A new art form is born

[First published in The Arts Society Magazine, 2018]

Can magic tricks be art? A strange question to pose, you might think. What’s this got to do with virtual reality? Arthur C. Clarke’s legendary third law of technology is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This is exactly what VR is. It is one grand illusion – strap a screen to your face that moves when your head moves, pop on some headphones and, tadaa, you can be tricked into feeling present in another space or another time.

From an arts perspective, this new tool we have to simulate presence is a superpower. Humans have always used illusion in art – think of the development of perspective in painting, for instance. As our tools have got more and more advanced, we have got increasingly better at this simulation. Now, as creators, we have virtual reality at our disposal. Just like with the discovery of perspective, a whole new world of artistic possibility awaits.

In the last few years, arts institutions have experimented with this new art form, testing out ways to bring it to their audiences. For instance, in November last year, Tate Modern partnered with the headset manufacturer, HTC Vive to allow visitors to virtually explore Modigliani’s studio alongside experiencing his work. In summer 2017, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery hosted Mat Collishaw’s VR piece, Thresholds – a ‘room-scale’ experience where audiences can virtually travel back to a photography exhibition in 1839. In 2016, Somerset House ran a VR exhibition in collaboration with Bjork, where audiences could travel through her immersive art works. The National Theatre have even founded their own Immersive Stories Studio. These arts organisations have experimented with it because they see immersive media’s creative potential, and want to start exploring it, finding out what works best for their audiences.

There are some creative formats for VR that my team and I have seen work particularly well with arts audiences, especially in venues like museums, galleries and independent cinemas.

 Fantasy trips, for instance, are pieces that provide an imaginary, sensation-inducing ‘ride’. These surreal, fantastical journeys are all about letting go. On the outset, fantasy trips may appear light on meaning, however, in fact they can be quite profound. A fantasy trip might be inspired by an ancient ritual, it could be created in the style of a famous impressionist artist or it could let you experience a piece of music on a deeper level.

‘Best seat in the house’ projects locate the audience member at the heart of a performance or event. Audiences are presented with the best view possible; whether this be the centre of some immersive theatre, the front row of an auditorium or in the midst of a street festival.

Immersive media also presents the opportunity to make things in VR. Immersive maker tools like Tilt Brush and Quill allow users to draw in 3D spaces, resulting in something that feels like an amazing hybrid between a sketch and a sculpture.

Taking a step back from the arts for a moment, many analysts and futurologists predict that virtual reality and augmented reality will become as ubiquitous as tablets and mobile phones are now. Digital Catapult estimates that the AR/VR market in the UK will be worth £1.2 billion by 2020. PWC forecast that the virtual reality industry will be the fastest growing area of the UK’s media and entertainment output as well as being the largest virtual reality industry in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. If VR is going to be such a major part of our lives and a key player in the creative industries then it makes sense for arts institutions to plant their stake in the soil at this early stage.

For me, VR art is the ultimate fusion between creativity and technology. Its emergence forces us to see the value that hi-tech developments can bring to the arts, and vice versa. From an audience perspective, this cross-pollination can unleash a wealth of profound, rich, new artistic experiences that are not an enhancement to existing art forms, but experiences that represent a whole new artistic medium.