virtual reality and a new generation of art appreciation


Events, Location-based Entertainment / Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Before Saturday, the last time I visited a museum was eight months ago. It was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where I was visiting my sister. Although I live in a city with state-of-the-art public museums, I never seem to set foot into one of them, and it doesn’t cross my mind. Unlike most of our social activities, museum and gallery trips are special occasions, reserved for school trips or tourist stops. Sometimes, I visit them for the sake of having said I’ve been, or to maximise student ID benefits for free or discounted admission.

I couldn’t find a more recent study of public participation in the arts since the one conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 20121, which charts a decline in US arts attendance over 10 years, dropping in numbers at plays, ballet, musical theatre, opera, classical music, jazz, art galleries and museums. While these numbers are from five years ago, I doubt that with the increase of personal devices and content available on the Internet, that there has been a turnaround in this trend. Back in 2012, it was reported that almost three-quarters of American adults used electronic media to listen to music or view art, and this percentage has likely increased since then, with personal computers and home comforts overriding the need to pay money to stand and look at exhibits and paintings. It is also likely that even more people haven’t been to the largest museum in their hometown, or haven’t been to see art in a gallery for over a year (46% of Americans in 2012 had not been to an art or cultural event in the past year).

In a world of Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube, people today speak of art in the language of filters, gifs and memes rather than the language of paintings, sculptures, or even printed photography. It’s not something that generally crosses my mind, but two recent excursions got me thinking about the state of art appreciation in today’s society.

The first was an event called Art and VR, held on Feb. 18th at HACK Temple, a re-purposed church building in North Beach. Here was a dissonant mix of virtual reality, augmented reality and plain old art, to a synth beat of a live band all night long, for a hefty price of ~$50. While there were some interactive games, the experiences that drew the most throughput (and arguably, the most interest) were ones that focused on observation and interpretation rather than doing things while in virtual reality. I remember lying on the ground between strangers, all of us wearing flashing LED glasses and staring at psychedelic images that pulsed on a screen above us.

We were allowed to stay as long as we liked, just watching, internalising, appreciating, thinking, much like how one would look at paintings in an art gallery. Because there were long lines for experiences that had a limited number of VR headsets, I mostly wandered around taking in the displays and atmosphere, and this made Art and VR feel more like an art exhibit than an invitation to try interactive VR.

Then, last Saturday, with free tickets I received from a colleague (again, this was the only reason I’d’ve thought of going), I made the trek into tourist-centric Golden Gate Park and the de Young Museum. Tickets to the museum with the special exhibit are typically ~$25, half of what Art and VR had cost. The crowd was different as well – tourists, educators, families and senior citizens making up the bulk of visitors on a weekend morning, compared to the business-artist-hipster-developer-investor-enthusiast types at the Art and VR event. In particular, I enjoyed the special exhibit, “Frank Stella: A Retrospective”, for Stella’s larger-than-life sculptures of mixed media: pipes, string, wood, glass and metal twisted around each other in whimsical ways to create shapes and patterns. These are all physical, tangible things that exist in the real world, though museum guests were obviously not invited to touch them, as much as I wanted to.

Virtual reality is not ready for interactivity, but it’s good at showcasing art.

From these two experiences, I realised that to create captivating experiences that are go-to events and destinations, we need to play to the strengths of virtual reality and art. First of all, we have to admit to ourselves that virtual reality is not ready for interactivity (sorry). We are getting there, but as we wait for graphics, controllers, processors, hardware and the uncanny valley to catch up to the technology of VR, we should not skip the step of using VR for what it is good for right now, which, in a word, is art.

Before video games, there were movies, and before movies, there was art. It makes sense that VR would follow a similar progression, and yet, we are so excited to jump on interactivity that we have forgotten to really explore what VR can do for art. VR needs to first be established in the art world before it can excel at anything else. For me, the most compelling VR experiences have been ones that rely on observation over interaction, because this way, you take away the clumsy controllers and unrealistic 3D models, and you focus on how we are used to admiring the night sky or a beautiful sunset: in quiet contemplation and solitude. The fact that VR is isolating, and no one has really figured out multiplayer VR, is an advantage in this case. Maybe it’s time to not feel so socially connected for a while, and to take a good look at some art like we used to do in galleries. That’s what VR can do for us.

We must not forget the feeling of admiring a piece of artwork in a museum, the way I stood before, walked around and looked at Frank Stella’s sculptures in the de Young this past weekend. I think VR is the key to this, to not only bring 3D art into empty spaces, but to allow us to create this sort of art with a much lower barrier to entry. Instead of having to scour scrap material and build physical things, we have the tools of creating 3D shapes and textures at our fingertips in VR. Google’s Tilt Brush (featured by Time being used by seven artists2) is a great example of this, and yet we blazed past it so quickly to VR games, without fully appreciating its potential.

Art appreciation of the future will have us leave our smartphones and enter the 3D space, but it begins with artists and developers putting an effort into creating, curating and providing access to art in virtual reality. The high cost of VR equipment, and the lack of content, means that they will not take over the consumer market and enter homes any time soon. Instead, VR’s home for right now is in museums and art galleries, to provide new exhibits and enhance existing ones, and to generate a new means of art appreciation for a new generation who doesn’t know what life was like before smart devices and WiFi.

As to the declining attendance at and funding of art venues and events, I can think of no better way to improve it than by incorporating virtual reality when it is something few people have access to at this time. The Jewish Museum in New York already does this well with its current exhibit on Pierre Chareau, presenting a stunning virtual reality component that brings visitors to Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris to observe his furniture and designs3. Having virtual reality in museums is a first step to expose it to more people than the investors, techies and hipsters who know about, are interested in, and can afford a ~$50 ticket to a VR-specific event. With time, VR will make its own transition from museums to arcades to homes, but this needs to start with a few devices in museums, which will require effort and direction from managing boards, developers and the community.

At the moment, virtual reality is for art, not interactivity, and should be used to usher in a new generation of art appreciation and creation, before it bombards us with games that still feel slightly weird. Let’s let VR do what it’s good at for now before we rush things, and sit back and admire art from a completely new perspective.

References Cited

  1. Sally Gifford. “Surprising Findings in Three New NEA Reports on the Arts.” National Endowment for the Arts. National Endowment for the Arts, 12 January 2015. Web. 1 March 2017.
  2. Josh Raab. “Virtual Reality is for Artists.” Time. Time, 5 April 2016. Web. 1 March 2017.
  3. Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design.” Jewish Museum. Jewish Museum, 4 November 2016. Web. 1 March 2017.

Additional References

  1. Jason Farago. “Virtual Reality Has Arrived in the Art World. Now What?.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 3 February 2016. Web. 1 March 2017.