Art and Technology: Experiencing Artwork in Virtual Reality

The challenges and opportunities when combining art and virtual reality.

DiMoDA at the Stolbun Collection. Image provided by DiMoDA.

In February, the Stolbun Collection debuted the Digital Museum of Digital Art (DiMoDA), an installation and “virtual institution” dedicated to digital art. By wearing the Oculus Rift headset visitors see and experience exhibitions by artists Claudia Hart, Tim Berresheim, Jacolby Satterwhite and Aquanet 2001 in virtual reality (VR).

There is a lot of hype around VR. Revolutionary and transformative claims are commonplace. DiMoDA builds on the excitement: it is an opportunity for the general public to try the much talked about headset and experience VR in the realm of art. Experiencing art in VR is both normal and bizarre. Artists incorporating the latest technology in art is not new. In contrast to video or photography, however, you wear the medium and control the degree of engagement with VR.

Many trace VR’s origins back to the 1930s with Stanley G. Weinbaum’s science fiction story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.” A few decades later the bulky headsets and rudimentary graphics from the 1980s and 1990s never took off. Fast-forward to the 21st century and Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, provided an alternative with the Oculus Rift: a VR headset that is smaller, sleeker and full of potential. Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014, and the enthusiasm has only intensified. Google Cardboard, a low-cost VR viewer, paired up with The New York Times (NYT) last fall: providing subscribers to the NYT’s Sunday print edition with the cardboard set. The cardboard viewer is a cheap way for the masses to try VR, and the idea has taken off. Even McDonald’s is catching on. Wired reports that McDonald’s Sweden rolled out a limited initiative earlier this month called “Happy Goggles,” where Happy Meal boxes can be turned into a VR headset.

Given the popularity of VR today, it makes sense that artists and art institutions are experimenting with it. Artist Gretchen Andrew debuted a VR exhibition in 2015 at De Re Gallery in Los Angeles, appropriately titled “Alternate Reality.” Visitors wore VR headsets to view and learn about Andrew’s paintings. Notably, too, The Courtauld Gallery in London teamed up with WoofbertVR, a creator of immersive art educational content. After downloading the WoofbertVR app and wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset, visitors will see the museum’s Wolfson room and hear a narration discussing the artwork, Techcrunch reports.

A large LED screen hangs on an adjacent wall at the Stolbun Collection. Other visitors can see the Rift user navigate through the virtual museum. Watching the installation on a screen is quite different than experiencing it in a 3D environment. After donning the VR headset, you transport into this other world: from downtown Chicago to a fictitious, animated space. Turn your head up, down or to either side — you are completely immersed. New ways of interacting with artwork are also exciting. Move near, far or on an object; view it from multiple perspectives; listen to the accompanying soundtrack. The result is not only a multi-sensorial experience, but also one that upends the passive user to an active user.

VR’s opportunities and challenges

DiMoDA’s basic graphics and occasional time-lapses are overshadowed by VR’s potential. Indeed, the benefits of this medium abound. The Stolbun Collection’s location denotes one: the opportunity to look at artwork by several artists in a small environment; thereby reducing the need for a large, and often expensive, gallery space. A second advantage is showing multiple art exhibitions at once, as De Re Gallery did when Andrew’s debuted her show last year. Third, shipping costs may be abated, since artwork is accessed virtually. Above all, VR could also make art more accessible to people around the world, as the partnership between WoofbertVR and The Courtauld Gallery suggest.

VR has its trouble spots. After few minutes in this virtual world, the much talked about side-effect sets in: nausea. Although not everyone experiences this, nausea can interfere with the enjoyment and study of the artwork for those it affects. Conservation is another concern. Digital art poses particular worry because hardware constantly changes; in some instances it is becoming obsolete. VR also questions traditional art roles. If VR takes off — as it is expected to — a curator could organize more virtual than physical exhibitions. And fewer gallery assistants may be needed in exchange for those with technical expertise in case of technological malfunctions.

Does VR mean the demise of physical art institutions? Probably not. People will likely continue to flock to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. At the same time, VR does pose some interesting alternatives. For this reason, DiMoDA should be commended. Although VR is still in its early stages, DiMoDA demonstrates this medium’s possibilities and opportunities.

Programmer and Writer: amymhaddad.com | programmerspyramid.com | @amymhaddad