Jon Rafman, Sculpture Garden (Hedge Maze), seen through an Oculus Rift headset. Now on view at Arsenal in Toronto.
At Arsenal gallery on Ernest Ave. in the city’s west end right now, there’s a portal to another world. It’s awfully convincing, if only temporary: navigate a boxy, dimly lit maze of Astroturf walls to arrive at a misshapen idol perched above you, its golden hide shimmering.
Here, an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset is waiting. You’re not going anywhere — in the real world, at least — but this is where your journey begins.
The piece, by Montreal artist Jon Rafman, is to put it mildly a trip. Through the viewer, you see the golden idol, but it’s free of its plinth, surrounded now by gently waving long grasses.
Slowly, you creep forward, though your feet take no steps, drawn below it into a dark tunnel with a blinding, distant exit at its faraway end. A low rumbling score sounds menacing, anxious (the headset encloses your ears as well as your eyes); as you glide slowly along, you emerge in a dark glade of forest, two huge, swooping monuments glowing from a beacon of light cast from above.
Gently, your feet leave the ground. You can look down and see the forest floor, or up and see the branches as you pass through them toward the darkened heavens. The illusion of altitude is powerful, complete. Your heart races as you clear the treetops, emerging into the consuming light. Then it’s over: the goggles come off and you wander back through the maze, its sudden artificial ordinariness dispiritingly bleak.
Get used to it: virtual reality, a fast-favourite tech of the ur-nerd gaming world when it first appeared a few years ago, is bleeding into the art world in a big way.
Rafman, whose first VR piece debuted at his career survey at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art two years ago, is one of its veterans, but eager new recruits are emerging all the time.
Trinity Square Video, one of the city’s venerable artist-run centres, is all in. This fall, it’s planning its first ever all-VR exhibition, with six new works commissioned from artists across the country.
“As an artistic medium, it has more potential for presenting another point of view than any other,” says David Plant, its executive director. “We always think of the creative experience as being framed, whether it’s on a screen, an image or in a theatre. That’s a construct that some might say is limiting. This doesn’t have any of those limits.”
TSV, which has spent decades at the fore of experimental film and video, is taking this leap of faith through the good graces of Advanced Micro Devices, a GTA-based technology developer at the bleeding edge of desktop virtual reality production. In 2016, it sponsored TSV to establish an in-house VR lab, which allowed it to give the artists it works with the ability to experiment.
The exhibition in the fall, Plant says, is meant to nudge the medium more firmly into the realm of contemporary art, but really, it just satisfies pent-up demand. “We don’t have to look very hard to find people who are wanting to do this,” Plant says.
TSV’s plunge into this strange, very new world is the local expression of a broader trend toward the technology, which has been appearing in major institutions with a sudden regularity.
In New York, the New Museum first showcased a VR piece, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané’s work that used Oculus Rift to transport viewers to the Brazilian rainforest, at its 2015 Triennial. Earlier this year, it launched a full-blown VR exhibition online with works by a half-dozen artists.
The current Whitney Biennial, which opened in New York March 17, features one VR piece, by the artist Jordan Wolfson (its subject matter, a bloody assault by the artist himself on a compliant victim, has been raising hackles since it opened. It’s not the medium’s best PR). London-based Mat Collishaw, part of the famed Young British Artists movement that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, is currently crowd-finding his own VR work on Kickstarter. And the medium appears poised to receive the artistic validation it needs when Ian Cheng, one of the form’s early proponents, opens a solo show next month at no less than New York’s vanguard Museum of Modern Art.
Virtual reality has already been embraced at major film festivals like TIFF, which began showing VR work last year. The festival has upped the ante this year, partnering with the grassroots ImagineNATIVE Festival for 2167, a program of six VR works commissioned from indigenous filmmakers to be shown at both festivals this fall.
Museums have also made use of the medium as an educational tool. The Art Gallery of Ontario created an immersive digital spelunking tour of its tiny boxwood prayer beads last November; the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, chillingly, is expected to launch a virtual reality experience of the First World War battle for Vimy Ridge next month, in time for its centenary.
But as a tool for the creation of art, the field more broadly remains less convinced. “It’s not going away, but it’s a little early to call it the next big thing,” says Amy Fung, the creative director of the Images Festival, which marks its 30th anniversary next month.
The festival, which opens on April 20, has been a haven for experimental film and video projects from all over the world for decades. This year, it received several VR submissions, none of which were accepted. “I’m not saying it’s not good or it won’t be important,” Fung said. “It’s just not there yet.”
Fung’s concern extends to the experience of VR. Where seeing work in a theatre, or in a gallery, is collective, VR works are experienced in a buffered environment of one — even in public. “Do we want to go to a gallery with nothing but a row of headsets? How much more isolating can we be?” she says.
Complicating the art-world embrace of VR, it seems, might be the medium’s popularity in the unseemly realm of violent splatterfest video gaming. “For me, the ‘bro’ element of it is still a little unappealing,” Fung says. “There’s still too much of it that’s about the technology and not the idea. Ultimately, it’s just a tool. What I want to see are artists dictating what it’s for.”
At Arsenal, Rafman’s piece seems almost to glide along the edge of Fung’s concern. In the darkness, a horrifying event — think of the scene from Get Out, when the gardener bolts wildly out of the forest — seems like a ripe possibility, a knowing wink to the ghastly portent of gaming and horror films both. What happens, instead, is nothing: it’s slow, contemplative and powerfully transporting, a world apart from our own that still allows some agency and command.
It is, Plant reminds, very early days. “Artists are always interested in interpreting reality,” he says. “It doesn’t all have to be about blowing things up. It can be a way of commenting on reality and interacting with it.”
Still, it’s not the first time technology threatened to upend art, only to have it fizzle. Photography didn’t replace representational painting, though it withered a while; 3D printing, as it finds its place, seems unlikely to make sculpture obsolete.
The challenge for VR is to produce something beyond the merely cool. Art deals in the fuzzy space between images and ideas and, often, the inability to reconcile the two into a coherent whole is where the artistic gesture resides.
What happens, then, with a medium without a frame, as Plant puts it, that can literally do anything?
“I would say that’s what we’re trying to find out,” Plant chuckles. “Artists are clearly stimulated by the possibilities. I’m excited to see what they are.”
Jon Rafman’s exhibition continues at Arsenal Toronto, 45 Ernest Ave., to May 27. See arsenalmontreal.com for more information.