Is virtual reality the future of media? Facebook seems to thinks so, spending two billion dollars last year to acquire Oculus Rift, a relatively untested virtual reality platform. Ready to push its limits, Melbourne-based artist Jess Johnson and New Zealand video maker Simon Ward have collaborated to create a brain-bending animated artwork, one of the first to use virtual reality. Sitting somewhere between a Romanesque out-of-body experience and a sci-fi hellscape, Ixian Gate will show this December at the NGV inside a giant 'Wurm Haus' altar. We can’t wait. We caught up with Jess and Simon to talk about using trippy technology to make art.
The Creators Project: What did you know about Oculus Rift before you started?
Jess Johnson: Virtual reality has always been part of the popular lexicon in sci-fi and movies. I’ve always drawn a lot from sci-fi in my work, so I’ve always been really familiar with the idea of virtual reality, but it was Simon who actually introduced me more to what’s happening in the way of the technology as it currently is.
Simon Ward: I’d never done it before. When we got it, it was the first time I’d even tried it. I’d just heard it was really good, but I didn’t expect it to be that good. It was pretty full-on amazing.
What have the reactions to Ixian Gate been so far?
Simon: They’ve been great. One person came out in sweats. The reactions have been really physical.
Jess: It seems like whatever people’s susceptibilities are it can trigger something. The guy who came out in sweats—he only lasted about 40 seconds or so, and he’d been looking forward to it for weeks. I went to check up on him later and he said that he felt really claustrophobic.
It engages all your senses, right? So I guess it’s not surprising some people find that difficult…
Jess: When Simon introduced the animated worms—even though they were pretty rudimentary—I had an absolute terror freak-out reaction to them. I wasn’t able to look at them. I had to hide and turn my back to them for the first few runs until I got desensitised enough that I could look at them without having to tear the headset off! I feel like I get really immersed in there.
It felt a bit trippy to me, a bit of a drug experience.
Jess: I find those parallels as well. It’s like whenever people talk about their psychedelic drug experiences it’s for the most part really boring because they’re trying to translate this incredibly unique insular experience that they've had. It’s like waffling on about your dreams to someone–it’s not translatable with language. But with this technology I don’t have to tell someone what my psychedelic drug experience is, I can put the headset on them and download that experience into their brain. That’s what it’s like, it’s an effective conduit from one brain to another.
Can you give us any hints about what the show at the NGV is going to be like?
Jess: It’s going to be this really sensory stimulated environment. In the centre of the exhibition space will be this structure, which is called the Wurm Haus and will house the Oculus Rift technology. So we can kind of co-op the audience into performing this role where they’ll be positioned at intervals around this Wurm Haus and they’ll be wearing these headsets sheathed to the structure. So it’s like an homage to the Wurm brain in the centre of the room.
It reminds me of Dune where they all take the spice.
Jess: Yeah, everything comes back to Dune on this whole project. The name Ixian Gate comes from the planet Ix in Dune, where there’s a supreme machine culture and they would supply the rest of the universe with their technological gadgets. Also after watching that documentary on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trials and tribulations on trying to get Dune made, I found that super, super inspiring. I think it was a week after watching it that I decided to apply for this really major $100,000 moving image grant. I was really punching above my weight, and it was a huge amount of work, but I think watching the documentary just gave me that kick up the arse to go for it. So I spent heaps of time on the application, but it also served to really cement what was I was wanting to do. We got shortlisted to number four, and we’d gotten so close that it was motivation to keep going.