Donning the Virtual Reality headset for the first exhibit in Gazelli Art House’s latest edition of its annual showcase of artists working in VR, I found myself being guided around a cityscape. Everything about the scene was geometric – the grid street pattern, the windows on the skyscrapers and the universal shape of the buildings themselves that hemmed one in, somewhat oppressively so.
I’m at around 10th floor level with the sky visible above and, occasionally a patch of a green square appears between the high-rises. Each of them has the same spire extending from its roof. I’m experiencing Imaginary Cities by visual artist Michael Takeo Magruder whose projects have been showcased in more than 280 exhibitions in 35 countries. As VR experiences go, Imaginary Cities is not exactly a thrill. Its genesis is more interesting.
Magruder has taken a Victorian map of New York City that exists online as part of the British Library’s open access digital collection. Then, using cutting-edge digital technologies, he and his technologist collaborators have created building blocks like Lego bricks with all different textures and components and rendered them into a three-dimensional real-time virtual world. A city for the information age. But there’s a twist.
Magruder has enabled anyone who is accessing the source map inadvertently to make subtle changes to his imaginary world. Users all over the world leave traces of themselves through meta data like counts, favourites, tags and so on. Magruder takes up the story.
“What the artwork does is to basically register and record all those interactions for the day, takes the interactions with the source map, and in the tradition of Sol Le Witt I’ve written a series of instructions that actually get distorted by the interactions of people, so I have no control over that. That all comes together to make an imaginary city plan for the day.”
As a result, the colour of the buildings might alter, so might their position or their height, little things like that.
Coincidentally, New York City is the inspiration for media artist Claudia Hart’s exhibit, Alice: A Machine for Thinking. With the headset on you find yourself in a garishly-coloured maze-like environment in which cyborg-like avatars dance rhythmically and fluidly to an improvised cello soundtrack. One of the figures resembles the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland and, in keeping with that book’s theme, the scene is full of things that subvert normal rational order.
The background wall is adorned with emojis and symbols of power, money and addiction, a comment by Hart on our current environment. “They’re making a sugary, sweet world of casino capitalism. I’m a native New Yorker and I had a studio on Times Square for a 12 years, so this is a sort of Times Square in a way where it’s both seductive and addictive and repulsive at the same time. It’s the world we live in.”
And the labyrinth Hart has constructed means there is no escape.
Ruth Gibson and her creative partner Bruno Martelli have created a series of VR experiences entitled Drawing Levels. You find yourself swimming in an enormous bubble in which fantastically coloured psychedelic shapes rise, fall and swirl around you. Examples are above and in the top shot. Smaller objects also appear which you can alter slightly using hand-held controllers.
Gibson’s past is as a dancer and choreographer and she was disappointed with the controllers of most VR systems. So she decided to put them on her feet. She has created four variations of what are termed superstructures which she drew using Quill software. Most of the patterns she has created are based on kinaesthetic rituals taken from her dance practice. She executes them while lying on her back and creating shapes that resemble brains or tumbleweed..
Occasionally she would close her eyes and improvise movements, the result of which is to create shapes that she couldn’t foresee. The technology itself could also make a further contribution, as she explained. “At other times I would draw, again with my feet, and I would hit the outside of the volume which you could actually work in, in the virtual space, and bits of it would shoot me back into the space, so you’d have these beautiful curved lines I’d be making with my feet, and then the system would throw me back in and make these really sharp angles, so I could play with that really.”
It sounds fun in the making and the result is certainly a spectacular and joyous immersive experience.
The final component to the show is non-VR. Ziv Schneider and Caitlin Robinson have created a series of meticulously crafted Polly Pocket type miniature domestic rooms – kitchen, bedroom etc – created via a 3-D printer in polymer. The concept is based on the fact that the one-person household has become the main way we live in the west. In New York, for example, more than half of all homes have a single occupant. That’s the real world, not virtual.
Enter Through the Headset 4 is showing at Gazelli Art House, 39 Dover Street, London W1S 4NN until 28 September 2019
All images are courtesy of the artists and gallery.