Publish at August 20 2017 Updated April 12 2022

Art and virtual reality: the ultimate immersion?

Could virtual reality make the visual arts so immersive that they overwhelm those who observe them?

Technology has always had an impact on art. Graphic design software hasn't eliminated canvases, but it has become a more common tool. Digital editing has enabled the explosion of video production online and in film, making it easier to manipulate without having to play with film. 

What will be the next innovation where artists can express themselves? It's already here and although in its infancy, it's generating a lot of enthusiasm : virtual reality (VR). How could a technology that seems mostly intended for video games be one of the new tools for artists? In many ways.

Cinema dives into virtual reality

If there is one art form that tries to be one of immersion, it is the seventh. The cinema has done everything to ensure that we, the spectators, are immersed in a story. A huge screen with loudspeakers capable of making the dark room shake under the force of the sound. And then, when that wasn't enough, there were the glasses allowing us to see the third dimension. Depth is back and it is even possible to break the fourth wall by sending effects to the face of those watching the scene.

Or, virtual reality brings a new approach because the cinema room is literally glued to the face of the viewer. More and more young studios are interested in this narrative approach that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action, with the viewer looking wherever they want. This can also be a problem for scripting. You have to make sure they don't lose a key to the story by missing a look, a gesture, a set piece or a prop handled by an actor. As a result, directors take three times longer to shoot this type of work because everything has to be choreographed and thought out in 360 degrees. Moreover, the equipment is more expensive since you need cameras and microphones that capture everything.

Nonetheless, some are getting into it and finding ways to do it. Filmmaker Pierre Friquet wanted to play on his own journey and transpose his therapeutic work in the form of a VR film, close to the hallucinatory style of David Lynch and John Carpenter-style monsters. " Patterns " follows an individual in hypnotherapy and immerses the viewer in an eerie world. Immersive technology has never been so improved as it is now, the gap between movement and image are now imperceptible. And then, some people start to imagine interactive films of the " Govie ", mixture between the English term " game " and " movie " which would be close to videogame experiences like that of David Cage (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, Detroit, etc.). The viewer could therefore influence the actions, dialogues and even the end of the story.

Drawing in the virtual

However, if cinema seems the main interested party of virtual reality, we should not forget that the other visual arts could also benefit from it.

Already museums are interested in it in order to add interaction, to bring to life known or not known works. Artists are increasingly creating peculiar virtual drawings and sculptures that give an ordinary place a layer of fantasy as soon as the headset is put on.

For example, on Berlin's Pariser Platz during the 2016 Biennale, viewers could see funny animal associations created by Quebec's Jon Rafman : a rhinoceros swallowing a bear and an iguana doing the same thing with a sloth. In 2015, the Italian painter Fabio Giampietro, a regular of sensations of vertigo and immersion, created a paper work representing a city seen from the air. With a virtual reality headset, the viewer experienced this sensation even more, finding himself floating above the drawn buildings.

And then, in 2016, the giant Google, again and again him, created an application called Tilt Brush allowing you to literally draw in virtual reality with " materials " like ink, fire or snow. Many artists have started experimenting with this app or another, Gravity Sketch. So the visual arts community is getting as excited about virtual reality as the film and documentary community. Who knows? Maybe even within 10 years, art classes will be using headsets to create or to visit sections of museums in class.

Still some challenges, however. If works on traditional canvases survive the vagaries of time, how do we combat the obsolescence of technology? The virtual reality of 2017 will not be the virtual reality of 2027. How do we ensure that the creations will be available for a long time? And then, for storytellers, we'll have to think hard about the challenges of virtual reality. We must not forget, as researcher Sandra Rodriguez reminds us on Radio-Canada, that people are first and foremost looking for stories. We must therefore think of the technology as a medium to transmit emotions and not as an end in itself with its immersive and gadget aspect.

Illustration : Ars Electronica via / CC BY-NC-ND

References :

Andrillon, Laure. "Visual Arts Tempted By Virtual Reality." Le Last updated : 13 June 2017.

Bindé, Josephine. "Survey: How Does Art And Virtual Reality Dialog?" Fine Arts. Last updated : June 7, 2017.

"How Virtual Reality Will Change the Way Movies Are Produced." Konbini France. Last updated : September 2016.

Grégoire, Carolan. "'Patterns': A Virtual Reality Family Therapy." Vice. Last updated : 16 September 2016.

"The Challenges Of Virtual Reality In Art." The Sphere | ICI Radio-Canada Première. Last updated : October 15, 2016.

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