Virtual museums challenge the status quo of the art world
True to his focus on accessibility, Semple canned the first version of the VOMA, which his team spent months building. He describes it as “phenomenal,” but it required a powerful computer and gigabytes of downloads and plugins to run. “The geeks loved it,“ he says, “But if you were in a developing country with a small device, you didn’t stand a chance.“
The point is to give people that chance. It is still too early to say how much virtual museums will change the art world, if at all – VOMA still only receives an average of around 500 visitors per day. But it provides a model for sharing works that people might not otherwise see, even though it can never replace the museum experience. Virtual configurations also, Duong notes, make it easier to manage emissions. “In the virtual space, there is more flexibility to choose different sizes of parts,” he says. “You can move the artwork, you can frame it anyway.“ The process works so well that Duong used a virtual platform to plan a recent physical show. “The day of the blow,” he said, “it was seamless.”
While many actors in the art world debate the pros and cons of virtual and physical spaces, one group, teamLab, creates immersive experiences that transcend these distinctions. An international collective of several hundred artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects, teamLab believes that the boundaries between the self, the virtual and the physical world have never really existed. To prove it, they are using augmented reality and other immersive technologies to remove what they see as artificially imposed barriers.
Their current exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, teamLab: Continuity, is a collection of pieces projected in several rooms. Without anything pre-recorded, the presence and movement of visitors generate and modify each room so that it is constantly evolving. Because it requires in-person interaction, anyone who wants to see Continuity must experience it IRL. In one room, stillness creates images of flowering flora throughout the space. Walk on a flower, it wilts and dies. Crows pass through other rooms, leaving trails of light, scattering what they fly over, but dissolving into giant blossoms when they crash into people. “Thanks to an interactive relationship between visitors and the work, human beings become an intrinsic part of this work,“ said the collective.
Stunned by the vibrant imagery, but skeptical of the idea of dissolving the barriers between art and viewer using technology, I wander into a room where a swarm of butterflies appear at my feet and s ‘takes off to join the fluttering masses. A woman reaches out to touch a thrown butterfly and visibly recoils as it crumbles under its touch. Watching her answer as if it were a sentient being, I feel, for a fraction of a second, a wall collapse, a border disappear.
As I meditate on the links between technology and human experiences, my mind returns to 8-year-old Semple and the sunflowers that rocked his world. Could his experience be reproduced in a virtual museum? “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case,“ he says. “I believe the technology is there, but the vision of using this technology for beauty and art has not quite caught up.“ Then he stands up. “But it’s coming.”
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