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Can VR Change the Way We Engage with Contemporary Art?

Terminus at the National Gallery feels like an acid-trip into a sci-fi comic.

The only way I can describe the virtual-reality (VR) trip that artists Jess Johnson and Simon Ward have exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is that it feels like you’re being sucked into a synth-heavy sci-fi wormhole.

The NGA has developed a partnership with Sydney philanthropic organisation The Balnaves Foundation to commission a contemporary intervention series that challenges artists to reimagine the context and concept of the gallery space.


Johnson and Ward, both based in New Zealand, responded by teleporting their audience via VR technology into alternate realms. Using Oculus Rift headsets, VR dislocates the spectator from the gallery space and into a three-dimensional simulation.

In Terminus, the installation is sectioned into five interconnected virtual reality stations, each offering an alternate realm that pieces together a choose-your-own-adventure style journey. The portals lead to an all-engulfing esoteric landscape that feels like you’ve acid-tripped into the cover-art of your favourite Philip K Dick novel. I watched as spectators adjusted their headsets before lifting-off into their respective realms: one woman, who was lugging around a tote bag from the neighbouring Cartier exhibit, gasped before shrieking, “No! Too much for me, thanks.”

In the past few decades, artists and galleries around the world have been flirting with the immersive potential of VR technology, and its ability to make art more accessible. In 2002 at the Tate, artists Langlands and Bell exhibited a VR tour of Bin Laden’s hideout in Afghanistan, whereas last year at the Venice Biennale, Khora Contemporary launched a production company that creates contemporary art in VR. Meantime, the auction house Sotheby’s has released VR videos that give bidders the opportunity to experience the simulated landscape of surrealist paintings.

The idea that VR will replace the traditional art setting seems like a stretch, but the medium does offer a more immersive experience of art. One that’s more focused and all-engulfing. The headset engages all your senses, so you’re forced to sit back and, in the case of Terminus, trip out.


VICE interviewed Johnson and Ward about Terminus and the implications of VR in the art world. The following interview has been lightly edited for length.

VICE: The experience felt really surreal and dreamy, what were some of your inspirations for Terminus?

Jess Johnson: Simon and I are both products of our New Zealand upbringings and the ’80s/’90s cultural influences of the time. Part of my formative stew was a love for comic books, science fiction, horror movies, early video games -- all that stuff. Growing up I’d devour anything detailing highly fantastic imaginary worlds. Some inspirations for Terminus came from role-playing tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, choose-your-own-adventure books, and esoteric fantasy worlds depicted in films like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and The NeverEnding Story.

Simon Ward: We began talking about Terminus as a journey, which echoed our experience of navigating our way through the somewhat surreal constructed landscape of Canberra and then through the maze-like National Gallery. That journey felt like something out of a fantasy film so we quickly started talking about the sorts of quest-based films that we both shared a love for as kids. I’ve always been attracted to the montage moments in those films where the characters are travelling over differing terrain without dialogue.Those moments probably slipped into the construction of the VR.


Have you always been interested in wormholes? I think it's interesting thinking about them beside religious iconography like Gog and Magog.

Jess: Yes, I’ve always been interested in wormholes, stargates, or portals in some form or another. I think the impulse driving me to make stuff is about finding some soft spot in reality and “aggravating” it. Like scratching at a worn spot on the inside of your tent until eventually you open up a hole to the outside. Anything to account for that feeling that our reality is one that you are meant to break out of. I guess it's the same feeling that inspires drug taking and attracts us to religions and cults.

I’ve often depicted sphinxes in my work, [too]; the sphinx [often] guards a portal or gateway to the gods, as well as esoteric knowledge that can be accessed by solving a puzzle or riddle. There's also an association with initiation, in which the protagonist passes the test and is able to cross over the threshold. This fed into the journey we devised for Terminus. It’s one of transformation.

My favourite section was SCUMM ENGINE , how did you come up with the amazing titles and what were you hoping to explore in this particular concept?

