The budding present and cloudy future of virtual and augmented reality art

In July, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) launched ReBlink, an augmented reality exhibit created by local artist Alex Mayhew that transforms static, two-dimensional artworks into something fresh and exciting. News of an AR exhibit in one of North America’s largest and best-respected galleries got us thinking: where is the virtual, augmented, and mixed reality art world going, what challenges does it face, and how can VR production agencies leverage this new form of creative expression?

Virtual reality art

Though Mayhew’s AR exhibit inspired this article, virtual reality has been the primary vehicle for artists looking to produce immersive pieces. Montreal’s Phi Centre, for instance, is currently hosting a VR exhibition entitled Lucid Realities. The show features a collection of pieces that “blur the lines between art, film, video games and … reality itself,” wrote the Montreal Gazette’s Christopher Curtis last month. Judging from his review of the exhibit, Curtis particularly enjoyed “Life of Us,” a piece that traces the history of Earth. Users don a VR headset and begin their voyage as “floating matter” before being propelled forward in time to become tadpoles, reptiles, dinosaurs, gorillas, and other spectators to the planet’s slow evolution.

“At its best,” writes Curtis, “the medium immerses you into a perspective you otherwise couldn’t begin to imagine.”

Other artists are choosing to forego Life of Us’s narrative qualities in favour of singular immersive experiences. German-Danish artist Christian Lemmerz created a piece entitled “La Apparizione,” which is presented in a small room containing nothing but a headset. Patrons put on the headset and find themselves in outer space, confronted by a massive golden depiction of crucified Jesus Christ. Viewers are able to circle the figure to examine the fabled lash scars on its back and wreath of thorns on its head.

Pricing

Lemmerz’s La Apparizione leads us into an area of uncertainty in the virtual reality art world: pricing. Thanks to an influx in virtual reality and 360° marketing experiences, VR production agencies are becoming increasingly aware of the value of their work. The nascent virtual reality art world, on the other hand, is generally void of precedents.

“At the moment, video art works are the only comparison,” Khora Contemporary’s Sandra Nedvetskaia told CNN. “But (some collectors) have likened (virtual reality artworks) to sculptures because, of course, you find yourself in the middle of that particular artist’s moving sculpture.”

This lawless pricing environment allows artists to be as generous or rapacious as they choose. Lemmerz produced five editions of La Apparizione, and attached a rather ambitious price tag of $100,000 to each. A virtual reality work by contemporary artist Paul McCarthy is reportedly available for $300,000, while lesser-known artists may choose to distribute their pieces free-of-charge to anyone with a headset.

Other Questions

How will independent artists cope with the development costs that accompany ambitious virtual reality and augmented reality artworks? Will the production of VR and AR art be restricted to talented coders and engineers, can it ever be democratized, and can VR production agencies help fulfill artists’ visions? How will virtual artists protect their work when it is, as CNN puts it, “infinitely replicable”? Will VR video game designers, who are already creating breathtakingly lush and immersive virtual environments, earn the artistic recognition they deserve in this frontier medium? The answers to these questions will slowly materialize when – and if – VR and AR art mature.

The growth of virtual and augmented reality today is being driven by some of the world’s largest and most profitable companies. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are all aggressively developing applications for these emerging mediums. These companies will be responsible for the technological evolution of VR and AR.

Everyday consumers, though, won’t adopt innovative technologies simply because they are innovative; they need to be able to connect with products in a more fundamental, instinctual way. VR production agencies and VR/AR artists both have a role to play here by creating meaningful content that users can form connections with. Like all great art, VR and AR art should evoke strong emotions and create lasting bonds. When virtual and augmented reality art can impact human beings on a deep, emotional level, we’ll know the medium is ready for mainstream acceptance.

If you’re in Montreal, check out Lucid Realities at the Phi Centre until December 16, 2017. ReBlink is ongoing at the AGO until December 3.