Virtual reality art offers new artistic expression

Author:GU YAQI Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2022-09-26

Virtual reality art creates a virtual world with various emerging technologies as its medium. It is a subversive change to traditional art forms. Virtual art is a new genre driven by technology. The premise of understanding this form of art is to decipher the logic generation of virtual reality technology, which is composed of a set of technical modules that cooperate with each other, including optical displays, eye tracking, motion capture, spatial positioning, situation simulation, and so on. These modules connect and cooperate with each other, constructing a truly virtual situation, an immersive perceptual interaction, a virtual augmented reality, and beyond.

As early as the era of “mechanical reproduction” proposed by German philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist Walter Benjamin, technology had already been in subtle interaction with art forms such as photography and painting, and with the evolution of scientific and technological progress, the integration of new technology and art has become even more intense. In the current digital technology context, the boundary between art and technology is no longer clear, and the interaction and integration of techniques has become the norm.

However, virtual reality art notably cannot be simplified as a mere superposition of art and technology. It is an enhanced relationship between art ontology and digital technology in a virtual dimension, and such a deep interaction helps virtual reality art establish an independent narrative process and symbol system. So, as a new independent art form, how should we perceive and comprehend virtual reality art?

What is true

Virtual reality art overturns the concept “seeing is believing.” Under the combined effect of technology and equipment, people realize that what they see with their eyes might not be true. As French sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard put it, technology, especially digital media, continues to shape our ability to understand the world, blurring the line between what is real and what is virtual or superficial. The discussion of the “true or false” nature of reality in virtual art has never stopped. Is it a virtual reflection of objective reality? Or a reconstruction of reality with the help of technology?

From temporal and spatial dimensions, virtual reality art constructs something different from our objective existence. Viewers of virtual reality art works are in three overlapping space-time moments at the same time, namely: objective reality, the art works themselves, and the virtual world. While virtual reality art works have deviated from objective reality, there are inextricable links between the physical and the virtual world. Art viewers are in an interactive parallel space and time, where the narrative logic of virtual reality technology is dominant. To be specific, virtual reality is constructed by the creator, so it has clear creativity, purpose, and value-orientation. In essence, virtual reality art works are not intended to restore the “absolute” objective reality in a virtual way, but to construct a new form of art under a virtual framework with technology as the medium.

Compared with traditional art, the biggest feature of virtual reality art is its immersive nature. Different from a traditional viewing, the audience can interact with the environment using their whole body, and truly “step into” the scenario and the virtual world. In order to achieve this effect, virtual reality art creators need to build a narrative model with the help of digital tools such as simulation, sensors, and graphics, so that the viewers can gain a “feeling of realism.” In this holographic art field, viewers can feel the connection between reality and virtuality by means of sensory input. However, it’s worth noting that no matter how close the narrative mode and narrative logic are to reality, the viewers are, in fact, communicating with the creator in a virtual world.

We can say that the virtual reality constructed by the creator is essentially a simulated presentation of objective reality, and this virtual reality must originate from objective reality. Though virtual reality art can transcend the category of physical objects and continuously expand the definition of artistic reality, this reality is not false, leading eventually to “hyperreality” as proposed by Baudrillard. Therefore, in terms of constructing reality, virtual reality art, especially interactive virtual reality art, redefines reality’s boundaries, drawing users not only to appreciate their art, but also become participants and creators.

Emotional connection

The premise of virtual reality art is human participation. The audience interacts with the virtual scene with the help of VR equipment and body displacement. A virtual reality system is a comprehensive medium built on the basis of computer science. It is a tool that gathers many modern advanced technologies and wisdom and now it is a powerful “dream-making machine.” The art works produced by this “machine” at the present stage rely on the viewer’s many senses, such as vision, hearing, and touch. It involves computer graphics technology, computer simulation technology, sensing technology, and so on. The precondition for the operation of these complex technologies is participation, from both creators and viewers. The creator of virtual reality art is different from a traditional artist, somewhat playing the role of a film director. The creator breaks existing rules and applies his own creative thinking to these devices, connecting people’s thoughts and emotions with a whole support system, and realizing the interaction of creativity, thinking, and art.

