There’s a feeling that something is missing in our experience of art today, and our new digital era has a lot to do with it.
As the online and mobile worlds give us complete accessibility to watching the works of artists around the world, the ability to see a new painting on Google Images or on our Instagram feed has lowered people’s drive to actually leave their home and watch the painting in the physical world.
As I hold my phone in my hand and watch a painting on my screen, the experiential gap from seeing it on a gallery wall is not big enough for the leisure crowd – as in both cases I am “simply” watching a 2D image from a distance. Digital accessibility has injured the once spell-binding aura of art spaces which used to promise us a vision of something “I can’t see anywhere else”. This can be easily compared to the hardships of today’s cinema world – with home theaters becoming cheaper, and wide film content more accessible from home. Cinema theaters are truly hurting.
This is why both the art world and the cinema world have found a fitting solution to bring back crowds into their physical halls – a solution known as the “immersive experience”.
Huge art installations completely transforming a space are the most successful and popular type of art event today – given that this type of art can only be truly experienced and appreciated if you visit the museum itself. The same goes for the cinema world, as huge and explosive films are marketed to the cinema theater, and more humble artistic films are marketed straight to VOD – dividing the cinema world into “bigger-than-life-immersive films” and “the rest”.
Another attempt by the art world to bring in crowds to its physical space is “the live event” – gallery openings and closings are crowded (but the gallery is empty in between), an endless flow of art talks and lectures pop up everywhere, performance art and dance are incorporated into every museum’s agenda, mixed art and music events are constantly brewed in the hip backrooms of art institutes – with the sole purpose of livening up the box that is the art institute, and convincing people to leave their own domestic box.
Enter Virtual Reality. A strange old-new technology-based artistic medium whose sole purpose is to provide that desired “experience”.
As you place the VR headset, you are immediately locked inside a 3D virtual world, with visuals and sounds all around you in 360. In clear contrast to how we watch a “flat movie”, as voyeurs peeping from a safe distance onto the lives of others flashing on a rectangular screen, in VR we are centered inside the cinematic world and can go as far as to embody a role in its artistic narrative. And more importantly, we are given interactive freedom no other medium has given us before – allowing us to explore the 3D world as we desire, engage with what piques our interest, and feel the emotions the artist wants us to feel – physically with our bodies.
It can confront us directly. It can acknowledge our existence. It can look us in the eyes. It can make us feel what it’s like being inside of art.
The fact that few people have headsets at home presents an opportunity for art and cinema spaces to again promise an experience that cannot be seen anywhere else. With every major international film festival having a VR section, every influential art museum and biennale incorporating VR into its exhibitions, and hundreds of VR-focused events occurring around the world – it is becoming clear that art and cinema see their future success intertwined with this new immersive medium.
But VR has another space it can heighten – the online space itself. As we scroll through our feeds and browse through websites, the 2D flat experience is all we get. While the web promises us an endless stream of content, its patterns of exhibition are still lacking. Still, as they were ages ago.
WebVR is a new form of VR, allowing anyone with a headset at home to experience VR straight from a website, with no additional software or application necessary. This makes VR much more accessible and easier to operate, though it still relies on the fact a person needs to actually own a headset to experience it.
Despite setbacks and difficulties typical of emerging technologies, there are some powerful lessons we can learn from VR even at present – if our goal is to evolve the way we consume content online.
Think about VR as the experience-first medium it is, and try to extract its cores – its immersion, its interactivity, its gamification. And then ask yourself – why should I do a video tour of a gallery and place that video on a 2D website, if I can 3D scan the actual gallery (or build one out of my imagination) and allow people to move in it, while interacting with the art objects? Why should I live stream a performance on YouTube, if I can create a 3D club that other people can visit with 3D avatars – and feel as if they are present there, together? None of those concepts actually need VR, as they can all run from our regular PCs & mobile phones – using a keyboard, mouse or touch screen. But what they do is try to think like VR, and give us new digital experiences where the viewer is the center.
This way of thinking, brought on by VR, can also cause us to re-examine what an “online event” can be. Not just a lecture on Zoom or a Facebook Live of an event happening in real life, but a truly engaging virtual meeting with other people from around the world, where the body has an extension of itself online and our mind feels as if we’ve actually been in a real space with others.
It’s a truly new way of hanging out that is lurking just around the corner. If our wish is to find a new space for art, music, and cinema, VR might be our gateway to leaving the screens and mock representations of the 20th century, and venturing into the unknown.
Tal Michael Haring is the curator of the VR-AR Exhibition at Haifa International Film Festival, Head of New-Media Developments at Gesher Multicultural Film Fund, and a lecturer at Tel-Aviv University.