You know it feels like you’re stuck in a Black Mirror episode, when visiting places in virtual reality, actually feels like a return to reality. The possibilities of Virtual Reality exhibitions interest me, but until writing this article my experience has been one of casual sightseeing – a few clicks through my desktop to jog my memory of an in-person visit. I have been dubious of how VR could replicate the things that make an in-person gallery visit so special.
Right now, VR is a very welcome escape from the confines of my house, and so I find myself transported to a variety of environments that have been digitally scanned by Nottingham-based V21 Artspace including: the National Justice Museum, New Art Exchange, Nottingham Contemporary and Newstead Abbey...
Beginning chronologically with the National Justice Museum, I loaded Washing, Dancing, Singing – an exhibition of historic photographs showing women's lives in prisons. While the bleakness of prison is evident, the narrative of the exhibition focuses on the collective effort of these anonymous women, working to fulfil a common goal. The National Justice Museum has gone to great lengths to offer a really rich VR experience. A soundtrack composed especially for the exhibition plays in the background, setting the tone and adding to the immersiveness. Also content such as video works, meaningful quotes, and close-ups of artworks have been embedded into the experience, as well as behind the scenes footage of the exhibition install and audio of the soundscape rehearsals.
The VR successfully continues the themes of the show by including the virtual visitor in this sense of community – something I particularly enjoyed in light of enforced isolation. As well as being able to browse through visitor feedback, many of which are lengthy responses or illustrations, they also scanned the Project Lab – a room for visitors to reflect, share ideas, and creatively respond to the shows. Within the VR, 360-degrees video footage documents a creative workshop, and I greatly enjoyed virtually joining a group of women as they chatter and embroider together.
New Art Exchange has a selection of exhibitions in VR, but I particularly enjoyed revisiting Hassan Hajjaj’s exhibition. Through vibrant large-scale photographic portraits, often framed by tinned food products, Hajjaj explores the meeting of culture, brand and identity in a global world. The VR conveys the scale and three-dimensionality of the work that a photo could not capture. The exhibition design, with its brightly painted walls, only enhances the work, which is already brimming with pattern and colour.
The exhibition features a gallery space designed by Hajjaj to recall a traditional Moroccon living room, complete with patterned wallpaper and household furniture. Photographs of his travels across Africa and the Middle East are treated almost as background decoration, instead highlighting the experience of gallery visitors who are invited to perform, socialise, research and relax. While it is a visually exciting space to explore, I would have enjoyed seeing the digital space animated by the creativity of the public, forming organic collaborations with the artist.
Nottingham Contemporary’s exhibition Still I Rise explores global resistance movements from a gendered perspective. It is an exhibition that demands a long visit due to the sheer quantity of ideas and exhibits, but luckily I’ve already spent a lot of time exploring in person. Visiting in VR allowed me to appreciate the exhibition design differently, particularly how the curation gives each work its own space. The VR includes embedded video works (there’s lots), as well as footage of interactive artworks including some humble millstones by Jesse Jones that emits smoke in a dramatic display. While you may lose the spontaneity of seeing the millstone’s unexpected transformation, from some angles in the VR you can see wisps of smoke – a sight that would normally cause alarm, yet has an intriguing mystical effect.
The romantic atmosphere of Newstead Abbey is reason enough to want to virtually visit, but VR visitors will also find site-specific installations as part of Lace Unveiled. A lace-inspired intervention by artist Shane Waltener hangs across a canopy of yew trees. The VR is unable to replicate the sense of a discovery upon finding the artwork, however I enjoyed watching an embedded video of the installation process, and ‘walking’ through nature that has been scanned with a level of detail that exceeds Google Street View.
In the house, artist Lucy Brown’s sculpture fills Lord Byron’s former Dressing Room. Draped from wall to ceiling, reconfigured lingerie is bound with lace tendrils resembling chains, alluding to scandalous histories. Scanned from within the installation, the VR allows views from many angles without the usual risk of damaging the art, yet I also feel something is missing in a VR experience – the feeling that the walls around you might be holding secrets.
Usually I enjoy stepping away from technology when I visit an exhibition, as it’s a chance to remove myself from everyday life which is all-consumed by screens. Yet, visiting an exhibition in VR did replicate some feelings on an in-person visit – placing oneself in a new environment and inviting impromptu encounters.
I enjoyed exploring how galleries are embracing inventive approaches to VR that go beyond documentation, and I believe VR succeeds when it offers an experience which is distinct from the physical world, but is still meaningful and engaging in its own right.