What is virtual, what is real? New doors of perception at the Zeppelin museum – 'Beautiful New Worlds - Virtual Realities in Contemporary Art', curated by Ina Neddermeyer

  • 01.12.2017

Inspired by those encounters of Zeppelin in stereoscopy, the exhibition ’Beautiful New Worlds. Virtual Realities in Contemporary Art,’ curated by Ina Neddermeyer for the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, turns over to new doors of perception. Not a cutting-edge show, but rather an exhibition in past tense, it contains works from the 2010s until today that have mostly been on display at other places before, where the hype for VR has taken place.

Sony, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and some deprecated, antique VR goggles, introduced by micha cárdenas: the look and feel of the show is determined by devices and sitting pillows. One could easily mistake the exhibition space for a lounge at a fair for Tech gear – potentially raising questions about how a VR exhibition should look like.

The works in the exhibition can be seen already on the website of the museum. This are VR goggle-based video works by Halil Altindere, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, the trio Salome Asega & Reese Donohue & Tongkwai Lulin, interactive VR goggle-centric installations by Banz&Bowinkel and Florian Meisenberg, a 3D anaglyph video installed in combination with light installation simulating a dawning sky within the museum by Trisha Baga called Flatlands 3D (2010), video documentaries presented on LCD screens by Harun Farocki, Forensic Architecture and micha cárdenas – the latter presented in combination with some stills and those 2000's VR goggles mentioned above.

VR goggles-based video works

The Nest Collective presents an African take on Sci-fi Let This be a Warning (2017; 10min, VR goggles) where you embody a character in the film. It highlights that the potential of 360° films to resemble theater-like experience. What you look at is not determined by the camera lens but by the position and movement of the head, being able to turn left, right, up and down. Furthermore, DICKGIRL 3D (2016, 3min, VR goggles), by Sidsel Meineche Hansen, a 3D rendered, ego-perspective porn showing two barely definable creatures having sexual intercourse, in a fashion that one could only describe as turbo-sex (later more on that). Halil Altindere’s Journey to Mars (2016) video is a 3D-rendered visualization of that trip to Mars that is inspired by the claim of that only Syrian space traveler ever. He jokingly proposed to ‘send’ those unwelcomed refugees to Mars, where nobody minds their presence. Altindere enriching the VR-goggle video work with a large panorama installation showing an astronaut in space, and that works somewhat as a prequel to the video.

Virtual-Reality-goggles-centric installations

Banz & Bowinkel's VR goggles experience is surrounded by a screen showing what the person wearing the VR goggles does in the virtual world. Also, some prints on the walls depicting some of the human-like figures appearing in their VR, and a fetishized desktop PC labeled with the artists’ names – the latter done in a fashion that design studios would do. The virtual space itself is contrast-fully decorated with all types of symbolism and antique statues – you couldn’t do more than explore that virtual space by basically jumping around. The projection on the screen, showing what the VR goggle wearer does, being somewhat a prototypical ‘Sartrean peephole’ situation nurturing that voyeuristic streak and breaking with that nature of the private experience which is predominant with goggle-based VR experiences.

Florian Meisenberg’s site-specific Pre-Alpha Courtyard Games (raindrops on my cheek) (2017) could be thought of as a painter’s vision on virtual space, as opposed to the (still) context menu heavy user interfaces that we are familiar with in video games. Using your fingers and hands, you can model a virtual grid in every possible way, while pictures appear one by one, you could pick up those and wallpaper that same ball, like on an advertisement column on the streets, but for the digital world – instant, quick and no wrinkles. The installation consisting of that wall carpet, being the ‘playground’ for his VR installation, showing a virtual grid having Yoko Ono and John Lennon standing in the middle of it – the choice of the motif a matter of taste. A screen mounted on the wall carpet showing only the hand movements as perceived in the VR. Around that carpet, a sun-like piece, hanging down from the ceiling, with a color and texture similar to mother of pearl. Meisenberg video projects a palette of colors on that piece which again were reflected on the walls. Also, a pillow lying next to the carpet, on the floor, on which Meisenberg projects a video from above. It shows a close-up video (loop) of a theater mask resembling a human face being made continuously dirty, with a thick (crude oil like) fluid and repeatedly cleansed with St. Pellegrino sparkling water (St. Pellegrino, 2017). One could think of it as an infinite (and very Catholic) catharsis, while it works as a metaphor to that capability of virtual reality environments to reset or reboot their state at the same time.

