Acute Art: Virtual Reality in Art

Perhaps it has been discussed for too long, but I have to say that the discourse on immersive art is stagnating. On the one hand, there are its advocates, for whom immersion means finally tearing down the wall between high art and its devout observers. They see it as progress that art no longer becomes unapproachable, but can finally be experienced; that one can participate in it and that it is thus accessible to more people than just a small intellectual elite. On the other hand, there are its critics. For them, art can never be just an illusion, and if it is, then it must behave enlightened-critically. They praise the distance between viewer and work of art, for it is a testimony to “reflection”. In addition, this distance distinguishes artworks from other images or films in our culture in which immersion plays a major role. Since one dives into virtual reality – to use a common linguistic image – and no longer stands contemplatively in front of it, the critics result: Immersive art is not art. A popular answer to this question is again: it has long since ceased to matter whether something is art or not. End of discussion. Perhaps it’s not the discourse that leads us out of the theoretical impasse, but the art itself!

Since 2017 there has been the free App Acute Art, for which Daniel Birnbaum is said to have relinquished his position as director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm as of 2019. Acute Art wants to be a “curatorial laboratory” that makes digital artworks accessible to a broad public. My expectations of the new app are correspondingly high: who should be able to conjure up more exciting, surprising worlds than artists*?

I would like to try out Acute Art with my VRcardboard – admittedly not exactly VR glasses at a high technical level. Nine VR artworks are listed, five of them accessible, the others only announced. The most recent and certainly most prominent work comes from Marina Abramović and is called Rising. But this is only an additional clip to an own Augmented Reality App with the same name, which is also published by Acute Art. The AR app, which is a kind of game, is about saving the artist, who is standing in a glass box with rising water levels, from drowning. With the life-threatening increase in water, Abramovic wants to metaphorically point out the effects of climate change.

In order to lower the water level in the glass box, actions such as “Reduce the waste I create” or “Conserve energy and water” can be carried out. If this function is activated by touch, a “Thank you for saving the planet!” appears on the display. Wow, I think this is easier and faster than buying fair trade products. In the tab “Save Marina” you can get Abramović via Augmented Reality into your living room and watch them. But not much happens. So I switch to Acute Art App and start the stream, put my iPhone X into the VRcardboard and stand in the dark. In the distance there are lights to see, then a text is faded in. It starts with “The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 °F since the late 19th century.” So he introduces the theme.

Then a gate opens, Abramović appears in a glass box filled with water

The VR glasses are bad, everything remains blurred and pixelated. Therefore, if you don’t have VERY good VR glasses, I recommend to simply watch the clip on the smartphone display. But even then it’s boring – compared to what I had hoped for from Virtual Reality (total immersion) and what’s already being done in other areas – cinema or games – much more virtuously. In addition, measured by the effect that Risingbesitzen would have, Marina Abramović would actually be in a glass cube and I would have influence on the water level. But then it would no longer be about climate change.

Water is also the theme of the work Aquaphobia by the Danish artist Jakob Steensen. Although you can see at first glance that VR effects have been used much more intensively here, you can’t experience them in acceptable quality. And although there is a sound, it always breaks off at the same point on my mobile phone. On the net you could read that Aquaphobia is an impressive performance on a technical and conceptual level. The viewer would be able to navigate through five different environments that are seamlessl connected.

The “goal” of the VR project is to overcome the fear of water, hence the title

In an interview, Steensen revealed that his work was even inspired by psychological studies on the treatment of aquaphobia. This “treatment method” does not seem to be applied, which is quite conceivable, since virtual reality is now being used in many places – to overcome trauma or to fight fear of flying.

What can I see behind VR glasses? First the gloomy, futuristic replica of Louis Valentino Jr. Park in Brooklyn. A patterned stag runs past in the direction of the water, above which floats an extraterrestrial-looking aquatic ball, which approaches me (but does not frighten me), loses its shape and envelops the landscape in its green water, but then withdraws again and takes on the spherical shape again. This process is repeated a second time, then the clip ends. If you have the opportunity to see Steensen’s work completely and in good quality, it is probably one of the more interesting works in the field of VR art.

Less interesting is the work of Christo & Jeanne-Claudes – “The London Mastaba”

I start the stream, put my iPhone X into the VRcardboard and float somewhere diffusely over the Serpentine Lake in London. You can have a look around, but the camera movement is preset. The VR glasses are bad, everything remains out of focus and pixelated in places; not only the slow camera movement, but also what I see is unspectacular: a sculpture made of stacked barrels. The “eye-catcher of the summer”, as it was called in many places, is not only in virtual reality, but also actually in London. The trapezoidal sculpture is 30 meters high, 40 meters long, consists of more than 7,500 colorful barrels, and was created for an exhibition in London’s Serpentine Gallery. The Virtual Reality project is only a petty second use here. Even though it may be accessible for longer than the sculpture dismantled on September 23, the VR version of “The London Mastaba” really doesn’t have to be understood as an independent work of art.

It is a very nice, but very tedious mediation of the actual installation. The fact that the work was formally modeled on ancient Egyptian tombs was certainly noticeable on site – but in the digital state of suspension it cannot be experienced.
So these works of art really don’t lead us out of a dead end. On the contrary, they are neither good art nor good entertainment. It almost seems as if advocates and critics of immersive art are angels and devils; they sit on the shoulders of the artists and try to influence them in their approach. And because they are so incompatible; the demands on art have always been completely different from those on a blockbuster or a good game, the works remain a blunt compromise. This art has no clout. It doesn’t manage to sacrifice one for the other and is therefore passionless and irrelevant. Some of them, such as “The London Mastaba,” are just a bland copy, a recycled product, of the actual installation. The makers of Acute Art don’t seem to take their project seriously at the moment. So it remains to be seen how the app develops.