Venturing into the virtual world
One Toronto-based company has created an art app that functions as an on-demand virtual gallery that anybody, anywhere, can enjoy, Chris Hampton writes
David Plant knew virtual reality could make a rich art medium the first time he saw it. The executive director of Trinity Square Video, a Toronto artist-run centre dedicated to media arts, Plant worked with Silicon Graphics Computer Systems in the mid- to late 1990s, visiting the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity at the same time the first wave of Canadian VR artists also flocked there.
At the time, a computer rig muscular enough to produce and display those virtual environments cost roughly a quarter of a million dollars. Only the artist and a select other few ever experienced the work. "The idea of democratizing it, popularizing it and making it accessible," Plant says, "is something I have been thinking about for the last couple decades."
Now, most of us carry the sufficient hardware in our pockets.
Alongside an exhibition of virtual realities installed inside its 401 Richmond St. downtown space, Trinity Square Video has launched a smartphone app titled V/Art Projects that functions as an on-demand VR gallery. The eight commissioned artworks, by makers both local and international, are compatible with mobile headsets or can be viewed straight from the screen of your device.
Cheaper equipment has finally put VR within reach of the consumer – a viewer can be purchased for less than $20 – but the tech has yet to produce the killer app that guarantees a Google Cardboard in each of our knapsacks. TSV's platform removes that barrier and stocks ready-to-use content at a single, convenient destination, with plans to add new works in the future.
When Toronto and Canadian orgs and institutions have been slow to uptake digital art and integrate it healthfully within our culture ecosystem, V/Art Projects suggests perhaps the best home for virtual art is a virtual gallery. Anybody anywhere, then, can participate. (I, for example, skipped the opening and took in the show instead from my apartment.) The commissions themselves ponder the perils and prizes of an increasingly virtual life, exploring variously the relationships between immersive technologies and psychology, ethics and political urgency.
Toronto artist Jonathan Carroll was part of the small team (also including artists Jennifer Chan and Mohammad Rezaei) that built the app. Carroll has been developing VR work for just less than two years, but he already feels a bit like a veteran in Toronto. "It's indicative of technology in general, just how quickly it moves," he says. "And it's anxiety inducing because you want to keep up with it. But it's also exciting because it's easy to get into and, basically, whenever you get in, you're going to be on some ground floor."
New work by Carroll's often laugh-out-loud-funny art collective and pseudo-corporation, Tough Guy Mountain, appears on V/Art Projects. Guided Meditation parodies voguish mindfulness and relaxation apps, floating users into the rolling pink hills of Tough Guy Mountain's fantastical universe, The Brandscape, set to the lull of Plant's radio-smooth instruction. Before long – and without the possibility of objection – you've been signed up, processed and outfitted for the first day of your indefinite unpaid internship with their fictional company.
Carroll calls it an "onboarding loop." Whereas the meditation app promises a moment of respite at your click, Guided Meditation is a reminder that you'll be damned back to the rat race at any moment.
Beyond animation, the techniques on view are innovative and varied. Using photographs from a summer trip in traditional Anishinaabe territory around Lac Seul in Northwestern Ontario, intermedia artist Scott Benesiinaabandan creates "psychic landscapes," where limestone twists and hangs in the air like paper streamers. The photogrammetry software he works with, typically used for making models and measurements from photosets, renders these abstracted, interpretive versions from the data. "There are histories embedded in the landscape," he says. By exploding them and inspecting the fragments, Benesiinaabandan tries to communicate the subconscious stories the land holds.
Rising from the couch and now spinning tense circles in my kitchen, Final Session, by Florida-based artist Endam Nihan, makes perhaps the most convincing argument for the visceral power of the medium. Resulting from a research project with Turkey's We Will Stop Femicide Platform, the work places viewers, in live-action video, on a stage in front of an empty auditorium. They are the only witness. One performer, dressed in white, enacts the physical: being punched and choked, protecting her face from blows. The performer in black dress plays the role of the abuser, issuing only dialogue. The words "I want to meet you one last time," approaching from every direction, encircling you, the viewer, as you try – and fail – to locate their source, produce genuine anxiety. "When the audience feels like a part of the experience," she explains, "it's easy to create understanding and empathy."
Elsewhere, Toronto-based artist Trudy Erin Elmore offers viewers the rare opportunity to watch themselves watching. In a series of tableaux vivants, she recasts Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights with behaviours specific to our routine digital interfacing: Anonymous figures gaming and typing and staring into screens like gazing balls. She's removed any trace of technology, but their postures, the ways the bodies have been bent and manipulated, are unmistakable. It's a tedious but engrossing parade – something like the internet itself.
For Elmore, an app such as V/Art Projects is important because it helps democratize a medium that's still relatively exclusive in Canada. In Los Angeles, tech companies funnel millions into original content, while here, institutional support for digital art and engagement lag. This, then, represents a small, but vital advance.
"It's a response to our artists," Plant explains. "Trinity Square Video is committing to VR. We're an artist-run centre and our artists want to work in this medium. We're excited about the possibilities." When artists venture into the virtual, a smart gallery will follow.