I’m old enough to remember the first wave of virtual reality hype. In the early 1990s, a dreadlocked techy named Jaron Lanier became its first pop culture evangelist. Before ‘you’ve got mail’ became the decade’s meme, there was Lanier, the ‘Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative,’ a self-styled prophet telling us that the days of real, physical space were numbered. In the future, everyone would be shopping and fucking in the digital ether.
Things haven’t turned out quite how he imagined, but we’re not that far off some of Lanier’s predictions either. While companies like Amazon and Alibaba are hoovering up all corners of the retail market, the likes of Google, Facebook and the porn industry are busily leading us into a brave new world of augmented reality and ‘tele-immersion.’ Video-games are slowly but surely interbreeding with movies, and it feels like the day the two will finally conceive a genuine 21st century lovechild – Grand Theft Auto 7, 8, or 9? – is not so far off.
The state of distraction that Walter Benjamin famously reserved for the way we experience architecture is now our cultural default, and that is being registered by contemporary art. Jordan Wolfson’s virtual reality animation Real Violence (2017) is perhaps the most notorious artwork of its kind in recent years. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, he had visitors put on virtual reality goggles to witness a man, supposedly Wolfson himself, brutally assault another man with a baseball bat. Age restrictions and trigger warnings near the work implied that the artist and the museum both clearly understood that there was no question of adopting a high-minded aesthetic attitude with this work, the kind once deemed necessary, for example, in appreciating Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of gay male sadomasochism.
The assumption, at least initially, was that viewers would, rightly or wrongly, experience Wolfson’s VR world immersively, viscerally and emotionally – in contrast to the cool detachment engendered by confrontation with a Mapplethorpe. This view was at the heart of many other works in the biennial, including Anicka Yi’s captivating 3D film The Flavor Genome (2017). Known for her work with fragrances, here Yi explored the ways in which our senses connect us to the animal and vegetable worlds, and how a sense such as smell blurs the boundaries between species. In different ways, both artists challenge the mind-numbing technoboosterism we are constantly subjected to today (even though Wolfson can be rightly criticized for creating what is, at least to my mind, a piece of violence porn). The third dimension in these works is the implication of the viewers in the subjects they explore.
Other artists too have been as circumspect as Yi in handling the spectacular potential of 3D digital technology. John Gerrard’s X. Leavis (Spacelab) (2017), for example, depicts a frog frozen in mid-air in a laboratory from the point of view of a camera that follows, by means of an algorithm, a never-repeating path through its virtual space, allowing us to see the frog from an always different perspective. The work effectively inverts the way that people normally think about virtual space: as one that is meant to be entered and lived in and a substitute for real space. His slowly circling camera forcefully foregrounds the act of viewing and highlights the artifice of the 3D environment, allowing us to take critical measure of both its realism and highlights the surfacey, 2D truth of the 3D environment.
This September, Omer Fast will present his 3D film August (2016) at James Cohan gallery in New York. First exhibited last winter as part of a retrospective of Fast’s films at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, the work hauntingly examines the life and fate of the famed German photographer August Sander, known for iconic images such as the 1928 Bricklayer or the 1914 Young Farmers. Fast recreates the act of Sander taking the latter image allowing us to experience its moment as a three-dimensional event. He also invents a Nazi officer who complements Sander on his ability to maintain an Olympian distance from the world he captures through his camera. (Though Sander lost his own son to the Gestapo, throughout his life he avoided political associations in his photography.) In filming the photographer in action in 3D, Fast deploys the technology as a metaphor for the thickness and complexity of reality that offers an astute and critically dimensional portrait of Sander in history.
These subtle uses of 3D can also be seen against the backdrop of Luc Besson’s current film Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a neo-retro homage to the sci-fi of yesteryear. A failed blockbuster that may well become a cult classic, like his 1997 The Fifth Element, Valerian is a maximalist experiment in 3D technology and a mishmash of anything and everything you can imagine in any dimension, including serving as a vehicle for star turns by likes of Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien and Ethan Hawke as a fast-talking pimp.
In fact, it is tempting to argue that Valerian is a defining work for the 3D film genre in that it sets the bar for the liquid shapelessness and spacelessness of the virtual as such. It begins with the crispy landscape of an Avatar-like paradise planet and innocent tribe of beings rendered entirely digitally. It then goes on to recount an allegory of fall and redemption from this Eden-land, using a mix of traditional film and digital animation in which characters can move between virtual dimensions, using space as an infinitely malleable medium. However wooden the acting of Cara Delevingne and her co-star Dane Dehaan and one-dimensional the storyline might be – not even worth wasting space on – from our perspective in 2017, Besson achieves real insight in grasping that the power of 3D technology lies less in its creative environments and more in the ways in which the real and the virtual interface, mirroring a reality already present today. Characters literally put their arms into machines that allow them to move through space somewhere else much as a pilot can fly a drone thousands or miles away to launch an attack, as Fast examined, for instance, in his 2011 video Five Thousand Feet is the Best.
The distinction here is subtle but important: what we might call a ‘classical’ virtual reality model – combined with Besson’s over-the-top encyclopedic and loving parody of sci-fi gives plenty of food for thought since his characters operate technical implements much as we do. His baroque-shlock rendering turns out to offer an image true to our world here and now. And that, whatever else you might call it, is a realism worth the distracting packaging it comes in.
Main image: Luc Besson, Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets, 2017, 3D film still. Courtesy: EuropaCorp/Lionsgate
Saul Anton writes about contemporary art and culture for many publications. He is former senior editor at BOMB Magazine and the author of Warhol’s Dream (2007) and Lee Friedlander: The Little Screens (2015). He teaches at the Pratt Institute, New York.