Is virtual reality art a cold dream-making device or an art with emotional value? German sociologist and cultural theorist Andreas Lekowitz once compared late modern media to the information machine in The Society of Singularities, and wrote that this machine is a narrative machine with great emotional power.

In 2020, the joint technical team from South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Corp used virtual reality technology to reunite a mother with her deceased daughter, and filmed the whole process as a documentary “Meeting You.” The mother realized the “dialogue” with her deceased daughter through a virtual reality headset, which strengthened the mother’s consciousness and realized the rational presence of her daughter. The virtual reality device here was not just a dream-making machine, but also a demonstration of the power of emotion.

Compared with other art forms, virtual reality art is not only an immersive experience for human senses, but also strengthens immersion in human emotions. Virtual reality brings deep immersion and realistic presence to viewers. The subject in a virtual scene can avoid interference from the surrounding environment and be completely devoted to the virtual reality art scene. The most direct evidence of this deep emotional immersion and connection is the visceral psychological fear that occurs when immersed viewers are faced with a threatening setting in a virtual scenario. This also shows that virtual reality art goes beyond serving as a cold machine or device, and steps further into the emotions of creators and participants.

Media spectacle

In recent years, with the inflow of commercial capital, the development of virtual reality technology and related products have attracted wide social attention. Virtual reality art, a new art form, gained popularity with the public as experiential consumption began to rise. As a new landscape in consumer culture, whether virtual reality art satisfies curiosity, or expands the artistic category, requires our further discussion.

Douglas Kellner, an American scholar of media and film, put forward the concept of a “media spectacle.” He believes that capitalist society has entered a new stage, where technology, capital, and information have combined to create a large number of spectacles. The “media spectacle” is used to capture the public’s interest from all aspects of daily life, and Kellner reflects on the threat that technological progress may bring to society. The current application of virtual reality art is indeed in line with the characteristics of a “media spectacle,” and many viewers regard it as an experiential consumption. So what about the effect of this “spectacle” as an art form?

As a new art form, virtual reality art cannot be separated from the stipulation of art in essence. In other words, the use of all technical means and the construction of a symbolic system should serve the expression of “the true, the good, and the beautiful.” Truly valuable works of art should not rely on gimmicks to attract attention, but finally return to the standard of art and humanity. If virtual reality art only pursues the spectacle effect catalyzed by capital, it is bound to lose its “soul” under the misuse of technology, which will restrict the long-term development of this art form.

As a result, for creators, at least two points should be followed. On the one hand, the production of art is a creative activity with clear purpose, which is consistent with the production of virtual reality scenarios. Different from other art forms, the creation process of virtual reality art is the construction process of a virtual scene. The creation of virtual reality art will be determined by the rational arrangement of the scene, based on the value regulation and ethical logic of objective reality. On the other hand, we must stress the subject value of human beings and the guidance of humanistic care, thus realizing the natural immersion of human beings in virtual interactions, which is also the internal requirement of returning to the essence of art and expanding the function of art.

Any new art form will have to go through the process of budding, growing to independence, and reaching maturity. It is clear that the virtual reality art born today is a highly representative art form of human society as a whole in the digital age. It is foreseeable that as virtual reality technology upgrades, virtual reality art will be in a state of vigorous development for a long time, which also determines that research on virtual reality art is dynamic. In particular, the development of virtual reality art will foster a large number of research issues, such as technical ethics, virtual reality and its relationship with art, art history writing, and so on, the answer to which will not only deepen our understanding of virtual reality art, but also will bring about a new cognitive revolution of art.


Gu Yaqi is a professor from the School of Arts at Renmin University of China.


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