inside them.
So, the thinking goes, why not actually recreate his paintings in VR, and then… explore them? This is what the Dali VR Experience allows you to do.
Salvador Dalí was extremely interested in science and technology and in the 1930s, found the discoveries of quantum physicists to be intellectually liberating, offering an opportunity to root his surreal ideas in reality. If physical models allowed for simultaneous realities, the idea went, then Dalí’s wildest dreams could be a remote possibility after all.
So it stands to reason that he may have embraced the reality-jolting and believability-blurring technology of VR. But would he approved of a team of VR artists playing fast and loose with one of his key works, his painting Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s “Angelus”?
Frankly, while the Dalí VR Experience takes the concept of “artistic licence” to its literal conclusion, the absence of preciousness around the Dalí brand and its crown jewels is impressive.
It’s a bold stance, but in line with his own curiosity. It seems inconceivable that an artist like Dalí, who freely played with form, structure, composition and physical possibility in his paintings, photographs and installations, would not embrace the chance to use VR to twist the concrete into something weird.
The fact that the execution of the VR is - while perhaps not as mind-boggling as the painting itself - a smart extrapolation of the ideas into the technology, it means that it’s us, the art lovers, who actually expand our viewpoint and step into the mind of a genius.
And in a very important way, when artworks have become wrenched from their intended purpose - to entertain and intrigue the public - and gobbled up by capitalism, any technology that connects the public with art in a more democratic way is more valuable than any ludicrous price tag.