The virtual reality technology of Oculus Rift is being used to collect the digital remains of lost art. Sourcing information from Interpol and the FBI, the Museum of Stolen Art is about visibility, aiding in recovery, and giving cultural theft from war attention.
“The idea of creating a virtual reality space for objects with unknown physical locations was interesting to me after coming across the Interpol and FBI databases,” Ziv Schneider, a graduate student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, told Hyperallergic. “I thought: If someone wants the public’s help in recovering a lost object, here is another way in which they can communicate their message.”
The Museum of Stolen Art had its debut at the ITP Winter Show held December 17 and 18, 2014, although it isn’t yet widely available. Like the 2012 Gallery of Lost Art, an interactive website created by Tate and Channel 4, the Museum of Stolen Art gives works that have mostly been reduced to memory a new tangibility. Whereas the Gallery of Lost Art laid out the evidence and remains of 40 disappeared artworks on digital tables, the Museum of Stolen Art sets pieces in white-walled galleries with accompanying narration about the phantoms works on display.
The initial virtual exhibition in the Museum of Stolen Art showcases artifacts looted from Afghanistan — particularly from the National Museum, where an estimated 70% of the 100,000 works in the permanent collection have disappeared since 1979 — pieces lost to looting in Iraq — especially from the National Museum in the wake of the 2003 US invasion — and major paintings stolen from museums, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990.
Schneider cited as an influence Sophie Calle’s 1991 Last Seen project, especially for how it dealt with the emptiness left by the stolen art’s absence by framing the remaining voids. “The interesting thing for me is to try to represent the pieces with whatever digital assets they left behind,” Schneider explained. The Oculus system is still an experimental new interface for virtual reality, but it has the potential to create new immersive spaces for the things missing from the physical world, even if it’s as simple an idea as returning lost paintings to a museum wall so they can be seen once again.
Read more about the Museum of Stolen Art project on Ziv Schneider’s site.