Making a New World in Virtual Reality

An art school professor and his students talk about the vast potential of VR—and their work in it

Virtual reality, that mind-expanding bridge between the real and imaginary, is moving rapidly from an expensive, niche, high-tech tool into the consumer domain. Driving that trend are affordable and easy-to-use products like the lightweight Oculus headset, running about $300, and Google’s Tilt Brush. At just under $20, that tool aims to put VR in the hands of creatives of any age and in the comfort of home.

What does this trend for VR mean for the emerging artist? At the School for the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts (SMFA), that question is informing a course taught for the past two years by Kurt Ralske, a professor of the practice garnering international attention for his facile use of technology. (For fans of alternative rock, yes, this is the same Kurt Ralske who started Ultra Vivid Scene in 1987.)

Today, as a visual artist, his video installations, films, sound art, and performances push the proverbial envelope and provoke futurist ideas about what art is and can become. His work has been included in the 2009 Venice Biennale, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. He also programmed and co-designed the video installation permanently in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

At Tufts, he encourages students to plumb their imagination as they deploy digital tools to create something 3D that enhances the human experience. While given free rein to do that, he believes the best VR projects incorporate three elements: “the interactive component of gaming, the clear narrative of cinema, and the meaningful space of contemporary art installations.”

To learn more about what makes VR a popular course, Tufts Now asked Ralske and three of his recent students—whose creative projects led them in three distinct directions—to talk about what VR means to them, and how they use it.

Kurt Ralske: With VR, There Are “No Holds Barred”

When I teach VR, the focus is not just the technology, but appreciating the philosophical and ethical issues the medium raises. If we create representations that are indistinguishable from reality, are there dangers? It’s a philosophical question that’s similar to Plato’s allegory of the cave.
Viewers in VR experience what they believe is reality, but it is entirely an illusion—as in Plato’s example, the shadows on the cave wall are perceived to be real. We discuss this at our first class meeting—the allegory of the cave and other ideas from Plato’s Republic are a useful way of approaching the questions that virtual reality raises.

My students are exploring a technology as artists—they’re tapping into their imagination and creativity, and there’s no holds barred—there’s no canon,” said Kurt Ralske. “There are no rules to break.” Photo: Anna MillerMy students are exploring a technology as artists—they’re tapping into their imagination and creativity, and there’s no holds barred—there’s no canon,” said Kurt Ralske. “There are no rules to break.” Photo: Anna Miller

VR is a very new medium, which means it’s not constrained by precedence. Students are not weighed down by history or a technique or a style. That’s what makes it a fun playground. Anyone can push it in their own direction.

Some students want to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, while others want to create a space that is conveys an atmosphere or a mood. Some create spaces that feel safe and calming—an escape from pressures they feel in the real world. I find that impulse very interesting.

My students are exploring a technology as artists—they’re tapping into their imagination and creativity, and there’s no holds barred—there’s no canon. There are no rules to break.

I think that’s what students really like about VR, and why the course attracts a wide array of students; I have students from engineering, computer science, cognitive brain science, and philosophy, as well as fine art. They are unafraid of the technology—a lot of them grew up with gaming—and they are excited about the freedom and power that VR offers. As an instructor, I find the process of working with them equally exciting.

Billy Foshay, MFA 2020: Expressions of an Altered World

My first project involved remaking an experience that I had at the dentist when I was eleven, which was I was given too much laughing gas, and everything around me became very flat and two dimensional. Virtual reality was a nice pick, because it expresses that slightly altered world.

a woman on the virtual reality dentist chair

“People describe it as feeling like everything around you, including your body, is unreal,” said Billy Foshay. “That’s what attracted me to the class, the tension between reality and unreality.” Photo: Courtesy of Billy Foshay

Through the Tufts School of Dental Medicine, I was able to find a dentist’s chair. When people sat in the chair and put the headset on, they were in a virtual dentist’s office, with dentists doing what they would normally do—looking at your teeth. What I was trying to do, and what I want to continue to do, is set up physical spaces that people experience from a specific vantage point.

So in the case of the dental chair, they would be immersed in a virtual dental appointment. Nothing’s happening to you physically, but you have all the sensations: the visuals, the sounds, and even the smells. I remembered when I was eleven, they used laughing gas administered through a grape-scented nasal hood, so I added grape scent to the physical environment with some oil coating the dentist chair.

The hope was that when the grape nasal hood is referenced in the headset, a participant would become aware of the smell coming from the oil. This strategy attempted to further establish a linked experience between the inside and the outside of the headset, thereby increasing believability and effect of the piece.

This project is not meant to be scary, not at all. It’s weird, perhaps—and strange. People describe it as feeling like everything around you, including your body, is unreal. That’s what attracted me to the class, the tension between reality and unreality.

What gives us a sense of being in a place and what gives us a sense of being in our own body? It just made sense for me to get at this metaphysical question: how do I know where I am? It’s a question that as an artist you want to explore and make personal, specific, original.

