Opinion

New VR Arts Platform Launches with Abramović, Eliasson, Koons, and a Whole Lot of Hype

Acute Art aspires “to explore and enable the transition from art in the physical world into the new, disruptive realm of VR,” something artists have been doing for years.

Cyborg Jeff Koons tries his hand at VR (GIF by the author via Acute Art)

A new virtual reality art platform claiming to be “the world’s first” is launching this fall to produce and distribute contemporary VR works, and its debut commissions are by three contemporary artists who all need yet another stage: Jeff Koons, Marina Abramović, and Olafur Eliasson.

The organizers behind the London-based project, named Acute Art, gave a preview last week of what’s to come at a symposium in Stolkholm billed as a weeklong event for “the world’s edgiest creators and purposeful leaders.” Koons, Abramović, and Eliasson were all present to discuss their original commissions, but the rest of the platform is dramatically veiled in secrecy. Hyperallergic reached out to Acute Art for more information about its team and how artworks will be accessed; representative Jacob de Greer wrote back, “We are officially in stealth mode and the story we are telling so far is covered in the package I sent you already.”

Cyborg Olafur Eliasson (photo courtesy Acute Art)

That press packet is filled with more startup-favored buzzwords and phrases, like “cutting edge,” “radical dialogue,” and the D-word so ubiquitous it’s become meaningless: “disrupt.” (More satisfying are the included portraits of the three artists wearing VR headsets and posing like awkward cyborgs.)

“Acute Art’s mission is to explore and enable the transition from art in the physical world into the new, disruptive realm of VR,” the company’s release reads. “The three fully interactive works push each artist’s practice into new territories, while staying alive to the ongoing possibilities for the creative uses of virtual reality as a whole.”

Cyborg Marina Abramović (photo courtesy Acute Art)
Cyborg Jeff Koons (photo courtesy Acute Art)

These debut works, though, aren’t exactly visionary — at least not judging by Acute Art’s preview video. On the contrary, they’re pretty predictable of each artist, subject-wise. As virtual reality works, they hardly push the limits of the digital medium, which artists have been embracing and experimenting with for years now.

Koons, for instance, is bringing to life his famous “Seated Ballerina,” versions of which he produced for his Antiquity series and recently, as a 45-foot-tall inflatable sculpture at Rockefeller Center. Titled “Phryne” for the ancient Greek courtesan, the VR piece features a metallic ballerina guiding you through a garden, with movements recorded and translated from the real gestures of a New York City Ballet dancer. The VR ballerina is intended to function, per the release, as “a muse who informs and removes anxiety.” In Acute Art’s teaser video, Koons further explains that the ballerina is supposed to affirm your existence in this virtual world. “She teaches you to enjoy being human,” he adds. If we’ve really reached the point where we need a virtual Jeff Koons sculpture of a metallic ballerina to help us love living … well, that’s goddamn depressing.

Promotional banner for Acute Art (photo courtesy Acute Art)

For his part, Eliasson is creating a rainbow — hardly shocking for the Danish artist — that is formed in the virtual world by the refraction of light on a waterfall. The feat is technically impressive, as the recreation of the natural phenomenon required precise calculations, but the visual result is hardly exciting. The simply titled “Rainbow” also has a social aspect: users — who can see the arch of colors only if they move to a certain position — may see each other in the virtual space. But meeting in VR is hardly revolutionary.

Abramović’s piece, “Rising,” also deals with nature, but in a predictably New Age-y way intended to make us really face the global climate crisis. The artist, of course, is present — as an avatar, inside a glass tank that fills slowly with water. Virtual Marina will beckon you, and if you bite, you’ll be transported with her to melting ice caps to participate in an enigmatic game that thrusts upon you the fate of Earth, which is linked to Abramović’s own.

“For every commitment you make, the water level in Abramović’s tank decreases,” reads the release. “Without any commitment at all, the water shall rise, until Abramović has drowned, and with it our world will be destroyed.” (This premise would be way more engaging if it acknowledged spirit cooking in some form.)

In a way, it’s not surprising that Acute Art isn’t launching with more groundbreaking artworks. Its claim to be the “the world’s first virtual reality arts platform” reveals its ignorance of the many projects that have preceded it. These, too, have produced and/or distributed VR artworks. Artists Alfredo Salazar-Caro and William James Richard Robertson, for instance, have been in the game since 2013, with their Digital Museum of Digital Art (DiMoDA), a virtual reality institution that continuously collects, preserves, and exhibits digital art. A similar project is FLOAT Museum, curated by artists Kate Parsons and Ben Vance, which debuted in February at SFMOMA. And the New Museum, too, launched its first-ever VR exhibition in January, which featured six commissions.

To be fair, Acute Art does apparently plan to connect with and commission VR works by young and emerging artists. But while its promotion of overexposed artists is theoretically a great marketing strategy, the works we’re teased with fail to generate any excitement at all about the platform’s potential.

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