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Virtual VR immersion at MIFF

Alexandra Meagher

Alexandra Meagher is studying Applied Media at Swinburne University, Melbourne. She is pursuing various online consultancy projects and has a keen interest in internet media arts and technology. She recently worked as the online research consultant for the R & D phase of the upcoming Trash collaborative project

Mark Guglielmetti, ModelKitJesus Mark Guglielmetti, ModelKitJesus
Symbiosis is a visual and aural chimeratic experience; quite beyond the militaristic and action/violence experiences of virtual reality that we might be accustomed to. It is an exploratory journey of emotion, time and space in an immersive virtual environment.

The sellout event was included in the Sideshow digital media program at the Melbourne Film Festival in September and is one of the first of its kind in Australia. The Melbourne-based practice responsible for the event, Metraform, worked with VR technology only available in the VR Centre at RMIT University where the event took place.

Symbiosis combines stereoscopic visuals on a 180-degree wrap-around screen with an 8 channel sound design, creating an intense immersive experience. The focus of Symbiosis is neither on the visual or the aural, but requires both to experience it. Metraform has created 6 virtual worlds which evidences an intense, theoretically rich and provocative collaboration.

Metraform is a multi-disciplinary collaborative team researching VR technology as a medium to deliver experimental art content. The founding members are Jonathan Duckworth (architect), Lawrence Harvey (sound designer) and Mark Guglielmetti (digital media artist). Symbiosis is the result of their combined practices in an immersive virtual environment."

The artists have diverged from normal practice in their respective fields to create a new experience for the spectator. Although placed in a film program, Symbiosis is not a screen-based unfolding of narrative, but is concerned with the relationship between the spectator and the work itself. It is about diverse modes of interaction and engagement.

Duckworth and Guglielmetti designed 3 virtual worlds each and Harvey provided the soundscape. Duckworth explores the non-realisable architecture of spaces, and Symbiosis has given him "the opportunity to explore space in non-conventional, digitally constructed spaces that can't be perceived in any other way." It opens with Nebsphere, resembling a forest-scape as it explores the spatial depths of abstractly architectured forest canopies and undergrowth. It is visually provocative with colours and movement indicative of growth and decay.

Guglielmetti describes his approach as drawing on conventional 'ways of seeing' and disrupting these conventions through a conceptual exploration of space. His juxtaposition of recognisable and non-recognizsable objects forces the spectator to challenge their habitual methods of perception and simultaneously espouses a complexly rich environment of association. In ModelKitJesus we are navigated around and along a gigantic model-kit in an otherwise empty space. The emptiness is echoed by a startlingly eerie soundscape, reminiscent of sounds heard while scuba diving. The model is almost Lego-like in structure, with its removable pieces slotted in to the model itself. There are familiar pieces such as a hand, bits of machinery and tools–all removable and to be assembled (in the mind's eye) as a model kit whole. A model kit of Jesus?

Like Guglielmetti's work, Harvey's soundscape combines familiar and non-familiar sounds and effects in an aurally rich environment, both complementary to the visual experience and distinct from it. Harvey's work is concerned with the electroacoustic possibilities of the medium and exploring the aural experience of the audience.

Symbiosis is designed to engage and empower the spectator and is therefore broadly appealing. In the initial stages of development, Metraform "decided Symbiosis would be experiential; that is for an audience member's active subjectivity to inform their experience rather than an experience driven by any particular narrative or narrative structure." It is, in Guglielmetti's words, both "delicious and difficult" and part of the spectators' challenge is to choose their own narratives of interpretation.

What I found most intriguing was that it evoked diverse responses and a powerful subliminal effect. Furthermore, the audience responses recorded by Metraform are similar to those experienced in the virtually immersive environments created by artist Char Davies. To quote from her findings, my personal experience was one of immediate "verbal indescribability" and a "deep sense of mind/body relaxation." The responses "ranged from elation, depression, relaxation, excitement, wonderment and awe." They also found a mix between people, those who wanted to discuss their creative interpretation and those with a delayed feedback-response time.

The implications of these subliminal effects of immersion in a virtual environment suggest that Metraform's decision to create an active subjective experience was successful. Due to the intensity of the work, people had to adjust immediately afterwards and the manipulation of time/speed seems to contribute to responses. Symbiosis is navigated at a slow pace, and at a conscious level the perception of time and speed appears consistent. However, as Metraform suggests, "by slowing the perception of (an abstract and unfamiliar) space you're inadvertently accelerating time." There is a bizarre feeling, 'losing track of time', as your perception of time is challenged. Real time can be described as the "speed at which nothing happens" and ironically the Symbiosis experience is multiplicity, not nothing.

When asked about new artistic opportunities for VR technologies, Guglielmetti referred to Margaret Wertheim's reaction. Wertheim is recognised for her theorising on the parallels between physical, non-physical and spiritual spaces and has suggested that arts in real time practice are facing a premature death. She spoke with Metraform after experiencing the work and expressed her excitement about the existence of this new project in Australia. For someone devoted to writing about the medium to express doubt and then withdraw it is evidence enough of the fertility of both the work itself and of VR as an arts practice.

For those wishing to experience this exciting emerging art practice, you'll have to wait for the next iteration in May 2002. This will be a totally immersive and interactive experience with all 6 chambers linked. Equally impressive is that the sound materials will be linked to the 3D geometry of the spaces and made responsive to user presence and navigation in various ways.

Symbiosis, Metraform, Jonathan Duckworth, Lawrence Harvey & Mark Guglielmetti, Sideshow digital media program, Melbourne International Film Festival, Virtual Reality Centre, Interactive Information Institute (I-cubed), RMIT University City Campus, July 21-23, 28-30

Alexandra Meagher is studying Applied Media at Swinburne University, Melbourne. She is pursuing various online consultancy projects and has a keen interest in internet media arts and technology. She recently worked as the online research consultant for the R & D phase of the upcoming Trash collaborative project

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. web

© Alexandra Meagher; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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