Virtual reality offers a level of immersion—and it leaves us asking: what’s real, anyway? I think it’s a question that’s always been one that artists ask; with VR, artists are just pushing the envelope of immersion.

a male with VR glasses

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Anna Gruman, BFA 2019: “Karl Marx Doing a Choreographed Dance to Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’”

What VR can do is make the familiar strange and make the strange intimately familiar. Billy takes the familiar thing and infuses it with a sense of the uncanny—but you can also go the other way and take outlandish images and make them knowable and experiential. 

That’s the path I chose for my fifteen-minute, animation-based experiential fly-through. I wanted to render dream-like spaces and experiences; dreams are an arsenal to draw images and metaphors from—they reassemble fragments of waking experience. For me, I have very vivid dreams; they inform my work regardless of my medium. I started in video—VR is a new experience for me.

Aesthetically, I was going for the strangeness of sci-fi, with the childish wonder of The Little Prince and surreal quality of Spirited Away, where the world is immensely vast yet self-contained. My piece starts within a bubble or dome containing a suburban neighborhood. You float through it as you listen to Mr. Sandman, which echoes through the space and distorts as you move. You arrive at a house on the door are the words “YOU ARE HOME.”

Virtual reality dancing Karl Marx police

“Through a rainbow fog below you are an army of belly dancing Karl Marx police,” said Anna Gruman. Photo: Courtesy of Anna Gruman

The “fly-through” method of VR means you control the direction of your gaze, but not the movement and position of your “body” in space. You are turned and exit the dome of suburbia into the external world, a vast colorful nebula of space. You couldn’t see from the inside out, but from the outside the houses behind you are visible like a model train village.

Mr. Sandman fades away and is replaced by 70s style sitar music. I created 3D model figures of Karl Marx in a policeman uniform for the piece. Through a rainbow fog below you are an army of belly dancing Karl Marx police. You float around them as they dance in front of a giant simmering curtain with Marx’s portrait. You are then transported from this dreamscape back to the “YOU ARE HOME” house.

You then enter into a long hallway that leads to a sparse living room. You “sit down” in an armchair in front of a television, on which a video plays. So, the VR is its own world—and there’s a media world within the VR world which follows its own rules of narrative and symbolism. As the piece moves along, there is a closing dance routine. The work ends with a single Karl Marx doing a choreographed dance to Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” in a Grecian temple made of leaves.

All these dream images are ultimately memetic reflections of what is in reality. It’s an attempt to capture the material comfort and spiritual unease of upper-middle class America. The insulated experience of nuclear family households, sentimental nostalgia, insidious colonial fantasies, a world imbued with commodity fetishism, regressive ideas and progressive technology.

I’m not interested in VR as a form of trickery or a gimmick. I am a Marxist and a Brechtian. I’m interested in the feeling that it instills in you as you experience the vivid yet disembodied world, the sensory overload and deprivation of the medium. I find that academic intellectualism tends to be dry, inaccessible, and emotionally detached—I hope to open up an emotional discussion of cultural theory, iconoclasm, and aesthetics.

At the end of the day all I want is for people to see my work and tell me what they think, because it’s a conversation starter. Love it or hate it, narrative images are a shared experience, and become points for connection and discussion.

Alonso Nichols, MFA 2022, Chief of Photography, Tufts University: “It’s a Question of How We Construct Meaning”

There are lots of things that are interesting to me about VR, especially when you put on the goggles and you’re immersed in a setting or situation. You lose track of time. You inhabit a world where perspective is twisted and compressed. And that is what VR does really well: it steps away from what is literal.

This capacity to create things that are dreamlike allows you to tap into other senses as you are having this visual experience. In that way, VR can really transport you.

As a student of VR, the class led me to ask the question: what is this tool well suited for? We talk about VR like it’s the next great thing. I don’t know if it is, but for certain things it could really be fascinating. There is a BBC VR documentary where you step off a dive boat and you’re underwater, surrounded by ocean life. It’s really wonderful.

And there is this idea that VR might be a font of empathy, that you could put a person in someone else’s shoes and change that person’s perspective. I am not sure it’s that simple, and there are complex ethical considerations.

VR has the potential to be a disruptor. It has this fresh capacity to ask us to step away from our normal world and way of seeing thing, to ask: what is truth—and what do I really understand?   

I decided to build a silent film that created a world in which I could explore the question: what do we need to see in order to make sense of something? I thought about how to change the settings of that world—the buildings, the scenery, lighting, characters—within the confines of VR, without being overly literal about who, what, where, when, and why—which is very different from what I do day-to-day.

In my piece, two characters are out in a street and they are looking at each other. You see their expressions and gestures, like a head nod, and then the camera pans out, and you see things that in the first shot are missing. They are no longer there. I was trying to provoke the question: how do we construct a narrative? What do we need to build that story, and what don’t we need?

At some point, everything breaks down, the entire set disappears. You could say it is a question of memory, narrative, and how we construct meaning or reality.

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