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I am floating in some colorful cosmic realm, watching couples fornicate on a merry-go-round. I am soaring above a massive steampunk space machine seemingly powered by muscular men chained to treadmills. Club music thumps through my ears, and this action-packed world streams by as if I’m watching a very strange but sexy music video. But I have more freedom as a viewer here, as I’m inside “Domestika” (2017), a virtual reality artwork by Jacolby Satterwhite that allows me to observe this realm in 360 degrees.
“Domistika” is one of six VR works in the New Museum’s online-only exhibition First Look: Artists’ VR, recently launched with Rhizome. According to the museum, the show represents the “first-of-its-kind initiative from an art museum,” and arrives at a time when VR feels pretty ubiquitous but is still exciting, with the technology still evolving. While previous artworks in the First Look series, launched in 2012, have all existed in browser form, these six are accessible as a free, mobile VR app for iOS and Android.
In the app, they are available to either stream or download in HD — a process that caused the app to crash for me multiple times. But if you have free moments to wait for successful downloads, some of the artworks are well worth the effort. Varying in style, subject matter, and approach, the digital creations together showcase the artistic potential of the medium, standing as experimental, visually rich environments rather than fully-fledged narratives.
At nearly 13 minutes long, Satterwhite’s is the most self-indulgent: it is cheeky and alluring at first, but it doesn’t offer much variability in imagery (although there is a lot of it to saturate your screen), replicating the experience of hanging out at an industrial nightclub. After five minutes of viewing, the spark of this rave fades despite its curiously decorated guests, and it seems like I’m watching a trailer for “The Sims: Queer Cyber House Party.” The app, created by EEVO, recommends that you don Google Cardboard to stream these artworks, but you can also watch them as you would any other video; Satterwhite’s doesn’t actually appear much different without Cardboard.
More compelling are the pieces that engage with the free-form dimensionality of these digital worlds to play with users’ perceptions and entirely befuddle them. Jeremy Couillard‘s “rebirth_redirect” (2016) sets you floating through a number of architectural spaces in a nonsensical afterworld; you feel completely immersed in his confined, constructed rooms rather than like an observer simply watching imaginative scenes unfold from a distance. Rachel Rossin’s “Man Mask” (2016) echoes other VR worlds she has designed, surrounding you with painterly visuals that swirl and wash over you. In her New Museum contribution, she’s taken the armed figures from Call of Duty: Black Ops and transformed them into faceless, watery beings who float around a reservoir, now strangely calm. Her world offers a taste of the escapism some people may seek from VR. Throughout the brief, pastel-tinged meditation, a woman speaks to you, serving as your guide while spouting fortune-cookie sentences such as, “Happiness, peace, and cheerfulness are what I am becoming.”
Most of the works are not fully interactive, allowing you to just swivel your head to choose your preferred view of whatever scene is unfolding around you. Jayson Musson‘s “An Elegy for Ancestors” (2017) stands out for its game-like platform, while most others are durational works. An “astral memorial” to victims of police violence, Musson’s piece commemorates people from Evon Young to Sandra Bland through constellations that Musson designed based on West African symbols. Initially, you find yourself surrounded by the cosmos, but when you focus your gaze on a certain star, Musson transports you directly to it, where you may read a description of the symbol’s significance. Bland, for instance, is represented by the Aya fern, which “symbolizes a versatile and resourceful person who is able to function on many levels. It suggests a rugged and robust character, an individual who can cope with adversity. Such a person does not sway from his or her goals.” I also found Trayvon Martin’s star, visualized as a cosmic Akoben war horn, a “symbol of a call to action.
“The Akoben war horn,” Musson writes, “alerted townspeople that an enemy was near or that they should assemble for a task for the common good. Thus the sound of the Akoben was a battle cry and a call to arms.” Musson’s tribute feels monumental but not grandiose; he’s carved out a special world where those attacked for their identity now shine large and bright, their legacies etched out in new, meaningful forms that envelop our vision.
The artists who truly manipulated my sense of sight, however, were Peter Burr and Porpentine Charity Heartscape, whose work really requires Cardboard to fully appreciate. “Arcology” (2016) is just one chapter of the pair’s ongoing project, “Aria End,” which attempts to visualize “an endlessly mutating death labyrinth.” Not for those easily dizzied, the piece sets you in a blocky, black-and-white world of warping surfaces and dancing grids that endlessly collapse into each other, all set to a cheerful and repetitive soundtrack. I feel like I’m being swallowed by TV static noise or swimming inside a three-dimensional QR code that’s continuously being redesigned. While Rossin’s work was blissful, this is the VR experience you’d compare to a bad trip; Burr and Porpentine seem to be testing our limits against the capabilities of virtual reality. But while they’re showing off their undeniably skilled coding chops, they also remind that you, as the user, still have the agency to just switch these worlds off.