Jess: Like much of the text in my drawings, the titles for Terminus are just words that got stuck in my head, that suggested an aesthetic or emotion that worked on me subconsciously. I have lists of words that attract me which I endlessly muck about with in different arrangements and spelling. Some phrases and words eventually become quite rhythmic and insistent and the successful ones get stuck in my head like little thought-worms. The language of the world is a muddy and nebulous one and gains form and structure at the same time as the artworks. So the titles and the artworks just grow closer together during the creating process until eventually they stick together and a new thing is formed.


Simon: We wanted SCUMM ENGINE to feel like the part of the journey where the character is lost. When they’ve travelled a long distance from home and have no sense of the end in sight or a vision of where they started from … something like Atreyu being lost in the swamp of sadness in The NeverEnding Story. Moments like those can feel like they go on forever. There's a technique in animation where a character can run on the spot on a rotating cylinder and have the same scenery loop past them … I wanted this experience to slowly become that, turning into an inverted hamster wheel … and then show what the wheel within the wheel might feel like.

Do you think VR has the potential to deconstruct our experience of the gallery?

Jess: I think the gallery space can be utilised as an effective “conduit” to the virtual reality experiences situated within it. Embedding the virtual reality within an elaborate installation environment is a really important aspect of the experience for me. I like the idea of utilising the art gallery as a sanctum. The audience is ushered into the installation, then unwittingly dropped into a completely different realm. It creates this rarefied and ritualistic experience for the audience.

I had a dream last week where I was trapped in that red room with floating mannequins. Did you consider memory and the implications of such a vivid and immersive experience?


Jess: I often get asked if any of my dreams take place in the world that I draw. And no, this has never happened, which is somewhat surprising. Though something really interesting is that when I “remember” my experiences in VR, they are indistinguishable from memories that take place in the real world. Like imagine you are remembering watching a film; your memory of this activity involves the context of sitting in a cinema and watching the screen. But when you remember an experience in VR, you actually inhabit the scene. It’s like you can reminisce about your experiences in VR in a much more embodied way. That’s a unique difference with VR and I’m really curious about its ongoing effect in the brain.

Simon: When I was a kid I had a recurring dream of a spaceship picking me up from my backyard [and going] off on my own character quest. It was a straight mash up of two sci-fi movies I loved. Our inspiration for Terminus is more based on the memory of the narratives and moments of films that stuck with both of us when we were young. An aspect that drew me to incorporating this inspiration was the looping aspect of how people digest these films … echoing the cyclical imagery that Jess often draws, like the ouroborus. The heroes of these films are seen to experience the same journey again and again by audiences who keep returning to the same story.

It seems like we’re continuing the loop by creating our own version of those stories. Maybe the instant immersion in VR has helped us bypass the expensive immersion techniques used in big budget Hollywood films and let us create similarly memorable moments in another way.


You mention the influence of Sci-Fi, but I felt a touch of alchemy and tarot in the work. What are some of your favourite Sci-Fi movies? What were some of the references you sent to Simon?

Jess: In developing the journey for Terminus, Simon and I would often reference certain movies scenes that resonated and had stuck with us from childhood. Some specific touchpoints were the scary boat scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Wizard of Oz Tornado scene, and The Langoliers, a short story by Stephen King made into a terrible TV movie.

A lot of children's movies from the 80’s (like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) were loaded with pretty heavy esoteric symbolism whose roots can be found in ancient hermetic teaching. The Ouroboros that is central to The NeverEnding Story alludes to time and reality being one of cyclical, eternal return… which is a characteristic of pagan religions, as opposed to biblical religions. Notions of generative looping and cosmic cycles are something that Simon and I both share an attraction to.

Simon: One of my favourites is QUEST, a short film by Saul and Elaine Bass adapted from a Ray Bradbury story. In the film a hero must complete the hero’s journey in record time … not only because of the running length of the film but also because his people grow old and die over the course of eight days.

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