Inside the NGV’s Triennial exhibition, there’s a small room to the side of a white pop-up cafe. Through the window it looks sparse, blue, and plain, but inside lies a hidden world. A vast ship, roughly one-kilometre-long, sails across a turquoise sea. A small town appears to have developed on the stern. We’re invited to take our time exploring.
This is Tom Crago’s virtual reality experience: Materials. It’s a multisensory work blurring the lines between art and technology. Despite sitting in a room with a dozen other people, Materials is an isolating experience. Once the virtual reality headset goes on, you’re alone on the ship.
Ewan McEoin is the NGV’s senior curator in contemporary design and architecture, and responsible for commissioning many of the works for the Triennial. The sprawling exhibition which runs until April 18, is a partnership with Mercedes-Benz, a sponsor of the NGV for more than 10 years and pioneers in integrating innovative technology in unexpected ways. Materials fits this brief perfectly, though McEoin says it was actually Crago who approached the NGV with the idea. “He’d been working on a PhD looking at the relationship between contemporary art and gaming. He proposed to us a virtual reality game that embedded contemporary art from Melbourne into it.”
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Materials hinges on these collaborations. Around the ship you can see the work of Australian artists William Mackinnon, Viv Miller, Indigo O’Rourke, Mark Rodda and Kate Tucker. VCA’s David Shea contributed sound design and composition. As well as being an artwork in itself, it functions as a virtual gallery space.
“People don’t really know what they’re going into,” says McEoin. “Kids especially get nervous. They think something is going to jump out and attack them, because we’re so accustomed to the idea that games are about conflict. Which is unfortunate, because they have the capacity to be about so much more.”
Crago’s marriage of technology and art is in line with current trends in indie video games. As technology become more accessible, video games are coming into their own as a diverse artform. 2013 game Papers, Please uses the aesthetics of 1980s video games to simulate the bureaucracy of a Cold War border crossing. 2017’s Oikospiel is a surreal musical odyssey about opera, dogs and the politics of labour. These works are discussed as art as much as they’re discussed as games.
And of course 2016’s hugely popular Pokemon GO, in which users captured virtual creatures around their own neighbourhood in real time, brought augmented reality to the masses.
McEoin says that level of virtual and augmented reality technology is increasingly showing influence across the art world.
Case in point: after the intimate experience of Materials, McEion recommends you jump ship and head downstairs to experience Moving Creates Vortices and Vortices Create Movement by Japanese art collective Teamlab. Like Materials, it’s an empty room until people engage with it.
“Just like Crago, they’ve created an immersive digital space,” says McEoin. “Their practice is about embedding the audience into the art, rather than just giving them something to look at. It’s a shifting landscape enabled by technology. The traditional idea of looking at art, just standing around looking at things on walls, is disappearing.”
As with any new frontier, unforeseen issues can arise. Crago’s boating expedition has left some visitors feeling seasick, and a warning is now issued for those waiting to explore Materials. “That’s very common and a little bit of residual nausea is part of the experience,” Crago recently told the University of Melbourne. “Some people experience that more profoundly than others, while some people won’t experience it at all.”
The artist did point out no one under the age of 18 has reported feeling nauseous. New technology, as ever, is second nature to the new generation.