Does Virtual Reality Mean the Death of Art Institutions?

Some say that virtual reality may mean the end of art institutions. I take a different view.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s “The Night Watch.”

Seeing a slide of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s “The Night Watch” as a student paled compared to seeing it several years later at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As I would come to find out, a projected slide didn’t capture the greatness of this painting. It has to be seen and experienced in the Rijksmuseum to be fully appreciated.

“The Night Watch” is stunning in person. The painting commands your attention by size alone. At nearly 12 feet wide and over 14 feet tall, it dwarfs the swarm of visitors flocking to it. You feel small and insignificant compared to the portrait of a militia company in front of you. In other words, this painting has presence. But it’s Rembrandt’s use of light that’s most arresting. Etched in my memory are the two brilliantly lit figures — a young girl and lieutenant with elegant embroidered details on their clothing — in what is otherwise a dark scene. You can’t help but stop and stare.

One of life’s pleasure is physically seeing an artwork. For me, it’s not just about seeing a painting I’ve studied. It’s about the entire experience of getting there and sharing the opportunity with friends or other gallery goers. However, virtual reality (VR) poses an interesting challenge for viewing art today. Some say there’s no need to go to a museum or gallery when you can don a VR headset and see paintings, sculptures, and photographs virtually in the comfort of your own home. I take a different view: VR won’t replace physical art institutions, but VR will affect them.

Getting there is part of the fun

People pay good money each year to travel to the Louvre in Paris to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and the Accademia in Florence to see Michelangelo’s “David.” They accept the effort involved to see these works: queuing outside the Accademia and getting through the throng of tourists surrounding the Mona Lisa. Indeed, people realize going to an art gallery or museum is more than just seeing an artwork — it’s about experiencing it.

Getting to an artwork is often part of the art experience. Say you want to see the “Mona Lisa” while you’re in Paris. Thus begins the process: stand in line at the Louvre to get a ticket; meander through the museum to find the painting; work your way through the hoards of tourists snapping pictures of a painting that’s several feet away and shielded by glass. Finally you see it — shockingly much smaller than you’d imagined, at least it was for me.

VR eliminates the procedural steps of actually getting to an artwork. Put on your VR headset and you’re there. To some, that’s a benefit: you escape the travel hassles. To others, like myself, it excludes part of the experience. The process of getting to the “Mona Lisa,” seeing all of the excited tourists darting toward it, and noticing how the museum protects it point to its famous backstory: it was stolen in 1911 and recovered in 1913.

Architecture is the same way. The Farnsworth House, the iconic glass house in Plano, Illinois, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is a classic example. I drove 90 miles from Chicago to Plano. Next, I walked a half-mile through the woods, with about a dozen other people, getting my share of mosquito bites along the way, just to get to the house. Then, our tour guide instructed us to remove our shoes in order to enter it. For me, going through this process intensified my experience and made it memorable.

A multi-sensorial experience results once you’ve arrived to the house. I felt the sun penetrating through the large glass panes and the coolness of its floor. These critical details would likely be overlooked if you saw the Farnsworth House in VR. Some companies are making VR accessories like haptic suits: a suit can put on while wearing the VR headset in order to activate other senses, like touch. So perhaps one day you could wear your VR headset and haptic suit to see the Farnsworth House and feel the floor on your bare feet and the sun’s rays piercing through the glass walls, while looking around the minimalist house in the middle of the woods.

Carl Andre, “64 Steel Square.”

Even still, part of the experience is lost. Inevitably mental fatigue sets in after traveling to the house, going on a walking tour, and traveling back home. And nothing prepared me for the eerie sensation of exposure I felt standing inside a house comprised of glass walls. In other words, the Farnsworth House is more than a visual experience: it encapsulates your mind.

I’m there

An experience can still be had even when an art museum is just a short walk or car ride away. Consider walking on top of Carl Andre’s floor pieces. They consist of a pattern of tiles, usually made of industrial materials like steel, placed together on the gallery floor and intended to be walked on. Hearing my professor lecture about these floor pieces didn’t prepare me for the first time I stepped on one at the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio.

