Artist's role moves into new dimension

May 23, 1997

RESEARCHERS exploring the potential of virtual reality as a fine-art medium believe the technology poses a big challenge to accepted notions of the role of the artist and curatorship. The research team, based at Chelsea College of Art, is convinced that VR provides artists with a new and radical, but essentially unexplored, medium.

One VR art work created by Peter Maloney, research assistant, takes the viewer through a labyrinthine VR gallery/studio. Staring at a painting generates previously unseen doorways. One of these leads into a room with pencils suspended in space; the pencils can be "picked" and drawn with, offering the possibility of creating three-dimensional virtual graffiti that can be left as an exhibition.

If you want, you can become one of the many "virtual pets" that are running around, all independently programmed, and see the virtual world from their point of view. Then there is the "attic", home to a colony of ants, each of which is crawling around to the dictates of its own computer programme. And if you hang around long enough, you will see one or two falling through the open attic hatchway.

Mr Maloney says he has called his piece Work in Progress as "a kind of way of suggesting it is always unfinished, that it is a kind of sketchbook for documenting thoughts and ideas. It is an attempt to examine life beyond the frame". Conventional, two-dimensional drawings are static and much is left to the interpretation of the viewer, he argues. And while an animated cartoon is more fully realised with the addition of sound and movement, the audience is still led through a linear narrative, unable to alter the storyline: the medium is unaware of the presence of the viewer. By contrast, virtual reality "places us inside the image" so that "we can explore and interact with it. It is aware of our presence and able to respond to our actions".

The system, when used in the headset mode, is constantly reconfiguring the virtual environment in response to movements of the head.

Kevin Atherton, project leader, believes that art and art education cannot really ignore the medium of VR because it will be a pervasive commercial, industrial and social phenomenon in the future. Research into virtual reality could also provide engineers and software and hardware specialists with new ways of thinking about the VR systems they design.

For Mr Atherton the most significant way VR alters the role of the artist is that he or she is no longer the sole author of a work.

He said: "The emphasis is away from the artist as producer of objects towards the artist being much more an organiser of experience. The original object has disappeared - it is literally virtual. And since it is not a commodity it has no value. All that can be valued is the time in front of it."

The romantic notion of the artist "outside of society" also comes under scrutiny with VR art work. Mr Atherton argues that if we accept that with VR the artist is someone who is engaged in a complex set of negotiations with the audience then the work must have an explicit social dimension.

"It is no longer then the case of the artist, if you like, going to the mountain, toiling away and coming back and it's all there." The implication is that the work is only complete when a viewer has engaged with it.

Mr Atherton, with a background in public art and sculpture, says VR is "a wonderful combination of engineering and technology", representing a convergence of a number of mediums prominent this century, including film, video and performance art. But unlike these other mediums, VR offers a highly personalised experience, unless some sort of instant relay is provided from one VR headset to another.

He says: "You can argue that each member of an audience at a cinema watching the same film has a different subjective experience also. But at least they are seeing the same images, going along the same route as it were, at the same time."

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