Virtual-Reality-related documentaries

’Saydnaya’ (2016) by Forensic Architecture, a highlight of this years’ Documenta in Kassel, is also screened in Friedrichshafen. The video documents the virtual reconstruction of that destroyed infamous Syrian prison, conducted with the help of witnesses that were imprisoned there. It showed how these technologies of rapid modeling of virtual spaces could help witnesses recall more details about that building by being able to realize virtual shape/space at the speed of speech. As for the narrative and style of the film: it feels like the making-ofs we are familiar with bonus DVDs of feature films. Nonetheless, this video work differs somewhat from that VR goggles-heavy notion of the exhibition. It focusses on the processes of the creation of virtual space that is meant to be an architectural model but mainly to be viewed on a monitor—not VR goggles—and here, in the museum context, presented as a video documentation on a large screen.

Two recent works by the late Harun Farocki (‘Parallel II & IV,' 2014) where Farocki, e.g., explores how basic malicious physical encounters of humans, like bumping into someone, are modeled or work in, then state-of-the-art, video games like ‘Grand Theft Auto.' With ‘Serious Games I & III' (2010, two-channel video) Farocki shows how 3D rendered simulations on PC, which look like video games, are incorporated in warfare training by the US military and the other video showing a case where trauma therapy for war veterans is conducted with the help of VR.

Then, work by micha cárdenas showing documentary footage of her project ‘Become Dragon’ (2010), an early encounter in ‘virtual reality,' some prints on the walls and some old VR goggles – an artist who gave lectures on wearable electronics.

Analog conclusions

The works by the artists who created 3D-rendered space for VR goggles (except for Trisha Baga, Farocki or Forensic Architecture) seem to get stuck in the aesthetics of video games and 3D rendered infotainment, and as such, they seem to have aged quickly over the years. Furthermore, those works also emulate human behavioral patterns that we are familiar with in video games, and they remain in the anthropocentric realms, except for Sidsel Meineche Hansen. Her VR goggles-based video breaks with those anthropocentric paradigms, providing a radical take on the human body and its new challenging relation to the virtual. In her pornographic scenario, the VR-goggles use embodies a humanoid creature with distant eyes and a big glowing penis. The creature’s intense sexual intercourse with that other object that could be compared in size to the shape of a giant, jagged rock, with no resemblance of real and virtual creatures known to humanity – meaning no eyes or limbs or face. Besides, the sexual intercourse of these two objects didn’t have any resemblance with human sex regarding tempo, or rhythm, or intensity. That Meineche Hansen’s discourse could be probably described as post-identity art – a term coined by the artists-run space Queer Thoughts, in Chicago and New York.

The VR goggles-based video works show that the ‘real’ spatial context where the work is presented doesn’t affect the way one experiences the work. Meaning, spacious and high-ceilinged rooms are indifferent to the experience of the work, making the ‘white cube vs. black cube’ presentation of video work obsolete.

Florian Meisenberg’s installation is the only work to really make use of the exhibition space, besides what is happening in the VR space: With rich objects surrounding the VR element, or vice versa, Meisenberg provides possibilities to engage with the installation in many different ways. One could see the VR element and its interplay with 'real objects' as two parts complementing a narrative. Interestingly, the wall carpet, the original video work and the sun-like sculpture were, all together, compelling on their own and did not rely on that VR appeal - in contrast to Banz & Bowinkel.

Forensic Architecture presents their above-mentioned case study (for Amnesty International, in which they derived a 3D rendered architecture model) to the public sphere basically via a website mixed with text, 360° pictures, short video interviews, making-of, etc. Solely going for that above-mentioned making-of for the museum context and being included in this VR goggle-heavy show, intentionally or unintentionally, determine a pivotal moment regarding definitions. They put in to question, whether ‘virtual reality,' as presented at the Zeppelin Museum, is only about virtual ‘space’? Putting that question on the table, here the second one: what about our other virtual realities, like Facebook, Instagram or Tinder, which provide us with a virtual self, simulating channels of interaction that we are familiar with in the analog world, but still comprising very different dynamics? These virtual versions of ourselves doubtlessly have pretty much of an own reality, which manifests itself virtually. What 'virtual reality', ‘virtuality’ and ‘reality’ mean here, and how should they be reflected towards the rise of new social spheres, is an important etymological discussion that is dearly missed, especially in a museum devoted to art and technology.