Immersion : « virtually present, physically invisible »
Barefoot in the sand, in the dark, you are slightly away from the group. You remain motionless to avoid the US Patrols’ light beam. Until now you had never been in such a strain facing armed men in the middle of the desert. The night is getting darker, and you understand that it’s over. You remove your virtual reality headset. For six minutes, you found yourself in the shœs of a South American migrant trying to cross the border into the United States. You have just experienced Carne y arena (Flesh and sand) by Alejandro Iñarritu and Emmanuel Lubezky, an Oscar-winning work for Special Achievement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the first VR work presented at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. (1)
Subtitled « virtually present, physically invisible » , the work tends to unveil the reality of migrants’ condition. It shares the experiences of people forced into exile and the terror of their situation. It is based on interviews conducted by Iñarritu with a dozen Latin American immigrants who survived the border crossing. They tell their experiences in a video that the visitor sees after the VR experience of the border.
You are now putting on another virtual reality headset.
There, you find yourself immersed in the time of a Hawaii sunk underwater, in search of a bird that disappeared in 1987, the Kaua’i. A voice tells you the changes of depth and dates related to the island’s history : you understand that you are entering the abyss of a bygone time. You slip into the smooth landscape of the tropical forest, whose aesthetics is similar to that of a video game. Suddenly you hear the song of the Kaua’i and see a calligraphic trace appear weightless in the atmosphere : it is the song’s intensity visually translated into an ephemeral sculpture; you turn around it and see it vanish. You are in Re-animated (2019), a fifteen minutes VR work by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, presented at the Rencontres photographiques d’Arles 2019.
The artist has worked with a multitude of indigenous documents and objects, some of which stored in the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. In order to reconstruct the Hawaiian landscape, he gathered elements of the island’s flora and fauna and scanned them in 3D.
Produced by composer Michael Riesman
, the algorithmic music that accompanies virtual reality is generated in real time, plants and insects follow its pulsations. The breath and voice of each visitor impacts the virtual atmosphere, the experience is different for everyone.
A new type of documentary to awaken engagement
Carne y arena and Re-animated are works engaged in political and ecological issues. The artists explore virtual reality to awaken these problems in an almost visceral way.
Carne y arena plays on the experience’s sensation and emotion to give an intimate understanding what it means to be a migrant. Alejandro Iñarritu’s aim is to make this condition concrete for those who are far from it and to reveal the political problems and impasses linked to migration as the phenomenon will increase in the coming years, not only because of wars and totalitarian regimes, but also because of climate change. By physically involving yourself in current hot issues, the work presents itself as a new type of documentary in which you are no longer just an observer or spectator in the traditional sense, but a « participant » who experiences physiologically the scene without either being an actor.
The realistic and smooth aesthetics of Re-animated ’s sunken rainforest questions your relationship to the environment : will virtual reality soon be the only way to experience the songs of birds that are now endangered? Will it become the only way to experience such threatened pristine areas? The ultimate memory of sunken landscapes? The Kaua’i’s virtual song resonates in the sunken rainforest, putting contemporary ecological emergencies into perspective.
Prospects for the future
By making you evolve in a controlled environment with latitude of movements and actions, such virtual reality works resonate with the way you behave in a real environment; they reflect you back to your present conditions of existence, pushing you to act in the real world.
Physiology and psychology of experience are key elements in virtual reality and will be essential for its future development. Within a few years, virtual reality could develop in tandem with artificial intelligence to create works that will adapt to each individual.
(1) Since then, it was exhibited at the Fondation Prada in Milan, at the LACMA in Los Angeles, at the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center in Mexico City.