My family and I are currently watching ‘Blackish’, a comedy about a mixed-race family in which the four children are completely comfortable with who they are, but the father constantly urges them to express their ‘blackness’. In one episode, he is shocked that his offspring does not seem to know much about Martin Luther King. “You must know his famous speech, I have a dream!”, he exclaims . “Not really”, his son Junior answers, “I always find it so boring when people talk about their dreams.”
I was reminded of this when trying to write about Rachel Rossin’s show, Stalking the Trace, at the Zabludowicz Collection in London. I am finding it hard to find the words to describe the art, and especially the VR part. VR is often like entering someone else’s dream. The way we encounter VR is highly personalised: a headset that limits the viewing to one person only. But the content of the VR that I have encountered so far is also highly dreamlike. With its 360 degree-view, VR results in an unusual spatial awareness: without a solid base or vantage point there is a feeling of disembodiment, like floating. The objects that appear in VR don’t adhere to the rules of physics that we know: they are weightless, they crash, they move through you, they disappear. Like a dream, VR has recognisable aspects of the real world, but is always just out of reach.
Inside the former Methodist chapel that houses the Zabludowicz Collection, viewers are bathed in darkness. The Zabludowicz has been putting art and new technology on the forefront of their programming since they opened their London space in 2007, and the digital art works surprisingly well in dialogue with the architectural environment of the 19th century chapel: the old and the new, Baroque architecture housing sleek digital design.
The first work in the exhibition, Stalking the Trace, consists of an immersive video installation. There are elements of the installation that are uplifting: images of the natural world float by, forests an lakes and mountains, sometimes sparsely populated with small cartoon-like figures. The sound is a mixture of a classical score and a trance-like tune. The psychedelic virtual environments of Swiss artist Pippilotti Rist come to mind: her flowing images of nature in saturated colour. But Rossin’s imagery is sharper, more staccato. Brightly coloured, angular shapes float in the midst of nature, digital mark-making interspersing the calm. At times, the screen is minimal; for a few minutes, all you see is a giant blue chain that is virtually linked to the illuminated exit doors. It feels like a metaphor: I am glued to the ground.
At one point, a human figure appears, towering over us and wearing a harness like a sleek Artificial Intelligence-suit. There is something very unsettling about the technology guiding this body. “Only injustice, no outrage” the voice-over echoes through the empty room. I am reminded of the injustices we witness every day through the lens of our digital screens, how real disaster and pain have been filtered through the virtual funnel to satisfy our need for quick and easy information. Our need to know, not feel.
New images follow, of flooding around the world, swaths of dark water washing over shores accompanied by news feeds at the bottom. “If you find yourself here, you need to leave immediately” a steely, robotic voice informs us. I am almost ready to take the prompt.
The VR work titled The Sky is a Gap is in a side passage. An invigilator instructs the viewer to walk back and forth, like an animal trapped in a cage, and press the button at the end of a virtual line to be directed to the next ‘scene’. This is time-based VR, guided by the actions and movements of the user. Objects fly around, almost crashing into you. Rossin was inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 movie Zabriskie Point, with scenes of domestic objects flying around a room. But there are explosions too, buildings detonated by bombs, fire, debris. Although I haven’t been in either situation, I feel as if I am simultaneously in a cruel, violent video game and in the middle of a war.
The work, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2017, is an impressive feat of animation, computer programming and cinematography. Rossin grew up with technology and gaming, and she started programming from age eight; in her own words, ‘technology was a huge part of the way that [her] brain was forming’. But Rossin also works in sculpture and painting, and sees these media as fluid. This is, of course, how a whole new generation is growing up, with the merging of the analogue and the digital.
Like Junior in Blackish, I also find hearing about someone else’s dreams extremely boring. But of course, Martin Luther King wasn’t really telling Americans what he dreamt last night, and to me, Rossin’s art equally crosses the line from ‘dreaming’ to ‘having a dream’. Her artworks feel like a conscious statement, a declaration about the state of the world and our fragility as human beings. I suspect that for technology and gaming buffs, such a future of heightened control and agency of our bodies and our technology would be fantastic, but to me, Rossin’s dream feels like a nightmare. A fear that the world will be a cold place. That floods will destroy our planet. That humans will be taken over by robots. That we are locked up in our own destructiveness, hit by the debris of our own undoing. The fact that Rossin’s viewer has agency to enact the explosions at the push of a button makes this all the more terrifying.
Intrigued, I pick up a book from the bookstore, Dawn of the New Everything by VR pioneer Jaron Lanier. “Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness”, he writes. “Virtual reality will test us. It will amplify our character more than other media every have.” Walking out of the former chapel onto the crowded Prince of Whales Road, I mainly feel a huge relief. Rossin’s art makes you think about what could happen to our planet if we do not look after it. I realise, surrounded by the cars and the birds and the people, that we have the power to act and turn the nightmare into a dream.
Rachel Rossin: Stalking the Trace, Zabludowicz collection, London, until 7th July 2019
With thanks to Laura August for editing
All photos my own unless specified