Visual Arts Review: Virtual Reality Art — Not Ready for Prime Time

Worse, humor and irony have no place in this show’s version of virtual reality.

A glimpse of

A glimpse of “DiMoDA 2.0: Morphe Presence” at RISDI Museum.

By Mary Paula Hunter

Ironically, samples of the art of virtual reality are currently hidden away in a corner somewhere on the first floor of the RISD Museum (The museum is  reconstructing its European galleries, which makes the already disjointed blend of shows in the old and new buildings even more confusing than usual to navigate.) Not only is the exhibition difficult to locate, but the digital mini-display, produced by The Digital Museum of Digital Art, wasn’t even fully functional during my two visits. Somehow this breakdown seemed fitting for a show that’s so dependent on technology. The apologetic techie fixed the problem during my second visit; in truth, his presence proved a nice contrast to the screens and wires.

The show is entitled DiMoDA 2.0: Morphe Presence (through May 14) and features the work of four artists: Miyo Van Senis, Theoklitos, Triantafyllidis, Brenna Murphy, and Rosa Menkman. Segments of illuminated text describe the artists’ intentions, but the continual flow of the images on screens makes it difficult to identify individual contributions. Perhaps segmenting each artist’s work would have given the experience some much needed coherence. As it is, it’s difficult to make much sense of a science fiction-like fantasy that is neither strictly narrative nor totally abstract. Elements of classical architecture, detached eyeballs, astroids, and shapes of all kinds float by — the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink gathering lacks the dream-like vision of surreality. Outer space comes off as an ominous backdrop for a kaleidoscope of abstract shapes.

Worse, humor and irony have no place in this version of virtual reality. Instead, we are treated to earnest tours through the kind of ‘new’ mythologies one associates with the world of video games. A paranoid fear of surveillance, examples of the human susceptibility to manipulation by insidious powers, and a general anxiety that, sooner or later,  the real and the unreal will be interchangable. Even when experiencing the work three dimensionally (head and hand sets are provided for a 3-D experience). One senses an ominous if clichéd presence: Technology as Big Brother.

The conceptual weaknesses would be less debilitating if the images reflected the eccentricity of an original voice. This time around you are struck by the obvious limitations of technology as an artistic tool. There are moments of beauty, but they seem to have been lifted from a conventional folder of visual possibilities. There are two exceptions:  an exhilarating tour of a throat (or perhaps an intestine?). This ‘you-are-there’ voyage through a medical procedure is nicely tweaked with signage and a boardwalk. Another engaging section: a montage of black and white images that serve as a welcome respite from the glare of computer-generated color.

The Digital Museum of Digital Art is the brainchild of artists William Robertson and Alfredo Salazar-Cara. Video gamers and aficionados of technology are free to disagree, but this installation isn’t doing much for the cause of establishing virtual reality as an art form — it is not ready for prime time.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces.

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