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Meet the artists using virtual reality as their canvas

With the help of a VR headset, artists are taking viewers down coal mines, or into dazzling dystopian worlds. 

Standing in the pristine Gazelli Art House, an art space on Dover Street in Mayfair, London, it might seem that the future is already here. There are no canvases, photographs or pieces of art hung up on the gallery’s white walls. Instead, there are four white headsets and sleek controllers that wouldn’t look out of place at a video game convention.

"Enter Through the Headset 2" is the second digital exhibition that the Gazelli Art House has put on. The gallery also runs a digital residency called gazell.io. The five installations in this exhibition don’t use virtual reality uniformly; one barely uses it at all. But the majority are dazzling, surreal scenes from what seems like another planet.

Despite their enviable location in a swanky West End gallery, some of the installations are genuinely fun in a way that most "traditional" art is not expected to be. Most of the artists attribute this to the novelty of virtual reality.

Take headset number one, the work of a British electronic arts duo comprised of Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli. Influenced by video game interactions, and working with MAN A, a creative laboratory, they created seven "rooms" with unique soundscapes. Their installation draws on the wartime practice of painting battleships with unique monochrome patterns, known as dazzle camoflage. As the user puts on the headset and enters their installation, they may look down and find that their hands have been transformed into patterned cubes, or lines. As you wander from room to room, monochromatic dancing figures create different optical illusions within each chamber around you. 

Similarly, most people who try PORTAL 001 take off the headset giggling. Creators Jocelyn Anquetil and Charles Harrop-Griffiths came up with the concept in a pub after being partnered for a university project at the University of the Arts London. Their theme was “sci fi, cyber, Mad Max but not too Mad Max”. They went on to make it in three weeks with £100, for the psychedelic festival Boomtown Fair. 

In the installation, the user sits on a porcelain toilet and virtually proceeds down a neon hallway to a geometric cityscape with oversaturated latex clad women moving around them, into and out of various doors (all of them are in fact Anquetil, filmed gyrating in front of a green screen in Harrop Griffith’s living room).  “I quite like the idea that the dimensions you go to in the Portaloo reflect weird trivialities in this dimension, and they might discuss it, or make a hyper version of it”, Anquetil told me before admitting that she hasn’t decided whether it’s a feminist utopia or dystopia.

The idea of a feminine dimension to a new reality is evident in Rebecca Allen’s The Tangle of Mind and Matter. Allen has worked in pop music and virtual reality since the 1970s, including on videos for artists such as Kraftwerk. She noted that it’s still very rare for a women to be involved in the field . In the installation, which Allen worked on with neuroscientists, the user pulls apart a glowing brain to release an orange figure of a neon Barbie-like woman. Meanwhile, rising levels of glassy water submerge stationary tree trunks. 

Virtual reality might also bring us closer to the real world, as shown through Iain Nicholls's installation. Nicholls is a classically-trained artist who embarked on the project after being approached by friends who were looking for publicity for their restoration of an old coal mine near where he lived. Using photogrammetry, and working in collaboration with art group MBRYONIC, Nicholls fuses the physical and digital worlds to reconstruct the Old Mine at Hemingfield. Narrated by the noted poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan, the installation is an eerie and immersive experience. Users descend into a coal pit, using controllers to grasp a pickaxe and hold a gas lamp. At some points, it feels like the pit is going to collapse on you. This is all the more realistic thanks to the sounds of rodents scuttling around your virtual feet.

 “I’ve shown it before at other sites – actual ex-coal miners were saying to me, this makes me feel like I’m back down in the pit," Nicholls said. "I was talking to kids and women, people who have no idea of what it’s like to be in a coal mine. They were all going 'Oh my God, this is what it was like?'” Nicholls believes that when it comes to virtual reality, video games will one day be eclipsed by art, health and education: “If you see a glacier melt in front of you in real time, that’s going to be better than a book.”

Nicholls spoke of how astronauts see the world differently after they return from space; watching the unnerving alien landscape of mixed media artist Matteo Zammagni’s Terra imbues you with a sense of wonder. Zammagni describes virtual reality as a “new kind of technology that helps us reconnect with our very base instincts”. His previous work, Nature Abstraction, was shown at Times Square in New York. His installation at the Gazelli Art house could be rendered in VR, but in this iteration it is instead projected onto a huge blank wall. Users gather around an iPad and tinker with various controls to change the lighting, shape and even the sound of the projection, creating undulating, liquid terrains. 

Virtual reality is increasingly democratic. Programmes like Tiltbrush, which lets you model in three dimensions on a standard computer, as well as more digital residencies, arguably makes the prospect of a Van Gogh in virtual reality more plausible.

The dawn of new age in art has long since been foretold; but Allen points out that up until quite recently, while “certain parts of the art world were interested - they were also afraid of computers”. That fear seems to have dissipated. Anquetil and Harrop-Griffiths used to be part of a handful of artists in UAL working in VR. Now Anquetil tells me of projects on the island of Jersey, where she’s from, where five artists are selected to be trained in virtual reality modelling and then exhibit their work.  Zammagni says that it’s evident that galleries are now, in his words, “taking care of artists who want to explore VR”.

The appetite for virtual reality in the art world is increasing. Anquetil and Harrop Griffith’s previous installation PORTAL_00 will be going on exhibition in Paris, alongside pieces of work by Ai Weiwei and Anish Kapoor. Allen points out that this is just the beginning. “It used to be just guys and games,” she says. “Now virtual reality is good quality and affordable, so let’s make it an art form too.”

Enter Through the Headset 2 will be on display from 8-30 September 2017 at Gazelli Art House, London