Wednesday, 3 April 2019

ART IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD - Feature and Video by Alexi K

Below: Improvised Abstract Compositions / TiltBrush VR program.

At the end of 2018, I was kindly invited by global engineering firm ARUP, to try out their VR apparatus, located at their UK headquarters in Dorridge, outside Birmingham.

After arriving, I was given a brief demonstration, reassured that the equipment was completely intuitive, and then donned the ungainly goggles and handset combo to try it out.

After a few tentative steps walking on the surface of Mars ( it reminded me of Worcestershire, albeit minus the people, trees, oxygen and fly-tippers ), and then a look round a megastructure currently being built somewhere in Asia ( top secret ), I was instructed on how to use the art program Tilt Brush, and asked to see what I would come up with.

I made a few brush strokes in the sky, trying to get my bearings.

My very immediate reaction was a downbeat one: 'This is it. It's GAME OVER for all traditional art. We may as well pack up and go back to regular jobs... if there are any left that haven't been replaced by robots.' The immersive nature of the virtual environment made me also think about people simply not leaving the house to interact with the real world.

Slightly disorientated by my inability to organise the paint brush strokes in front of me, I then asked Derek, the chap who had originally extended the invitation, if it was possible to keep all the brush strokes restricted to the same plane in space, like a page in a sketchbook. It was his response that made me realise I had not understood what I was dealing with:

'You can't keep the strokes in the same plane. The rotation of your arm in your shoulder socket means that the strokes create a kind of dome shape in the air.'

At that moment, I could feel my brain reconfigure itself around this new paradigm: In the future, art can have a spacial quality that never existed before. It will be unhindered by Earthly materials, or the laws of physics.

Once I realised this, I made some gestures based on a few minimalist art pieces that I had been experimenting on in the studio, so in the VR version, I created a hanging 'curtain' of glowing dots in a vague grid formation. I followed that with a few deftly-placed downwards and diagonal paint-strokes in front.

In the video you can see how one handset is used to select options on the other handset. You will also see me forget where the 'dots' option is, as I rotate the selector vainly looking for the correct button. In the end, I locate it, and after creating a couple of satisfactory compositions, I downed tools and stuck my head up in between the various paint strokes, all of which had remained suspended in the air above me.

I was rather pleased with my first go, especially as I have a natural aversion to gadgetry and have never played a video game in my life. But like my first foray into electronic art two decades ago, I adapted immediately and felt comfortable with the new medium.

Several things occurred to me: Firstly, that abstract artists will benefit greatly from these new tools. On the website that accompanies the software, there were plenty of user examples of finely-crafted 3D renderings such as everyday scenes, or renditions of famous artworks ( Van Gogh's self-portrait, for instance ). And, as in the case of real world art, you could see how comfortable it is to fall back on easily-recognizable subject matter. For the abstract artist, there are no such limitations ( other than the usual ones of aesthetic maturity and skill, achieved over time  ). Indeed, in this new world, audiences will not only appreciate what the artist is trying to say, but how he said it, as body movements and choreography could become part of the composition like Tai-Chi or other martial arts. Form, control and presence will be admired as part of the over-all finished piece.
Sound elements and haptic suits may be added to the experience, but I like to think that much of the art of the new era will still be contemplative and not rely on expense, bigness or show-boating.

With a price tag of several thousand pounds for the equipment, it's immediately clear that it'll be a few years before this medium becomes part of an artist's repertoire. At the moment it will really only be available to colleges or businesses, or well-off dilettantes.

Finally, there is the question of owning a virtual piece of art. Is it like buying a license? Will upgrades be sent out at regular intervals? Will it have a definite shelf-life, when the legacy equipment becomes obsolete and the file unreadable? Will its transient nature affect its cost? Who will enjoy it? Will everyone have built-in viewing apparatus with a universal operating system, or will some people have a different proprietary software, and therefore not be able to see certain artworks? Will it be ubiquitous, or exclusive? For the 1%, or the 99%?

 Crucially, will the artist lose, or gain? Only time will tell.

Below: Improvised Abstract Compositions / TiltBrush VR program.