Art seems to always be more enjoyable when it’s a full-sensory experience, like visiting a gallery or a museum, seeing an artwork up close, and in some cases, hearing or touching it. Some people think of art as stuffy, conjuring images of galleries exhibiting contemporary art admired by high-end experts. And because of the history around it, too, and the nature of some of the mediums, art can be more old-fashioned with a simple palette, paint, brush and canvas.
But while some may say that classic art does not leave room for technology, innovators are proving them wrong with virtual and augmented reality technology. Artists can use VR technology in many different ways, including using virtual painting techniques or exhibiting their artwork virtually.
While the new tech may seem too early in its stages to some, there are a number of artists revolutionising the industry already. Let’s break down what the relationship between VR and art really is.
Types of VR tech and projects
To understand how VR really can be a part of the art world, you first have to know what VR is. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines virtual reality as: “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli provided by a computer and in which one's actions partially determine what happens in the environment,” though some people only need to hear about the goggles and they know exactly what it means.
Typically, VR requires some sort of headset or goggles to wear. Some of the less expensive goggles require a cell phone and app, but the most cutting-edge sets have their own displays, lenses, motion sensors and even gaming controllers.
When it comes to art, Artfinder artist Hana Auerova said that a lot of projects are created using Unity or Unreal software, but the most popular VR software for the visual arts is Tilt Brush by Google. Auerova said the set allows artists to choose any colour and brush around the virtual space to paint.
“It is quite different from painting on 2D canvas,” Auerova said. “All the technologies concerning VR are in fast development.”
Auerova mentioned that other technologies allow artists to bring scanned paintings, photos, animation or even objects already created and transform them into a VR-capable format.
Alina Cyranek, a film director that worked with Auerova at the Zlín Film Festival, said there are even VR projects in motion now that focus on classic artworks, like Edvard Munch’s work or the Mona Lisa. Cyranek said the projects work with the HTC Vive headset specifically, and include a controller or glove to interact with the VR space.
“They are not mere 360° videos, but interactive spaces,” Cyranek said.
Like these projects incorporating existing artworks into VR space, Auerova is preparing a virtual exhibition of her paintings in Somnium Space, a virtual world created by Artur Sychov. Auerova said she is in the preparation stage for two VR projects with the company, including turning her Blue Garden collection into a virtual reality (pun alert).
“It is not only fulfilling a dream, it’s actually turning the dream accessible to others to walk in from any place,” Auerova said. “What you would normally experience just with your vision is accessible with more senses and as a space experience in VR.”
Sychov created a virtual world just like that, called Somnium Space, and it’s already incorporating art in the VR experience.
“We do many types of art already,” Sychov said. “For example we have live concerts or talk shows. We do also have an active image gallery in our Planetarium where people can enjoy Hubble Telescope space images as in a real art gallery. We are having Cinema nights where we watch short Indie movies and we are cooperating with some independent producers to showcase their work.”
VR also became a part of filmmaking for Alice Krajčířová, a student at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Krajčířová worked on several projects creating VR art animation and immersive theatre, two of which involved viewing the impact of mental illness on people and their memories through VR. She said the projects changed how she created the art.
“[Viewers] get bored much more easily than in the other art forms because most people expect the special experience and wants some sort of magical show from VR,” Krajčířová said.
But whatever type of technology used on the various artistic projects out there, similar pros and cons of VR arise.
Pros and cons
Of course, any technology is going to have benefits and downfalls, especially when it’s innovating something as old as humans (ahem - art). But innovation can make sure that art is keeping up with the times, and therefore, more popular and in the public eye.
Cyranek said the biggest benefit by far is the immersion of VR.
“You are no longer looking at a picture, you’re in the picture or in the specific space. With the controller, the user is able to change or manipulate the picture and be an artist [him or] herself. There are limitless opportunities what VR can do in the world of art.”
That type of immersion is something everyone remembers, Auerova said. Immersing your senses fully into the artwork like that is a rarity.
“In VR, there exists new worlds with narration, which is especially attractive for creative people. There’s a whole new vocabulary too,” Auerova said. “You’ll find new possibilities for the artist, and for the audience that often interacts with the environment, and for the communication [between them].”
Krajčířová knows most about how VR immerses people, however, since the theme for her diploma thesis is all about understanding art through VR.
“The viewer is now more or less the main character of the artpiece which seems to be a great tool for understanding that art and feelings contained in it,” Krajčířová said.
She also argued that VR can allow artists to more freely experiment and develop their art or the technology further.
“VR gives some kind of hope that in future there will be sort of infinite empathetic art that the viewer can live and understand from inside of that art that immerses him/her,” Krajčířová said.
But there are still some downfalls to VR and its incorporation into the art world. There’s even the difficulty of simulating the rules of physics and communicating real life obstacles (look out for that chair!). The most obvious problem, though, is that not all art lovers or viewers have access to VR.
“The downfalls surely are the technical input and high effort in programming, which makes the product expensive. Also, the limited number of viewers – one person at a time, and the investment in the devices in the first place,” Cyranek said. “Not many people own a set of goggles.”
Cyranek added that physical accessibility can be difficult as well, since VR tech is designed with able-bodied people as the consumer in mind. VR may give access to places some of us would never be able to visit, but the high-tech end of the industry is not fully global just yet.
VR opens up new worlds for art
But even with limitations in mind, VR is still rapidly changing the art world and creating new avenues never thought to be possible before. Projects are recreating destroyed paintings and historical buildings, while others allow you to fully interact with long-gone iconic painters and learn about their creative process.
Somnium Space is connecting art lovers with artists across the globe, especially ones they may never be able to meet. Sychov said his company is working on projects centred around the VR world, one of which will allow artists to set up artwork galleries within minutes, and Auerova is currently preparing one of her own.
This increase in accessibility will charge art, according to Sychov.
“It will allow a completely new set of people and artists to finally have tools everywhere they go and start creating anything they would want to create anywhere they would want to,” Sychov said.
Auerova called Sychov’s innovation of VR art galleries a new way to experience “total artwork,” which she said is “an artwork one can spend his lifetime in and never walk out.” It will be like always having an art gallery available at your fingertips, and one you could even keep to yourself.
“You can experience everything in 360 degrees around you, the floor and sky included, you can walk into the artwork, see it from different angles, hear the music in some cases, use your haptic and other senses,” Auerova said.
Art has always been pleasing to the eye, but to include other senses, and transport the art anywhere in the world via technology, will only take its accessibility one step further.
Cover image via Mathew Vieira