Art comes to life in virtual reality when three renowned contemporary artists — Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic and Olafur Eliasson — explore tech-driven art.
Art is a conduit to bring cultures and ideas together, to cross-pollinate and offer new perspectives. Three of the world’s leading contemporary artists — Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic and Olafur Eliasson — collaborated with Acute Art, the first virtual reality (VR) arts platform, to develop the relationship between human expression and technology.
The wider mission of Acute Art is to bridge art — as it’s known in the physical world — into the new, disruptive realm of VR, bringing technology-driven art to a new level in immersive experiences.
VR provides an unparalleled canvas for storytelling, allowing people to explore beyond their physical limitations. Koons, Abramonvic and Eliasson shared their unique approaches to working in the developing VR medium at the Symposium Stockholm’s Brilliant Minds conference in Sweden.
As the most immersive technology to date, VR has the ability to provide new depths of connection, experiences and information. However, technology — particularly VR — also has the capacity to isolate. The artist explored all of these aspects and more.
Virtual Reality as Shared Reality
When Eliasson first shared his VR creation with his 11-year-old and 13-year-old children, their initial question was: “Could we go in together?”
“I think the industry is fast to respond to this collective desire. I hope to use VR to bring people together,” said Eliasson.
Eliasson, a Danish-Icelandic artist known for sculptures and large-scale installations, works with ephemeral materials such as light, water and air to create his art.
“At first I was afraid of it [virtual reality] being escapism, and I could see how it could become isolating,” Eliasson said.
“At the same time, I think one of the drivers is focusing on what is the ethical and moral compass of culture, and how can we contribute to that from where we [as artists] stand?”
Eliasson’s VR piece “Rainbow” recreates the beauty and mystery of encountering a rainbow through a digital process. The virtual rainbow mimics the real experience in nature, only appearing when light and water droplets are aligned from a certain point of view.
“We had the challenge to recreate the physics of the real world in the virtual world,” said Dado Valentic, chief creative technologist at Acute Art.
“We had to research the behavior of the water droplet — what happens when the light particle hits it and refracts, creating a rainbow in effect.”
As a nod to his children’s initial question about VR, Eliasson’s piece is social in nature: multiple viewers can enter the space at the same time. The experience also incorporates handheld controllers as an additional layer of interaction.
“Neural and muscular interfacing is what made VR so incredibly exciting for me — the relationship between my brain and my physical activity,” said Eliasson.
“VR gave a really radical answer to a physical relationship with your own body and an interface. The work encourages the user to become active and produce your own world.”
Giving New Meaning to “Social Media”
With VR acting not only as a medium, but also as a distribution platform, the doors are wide open to the socialization and conversation of art in this immersive format.
“I find the abundance of information at our disposal today extremely attractive,” said Koons. “I would choose this moment to live just for that reason.”
Touted as “the Warhol of his time” by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Koons takes an inclusive approach to folding technology into his work.
Koons’ VR piece “Phryne” (pronounced “fry-nee”) captures his ethereal vision for creating an imagined world on a blank three-dimensional canvas. His inspiration is a revered woman of the ancient world by the same name, created in the spirit of the pastoral arts.
Koons invites the viewer to meet Phryne, a metallic ballerina, in a peaceful garden. She interacts with and guides the viewer through her world, eliciting the role of a muse.
“We had to recreate this passion in manufactured chrome to bring the ballerina to life,” said Valentic. “We used a dancer from New York Ballet, who has performed all the moves that were then captured in on a motion-capture stage.”
For Koons, VR is yet another tool to share his visions. His point of view embraces an open mind for the intersection of technology and popular culture.
“I think it’s wonderful that people can pick up a [smartphone] and feel the freedom of creativity, like with Snapchat,” said Koons. “To create something solely for an aesthetic is extremely emotionally pleasing — and also just fun.”
Inciting Action Through Immersion
As much as art can bring people together, it can also be a wake-up call, inciting action. Abramovic’s work is synonymous with human confrontation. Since the beginning of her career in Belgrade during the early 1970s, her work has explored trust, vulnerability and connection in the human experience through performance art.
That’s exactly what Abramovic’s VR experience elicits. In “Rising,” she brings the viewer face-to-face with the reality of humanity’s role in global warming.
In the piece, Abramovic herself — as a life-like avatar — issues an immersive call to action that asks the viewer to save her from drowning, trapped in a glass tank slowly filling with water.
The piece transports the viewer to a landscape of melting glacial ice caps. From the glass tank, Abramovic asks viewers to make commitments to help reverse the human effects of global climate change. For every commitment made, the water level in the tank decreases. Without any commitment, the water rises until Abramovic drowns, the experience ending in the destruction of the environment.
“Performance is all about process. I can push my body’s limits as far as it can go. We are in the 21st century — things change. Being introduced to virtual reality, I understood that the possibility is enormous,” said Abramovic.
“Whatever you can’t do with your body, you — as an avatar — can actually do endlessly.”
For Abramovic, VR has expanded the capacity for her performance art to create impact. The technology provides a solution to overcoming the physical boundaries that exist in the real world.
“When you’re creating an avatar of a person, you could think all it takes is just to scan the physical aspect, but it takes much more,” said Valentic.
“I got to know Marina very well. I was able to understand the rich elements of her personality, which was very important to establish to make the avatar feel realistic.”
Taking Risks to Influence Change
Above all, the essential element and common thread that ties these artists and the technology community together is the willingness to fail, to take risks.
“If you’re just always in territory you already know, then nothing is really happening and you are just repeating yourself,” said Abramovic.
Koons agrees, sharing his anticipation for what the future of VR holds as a medium for artistic expression.
“We’re experimenting. We’re finding out how rich of an experience it can be — if it can surpass what we can experience in the analog world,” said Koons.
“I want to create a certain physical, visceral experience that can heighten the senses — that leads to ideas — and it could not be stronger in virtual reality.”