26 Apr Specialist Jon Cartu Announces – Incubation lab arms artists with VR gear and asks: What if?
We are inside Keith Tolch’s brain. As in, walking around.
It’s a futuristic landscape, a maze of empty rooms with soaring ceilings and glowing, neon-lit floors, everything bathed in an ‘80s-era palette of screaming-pink, orange and lime green. Random objects — a deconstructed 1967 Mustang, glass cubes brimming with swirly paint markings, delicate pencil drawings of butterflies and roosters — float by.
But, wait. Disrobed of the plastic, padded headset, we are actually in a gleaming Eagle Rock warehouse, a former auto body repair shop-turned-artists’ studio, and Tolch is perched behind a computer console, beaming.
His piece, “Glass Bottom Brain,” is an interactive, virtual reality artwork — meaning viewers don a high-resolution headset and descend into an immersive, 3-D digital environment in which they can navigate through bits and pieces of Tolch’s subconscious. He created the piece with expensive state-of-the-art computer equipment, but Tolch didn’t invest a cent. The project was paid for, organized by and later exhibited by Art Reality Studio, a nonprofit organization that’s outfitting contemporary artists with VR technology toward pushing creative boundaries. It sees itself as an incubation lab for cutting-edge creativity and asks the question: “What if?”
“What happens when artists are given cutting-edge technology, no strings attached?,” says ARS co-founder Frank Masi. “We wanna see how far they’ll take it.”
The organization, which formed about 2½ years ago, is a later-in-life project from Masi, a 77-year-old photographer and retired theme park attraction project director and Brent Imai, a 61-year-old former sports television executive and entrepreneur.
“Technology is such an important part of society,” says Imai. “It can be really, really good, it can be really, really bad. We thought: ‘Let’s have artists weigh in on that discussion.’”
Virtual reality technology has been around for decades and frequently pops up in video games, at theme parks and in other “experiential entertainment,” often located at malls. Fine artists have been slower to adopt the technology, which is expensive and can be daunting to learn how to use for those who aren’t computer-savvy. But that’s started to change.
Artists Paul McCarthy, Jordan Wolfson and Jon Rafman showed VR works in the 2017 Venice Biennale, 2017 Whitney Biennial and 2016 Berlin Biennale, respectively; Laurie Anderson and Taiwanese new media artist Hsin-Chien Huang showed new VR installations during the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Heat around VR has caught on in the museum world: former Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum left his job at the Stockholm institution last year to head up the London-based art and tech studio Acute Art, which has created VR works with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic. Even in the public art realm, L.A. artist Nancy Baker Cahill displayed VR works on digital billboards along Sunset Boulevard in 2018.
And during the coronavirus outbreak, as culture hubs are shuttered and hungry art lovers shelter at home, virtual reality art-viewing at museums — and art-buying at galleries — has taken off.
Virtual reality, however, is still a mystery to much of the contemporary art establishment and there’s still a slew of unanswered questions about how to exhibit, collect and monetize VR art. Is there a collecting market for it? How do you price the works? How would collectors display VR works in their homes? Are the works originals or part of a limited edition? What’s to prevent someone from reproducing or reselling a work made with software and code as opposed to paint and canvas? And, finally: What makes it art as opposed to computer programming?
LACMA curator Britt Salvesen, who organized the museum’s “3D: Double Vision” exhibition last year, questions the longevity of VR artworks: “How do you preserve, refresh and sustain such works when the hardware and software is inevitably always changing? And if you bought a VR work now, would you be able to watch it in 2025 — would the systems still work?”
Masi and Imai hope, if not to answer all of these questions, then to wade around in them for a while. The two met about four years ago at a Los Angeles County Museum of Art patron group event before hatching the idea for ARS. Their business model is not unlike that of the L.A.-based artists’ workshop and fine art lithography publisher Gemini G.E.L., which beginning in the 1960s and ’70s facilitated experimentation among artists, exhibited and sold their work and helped fuel a nationwide printmaking revival in the process.
Instead of ink, paper and steel presses, however, ARS provides artists with VR “rigs” — high-end computers outfitted with VR software, display monitors, headsets, wall sensors and remotes — which run about $10,000 apiece. And ARS — which hasn’t sold anything yet and is funded by Masi and Imai (but for one equipment donation valuing $5,000) — says it doesn’t intend to take a cut of sales of the works, which are creator-owned.
“It’s really a philanthropic thing for us,” Imai says. “I gave a little bit of money to [local museums] but I realized: They don’t really need my little money, I’m not Eli Broad that can really make a…