VirtualDayz

I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Virtual Reality, Video Art, and Human Memory: Creative Views

Michael Rush, author of Video Art (2003) and New Media in Art (1999/2005), published an eye-catching article in the New York Times on Sunday called “In Love With Reality Truly, Madly, Virtually. In this update on artists’ access to virtual reality, he suggests that because VR environments are now available at relatively affordable rates -- about $3,000, down from the $1.5 million they cost ten years ago -- virtual reality may be in a better position to become the next big thing than it was in 1993 when Jon Ippolito curated “Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium” for the Guggenheim Museum. Rush equates the drop in price with “the kind of watershed moment that video art enjoyed in 1965, when portable video recording equipment became available at mass-market prices.”

To understand what he means, it would be helpful to take another look at the multifaceted history of “video art,” an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of interdisciplinary practices. Rush, for example, argues in his book Video Art that Sony’s introduction of the Portapak instigated “a new revolution in image making” that freed visual artists, performers, storytellers, activists, documentarians, and others to work outside the mainstream film and television industries, and thus “to participate in the visual communication revolution that was rapidly changing social and cultural life throughout the world” (7). Given that the video art movement got off the ground in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when the social and cultural climates were very different from what they are today -- and the Internet, as well as digital technologies, had not yet appeared on the international stage -- I wonder how emergent VR makers will engage with the current zeitgeist and where their experiments will lead.

Rush concludes his book New Media in Art with suggestive thoughts about what lies ahead. In addition to recognizing that artistic practices associated with the digital era demand a new critical discourse to account for “spaceless, timeless, imageless experiences,” he considers how such practices will affect human memory. Building on his claim that after the invention of the camera photographs took over the work of memory, he asks, “What . . . will be the content of memory if we can no longer distinguish simulated events and experiences from ‘real’ ones?” He answers like this: “Life as we have known it, including the memories that our lives have formed, will be forever changed as the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ become increasingly indistinguishable. Perhaps memories and dreams will become one” (239).

These comments raise all kinds of questions regarding the nature of memory in everyday life and its relationship to the “real,” independent of virtual reality and immersive environments. Perhaps VR makers will use their resources to explore in novel ways assumptions about how memory works, putting new twists on age-old concerns.

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