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Facing the realities of virtual reality

Immersive video is inspiring artists—but getting to grips with the technology can be tricky

Virtual reality technology is closer than ever to becoming as commonplace as a mobile phone. At the end of May, at its annual software developers conference in San Francisco, the tech giant Google unveiled an upd ated version of its low-cost, DIY headset—built from cardboard and requiring just a smartphone for the video display—and announced a new platform called Jump to allow anyone to create and share 3D content, due to launch this summer. On the more immersive—and expensive—end of the spectrum, the Oculus Rift virtual reality system, which is owned by Facebook, unveiled its gaming headset last week. (The firm’s chief executive, Brendan Iribe, did not disclose the price, but said that it would be “affordable”. The headse t should be available to consumers early next year.) Like the technology itself, the applications for artists using virtual reality are still being developed. 

At the same time as Google’s conference, an exhibition at London’s Hospital Club featured wearable helmet “sculptures” by the digital art studio Field that contained Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets. Meanwhile, one of the winners of a virtual-reality contest run by Oculus, announced at the beginning of June, was a 3D “tribute” enabling viewers to enter Van Gogh’s painting The Night Café (1888). And a one-day show on 13 June, organised by the San Francisco non-profit Gray Area Art & Technology, billed itself as the “world’s first virtual reality painting exhibition”, presenting digital works by artists using a new software tool called Tilt Brush. 

Many artists are sceptical of the heavily commercial aspects of the technology. “There is a window of opportunity for the technology” to show how the devices can be used by a wide variety of people, and for diverse ends, says Erika Anderson, an artist and musician who goes by the stage name EMA. “It is important to bring heart to something that does not rely on a million dollars and a team of developers.” She used an Oculus Rift in her performance I Wanna Destroy, which debuted this February at MoMA PS1, New York, and calls the work a “punk-show version of VR”, in part because it was developed in her bedroom, rather than a high-tech production studio. 

Activism not escapism

Artists also say they are using the technology to encourage activism, not escapism. “Aesthetics are political, and may be the strongest political arm I have to fight for the world I want,” says the Brazil-based artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané. He has used Oculus Rift to create an immersive installation, Phantom (2015) for the third edition of the New Museum Triennial (closed 24 May). The work transports viewers into a black-and-white version of the Mata Atlântica rainforest. When the viewer puts on the goggles, their body fades from view, allowing them to explore one of the world’s rapidly disappearing environments—as a ghost. “The work addresses the simultaneous disappearance of the viewer’s body and the forest that surrounds him,” Mangrané says.  

For the artist Ian Cheng, “the goal is not to immerse a viewer in a fantasy world”. His virtual reality installation, Entropy Wrangler Cloud (2013) creates an uncomfortable environment of flying objects, from potted plants to medieval swords. “It’s not an escape or drug, but a brain gym,” he says. 

No freebies

None of the virtual reality headsets is commercially available yet, but artists have been using beta versions that can be bought for as little as $350. “Corporations are not giving them to artists for free,” Anderson says. “Artists are not a high priority yet.”  

Through sheer persistence, the curator Lauren Cornell, who co-­organised the New Museum Triennial, managed to track down an employee at Oculus Rift to help stage Mangrané’s project. “I imagine many [virtual reality companies] are open to working with artists. But gaming, not art, are their priorities,” she says. 

And artists have their own priorities to tend to. “The real hurdle is the technical barrier of entry,” says the artist Alan Resnick who used Oculus Rift technology in his work Koon’s Rabbit Reflections VR (2014) which placed users in an exhibition of works by Jeff Koons. “Artists need to have the skills to create content for these devices. Otherwise, this technology is being developed for entertainment purposes.”