Research digital skills training 2021
ALTER: Between human and nonhuman – a VR art exhibition
Deborah Lawler-Dormer, Doctoral Candidate, Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries
ALTER poster, Friday 22 april – Saturday 21 May, 2106.
Alter: Between human and nonhuman is a curatorial project that has a component which is a Virtual Reality exhibition. The core curatorial project consisted of a group exhibition featuring selected works by international artists. The physical exhibition was staged at the Gus Fisher Gallery at the University of Auckland in May 2016 and reconfigured as a VR exhibition in collaboration with the Centre for eResearch (CeR) in July 2017.
This exhibition, Alter, foregrounded the works of international artists working within a technoscientific space, teasing out the relations between corporeality and technologies that allow a rethinking of the posthuman. Each artwork was a product of the shifting collaborative process involving artists, engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists and medical practitioners often incorporating the artist’s corporeality as data or characteristics as part of the technoscientific art work.
Alter featured the following artists and their respective artworks: Jane Prophet (UK, USA): Neuro Memento Mori (2015); Nina Sellars (Aus): Scan (2012); Agatha Haines (UK): Drones with Desire (2015); Elena Knox (Aus): Canny (2013) and Comfortable and Alive (2014); Stelarc (AUS): Prosthetic Head (2003) and Deborah Lawler-Dormer and Mark Sagar (NZ): Leah (2016).
Donning a VR headset entails immersion. By choosing the HTC-Vive platform the participant has full body movement and can navigate the space using handheld remotes. The VR environment is both a performative and a computational environment. The participant is still engaging with the particularities of both content and interactivity of each selected art work. Curating, and recreating, virtual spaces for contemporary artworks, that require some form of engagement other than standing and viewing, is a relatively new curatorial challenge and has not been well theorized. This practice-led research project engages with this transdisciplinary provocation.
The requirements for the VR system included:
- users to experience each artwork interactively and explore a virtual engagement with its content and unique experience;
- the art exhibition to be placed within a replicated version of the University of Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery in the same configuration as the physical exhibition staged in 2016;
- to be staged at CeR for examination by external examiners;
- to be accessible to the artists and selected galleries for virtual experience and documentation of artworks and exhibition.
Engaging with CeR for solution
Over the course of several consultative meetings, the CeR team of Nick Young and Bianca Haux, worked alongside the curator. Following this, the curator brought in experts, supervisors and participants, who were drawn from a range of disciplines across the University, including from the Dance Studies Programme, Elam Fine Arts School, School of Psychology and the Centre for Art Studies. Throughout, the CeR staff were thorough and professional in their approach and worked with the curator to ensure an immersive and creative experience for all of the participants. CeR adapted a prototype developed by Werner Ollewagen from the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. CeR took the prototype, built in the gaming engine Unity, and designed additional functionality for each of the artworks in consultation with the curator. The curator provided a range of sources to ensure that the artworks were virtually close to the original artifacts and experience. This included using files supplied by artists from a range of sources and programmes. CeR researched specialized functionalities required for interactivity and contributed unique solutions. This enabled such features as:
- adapting a cellphone interface and accessing an animated sequence of MRI images;
- the ability to pick up objects and view from a variety of angles;
- transferring rapid prototyping data files into Unity;
- rebuilding older interfaces and accessing online databases for real-time conversations with virtual agents;
- transferring interactive generative sound into a virtual triggered project gallery;
- developing an avatar virtual body for user’s virtual engagement in exhibition. This encouraged a range of user experiences from virtual hypnosis, keyboard and cellphone use, standing, lying, floating and talking with a conversational agent;
- enabling listening to audio compositions while interacting with each artwork with limited sound leakage of other displayed works.
Future project aspirations
The project has been displayed for examination and is currently under assessment. It is anticipated that the project will be made available to the participating artists, Gus Fisher Gallery and other selected galleries by the curator in 2018. Alter activates a methodology for curatorial practices relating to transdisciplinary art-science-technology projects that move between physical and virtual experiential approaches.