Immersive Art | Growth or Gimmick?

Immersive Art | Growth or Gimmick?

Caragh Medlicott contemplates the rise of immersive art – around the world and now in Wales – asking whether the medium represents a tip into gimmickry, or the organic growth of the visual arts sector.

Immersive art is having a moment. Today, a trip to your local gallery might not consist merely of looking at art, but entering into it. As virtual reality (VR) tech has exploded so, it seems, have the tools with which an artist might create. Yet, the most popular installations are not original works, but the digitised rehashings of famed masterpieces. Peruse a few of the latest offerings and you’ll find marketing which is at best reductionist and, at worst, sacrilege. Klimt becomes little more than an immersive gold “colour palette” – Monet, a cascade of virtual petals and swaying water lilies. 

The most popular of all, perhaps, is The Van Gogh Experience: starry swirls of zinc yellow and indigo blue panoramically projected into a viewing room where attendees can then snap pics and post them on social media. It’s a new kind of meta; a simulacrum trifle with layers refracting through and across devices. Sort of like those photos of the Mona Lisa caught in a million smartphone viewfinders, but if the Mona Lisa itself was also a digital copy. That the immersive format has become affiliated with gimmickry, (the aforementioned exhibitions are pretty pricey), is undeniable, but can the entire medium really be tarnished with the same old analogue brush? 

It’s a debate which may become a deep dividing line in years to come, and not just in the visual arts. No one wants to be the stuffy naysayer standing cross-armed in the path of modernity – nor the champion of a sherbet-hit arts culture, one diluted by fissile attention spans and the premasticated narratives of monolith studios. Developing alongside VR is artificial intelligence (AI), and together both are pushing art into a murky, existential realm. Indeed, if the twentieth century saw the death of the author, the twenty-first century might annihilate the artist altogether; AI is already producing works of art sold at auction, and even dipping its toes into the world of poetry. Still, the jury is still out on whether an AI can truly produce capital A art.

After all, is art not the remit of the soul? Something transcendent of the physical realm – the channelling of a higher plane? If so, new research suggests that plane might be best reached via a VR headset… so there’s a spanner in the works. Another school of thought says that art is in our bones, the ribbon strands of our DNA, a quota set by our own evolutionary-specific biology. Which is fine and dandy until you consider the increasing number of thinkers attaching themselves to the simulation hypothesis (have fun down that rabbit hole), rendering us more matrix than matter. Not even plain old sentience is safe! Well, at least according to some people, with one Google engineer making headlines last month after claiming the chatbot he’d been working on had become self-aware. In other words: slice all you want, the hydra heads just keep on coming. And what do we do when we can’t think our way out of a problem? Well, make art about it. Usually. 

A few weeks ago, a different type of immersive art went viral. Known as ‘infinite illustrations’, these artworks – accessed via devices – offer boundless depth by allowing a user to continually zoom into an image and find multiple scenes within its frame. In the viral piece by artist Vaskange, what begins with a depiction of an artist’s studio moves through a variety of scenes: a train journey, a hiking trip, a sunset view, an underwater cove. Truly, it has to be seen to be conceived. This artwork uses vectors opposed to pixels allowing for theoretical infinite depth without pixelation. Vector art is rising in popularity, and these infinite illustrations offer new scope for narrativized artworks – snapshots of static worlds which one might disappear into. 

It’s not hard to see where the instinct to use this tech upon existing works comes from. Imagine Boticelli’s Divine Comedy illustrations in this format, his map of hell featuring a literal and panoramic journey through each layer of the afterlife. It raises the question of how much of art’s beauty is sourced in its constraints – would the Divine Comedy be as masterful had Dante not written in terza rima? Are the limits of physical materials what make the visual arts beautiful? And yet, it hardly seems within the artistic spirit to limit the tools with which a person might paint. After all, technological expansion has always allowed for new artistic mediums, and just as the introduction of film didn’t render theatre redundant, immersive art can surely be categorised broadly as expansion, not annihilation. In the end, video didn’t kill the radio star, anyway. 

The bigger problem, perhaps, is that immersive art is in its infancy. In its current form, immersive art is split between the populist and the public. Giant site-specific exhibitions are more tourist attractions than artistic installations – and they carry the price tag to go along with it – and yet, the original artists who are working in this area are producing works which cannot be sold at auction and hung in the living room of a millionaire. They are, by their nature, intended to exist within the public domain. To quote digital artist Kate Sharkey, much of immersive art is little more than a “screensaver come to life” yet at its best it has the potential to “transport you to another dimension”. The medium might be the message, but as of right now that medium is more than a little shaky. 

In Wales, immersive art is undergoing its own development. The Rainforest Symphony, a recent project from Cheryl Beer, featured music created via sensitive biomedical sound equipment used to produce the ‘song’ of the ancient trees of Wales. The project – which challenges the idea that sound is a “hearing-only experience” through the use of vibration, light, sight and touch – came about after Beer, who is hearing impaired, realised hearing aid technology could be applied in innovative, new ways. Far from the money-spinning activities of the studios reanimating impressionist artwork, Beer’s project encapsulates the power of new technology to be used in novel ways – as well as the power of immersive art to improve accessibility and engage numerous senses.

At the end of August, Wales Millennium Centre will officially open ‘Bocs’, Wales’ first immersive art space. While its pitch proliferates with various realities – “augmented” “mixed” “virtual” – it’s a move which will at the very least attract public attention. Approached correctly, Wales may have a unique opportunity to bring depth to the field of immersive art, to find the line which separates it from entertainment. If art is ultimately about emotion, immersive art – to earn its name – must push beyond spectacle. When its impact is right, its biggest selling point will no longer be how it looks on your Instagram feed.