As the big platforms continue to promote certain content (games) and favor certain kinds of stories, we see a real need to continue to make boundary-defying works that might be considered controversial. VR is such a powerful storytelling medium, that beyond “diversity” as a code word, it is critical that different kinds of stories are supported and promoted. Why is VR so powerful?
I am going to argue that there are two key aspects which make it an especially powerful medium for storytelling–both of which relate to the concept of presence as put forth by Riva, et al, based on Antonio Damasio’s neuroscientific theories.
- It is a spatial medium so the language of VR will be spatial (a language drawn from dance, installation and sound art, theater and performnce art, architecture, 3D video games, also film, which offers the illusion of 3D space and movement through the camera’s eye.
- It invites procedural storytelling and alternative forms of logic and physics including our relationship to objects in space.
I’m going to give a quick art history lesson because it important that to understand that seeing and moving through space is something that we are taught to do in a certain fashion, so much so that it seems natural, but it isn’t.
The discovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance defines for us what “reality” is supposed to be. Although we take this perspective to be natural , it is, in fact, a mathematical abstraction of how we humans see. Linear perspective posits an infinite and homogeneous space that makes objects relate to each other through their position alone. (Panofsky) If you think about it, this is really a negation of psychophysiological space. Humans can’t see or even conceive of infinite space, moreover, how we perceive a space depends not only on the kinds of objects in that space, that is to say what we attend to and ascribe importance to, but also how we move through that space.
Interestingly, pre-Renaissance, the Greeks understood that retinal images are spherical not linear so you get something like this. I mean look at this—this is a really complicated space. And, I don’t know who this person is, but based on the size (look they are so big they have to kind of bend their neck to not hit the ceiling) I am going to predict that this person is more important than this other person.
Now, skip ahead a couple centuries—and guess what —we have a kind amalgamation of these two perspectives. Because whereas Renaissance perspective assumed that we see with a single and immobile eye, in VR today we have a move towards stereoscopic images and also the ability to look if not move in 360 degrees.
But, even today, the de facto reality that you find in say Unity game engine is organized according to a linear perspective. Nevertheless, VR makes apparent the role of the mobile body in determining visibility and invisibility—what is seen and what is not seen..
As Sarah Ahmed notes: how we move through space is incredibly important. To me, this speaks not only to how I think about my own work in VR but also the power of VR to change how we think of and construct reality. Unfortunately, graphic “realism” has become a goal in much VR. Not only, is this bound to be unsatisfactory (it will never be as good as the gold standard, which is reality). Moreover, it overlooks the true power of VR as a tool that reveals how we construct reality, as well as the ways we might construct reality differently.
So moving through an environment, what kinds of information do we generally privilege as humans? Riva’s theories point to this. But, the answers were actually suggested by French philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the last century. He suggests that what we perceive is a universe of images—sound-images, touch-images, smell images, etc. and that our consciousness privileges those that relate to the body and to memory.
For me, those are two touchstones for creating interactive narratives in VR. I understand that bodies are messy and, for many people in tech, it is just this possible escape from that messiness that appeals, but, as a working physician, not only do I think that is preposterous on many levels, it is a dangerous magical thinking. More than anyone I can think of working in VR right now, our work is about exploring this tension between material embodied reality and the desire to transcend it.
So, part of the Queerskins: ARK project, is a collaboration with Loise Braganza, a Mumbai based textile artist and fashion designer, with whom I worked to create “queer skins” –20 unique garments for our Queerskins: ARK installation that was to happen in conjunction with a physical installation. The idea behind this was to create soft machines, which would create an opportunity for potential wearers to viscerally consider their relationship to gender, sexuality, taste and physical body size/form, and to create novel forms of intimacy and connection with the storyworld/art and with each other. Since Covid- we have pivoted to a photography series, some of which you will be able to see at our installation in VRChat for the Venice International Film Festival VR Expanded exhibition. Here are just a few from Loise Braganza’s photo shoot with Shruti Viswan. This dialogue between our embodied existence and transcendence through technology and storytelling is what needs to happen now. We know this is pushing not only buttons, but also boundaries of art-making and storytelling with VR. Some of these photos will appear in our virtual installation that we are creating for The Venice International Film Festival exhibition. This will be an explorable, expanding “home” for Queerskins. We also see it as a stage for creating live virtual performances.