I felt a physical change beneath my feet and I saw the wear from other people’s tracks. Above all, I felt uncomfortable. Knowing that I was doing something that’s typically taboo — touching, let alone walking, on art — made me feel self-conscious at first. I could feel the eyes of other visitors, who may not have encountered Andre’s work before, stare at me in disbelief that I was walking on art, which added to my unease.

Andre’s floor pieces are more than steel squares in a gallery. They challenge gallery etiquette and call attention to your bodily awareness. That’s why a digital or virtual representation isn’t enough. You’ve got to literally walk on a floor piece and notice your bodily reactions, both physical and mental, when you do what you’re usually told not to do: interact with art.

“Woman in E,” Ragnar Kjartansson.

Observing how other people interact an artwork adds to your own experience. Take the performance “Woman in E,” which recently showed at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. It featured a woman sitting nearly motionless on a rotating platform, occasionally strumming the same E-minor chord on a guitar; a large circle of long, thin, gold tinsel surrounded her. I was surprised at the reactions of other gallery goers.

I figured most people would pull back the tinsel and go inside the circle to see the performance. That’s what I did: I wanted a first-hand glimpse of what was going on. Yet, many people stood outside the circle, passively observing the performance from a distance through the tinsel. Others pulled the tinsel apart just enough to discreetly record the performance with their smartphone.

A highlight for me was hearing people’s reactions to the piece. Comments such as “why is she doing this?” or “I feel uncomfortable” were plentiful. Seeing art with others raises questions, responses, and different points of view. In other words, it initiates dialogue and gets you thinking, which is precisely what art is intended to do.

Why VR?

“In no way do I think that anything will ever replace the experience of going to a museum and being front of an object,” says Elizabeth Reede, Co-Founder and CEO at Boulevard, a VR company (formerly called Woofbert VR). Admittedly, I’d prefer physically going to a museum or gallery to see art. Yet, using VR to see art has its place, as Reede also recognizes.

VR gives people access to art who may not otherwise see it. Boulevard does just that. According to their website, Boulevard collaborates with museums around the world to share their collections in VR and “leading-edge interpretive modes.” So a class could take a virtual field trip to The Courtauld Gallery in London or the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

VR is a logical choice for children studying works of art or famous institutions in school. It provides an immersive, comprehensive, and detailed experience — supplementing the museum experience, instead of replacing it. It also whets your appetite to one day see and experience works of art in the flesh. At the same time, VR is an option for people with disabilities or physical limitations who are not able to travel easily, or at all.

VR and art don’t have to be used in isolation. Artist Gretchen Andrew combined the physical and virtual worlds in her 2015 gallery show, “Alternate Reality,” at De Re Gallery in Los Angeles. Visitors donned a VR headset and saw about a dozen or so of Andrew’s paintings in a virtual gallery; one of those paintings also occupied the physical gallery space. While wearing the headset, Andrew provided a narration so visitors could learn more about her art and practice. A few additional physical paintings that were not included in VR gallery hung on walls at De Re Gallery. Here’s the point: Andrew did not replace her physical paintings with an entire virtual show. Rather, she used VR to extend her physical artwork offerings.

VR has come a long way over the past decades, but it still has it’s share of challenges. Nausea is one. I can only wear a headset for short periods of time before feeling queasy. Cost is another factor to think about. An Oculus Rift headset, for example, runs you several hundred dollars, plus you’ll need a high-performance PC; accessories like a haptic bodysuit cost extra. Besides, there’s a bit of a learning curve with VR when you’re new to the device.

Fear not the loss of the physical art world. People will still want to see art in galleries and museums because art is experiential, even if you don’t touch it. Getting there, seeing and moving around an artwork, and watching others’ reactions to it are all part of the art experience. At the same time, it’s important recognize the benefits VR offers and be open to them.

Indeed, we’ve been here before. Just as the inception of photography did not kill painting, as some feared, VR won’t kill art institutions as we know them. However, it will impact them, as photography has influenced painters who many would regard as art world luminaries, including Gerhard Richter and Edgar Degas. We are only at the beginning of what VR can do for art.

Programmer and Writer: | | @amymhaddad