Back on the VR rollercoaster

Here you see a CINERAMA screen, from 1952.This.Is.Cinerama.1952a

CINERAMA was a big hit in that year. A standard film of the time would fit in the middle screen only. So you can see what an impression it must have made. I’m interested by the kind of films that bloom with any new technology. There must be a roller coaster film. It’s likely to be the very first thing that gets shot in the new (cumbersome) format.


Standard VR Roller Coaster film

And close behind are what we now know as a “Go Pro movies”. Sporting feats.


And aerobatics.


Once these technical demonstrations are done it’s time for a few experimental works by corporate funded artists, some stadium sports and a slowly wilting realisation that a good story works just as well on an old analogue TV, so what are you going to do? George Pal did good business with The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm in 1962.


Eventually the name CINERAMA became more important than the process. By the late 60’s it was a 70mm print stretched out. But the stories were better for it.


I would have liked to have seen a CINERAMA print, but standard Super Panavision was pretty cool. (My folks took me to see it soon after it came out.) This film isn’t right on analogue TV. Here’s a site devoted to wide screen film.

So instead of just going through this cycle, maybe we can think about it. What benefits can be found in the VR format? Obviously there’s interaction, but I’ll just leave that to one side for now please.

Consider this – no one can stand behind a spherical camera. There is no behind.

People working in VR are keen to point out that the frame is no longer there, and so the idea of composing an image in a frame is lost. So you cannot center the image, show something to one side – any of that. Edits are OK but you cannot know which direction the audience is facing. “Cut to:” is rendered useless when they could be looking at the sky for all you know.

The standard of ‘reversals’ – over the shoulder conversations – is dead. Next time you watch a film count how much of it is reversals. Then realise – that’s gone, all gone.

Nausea – it’s about the hairs in your ears that detect acceleration. Not movement – a scene in a moving train is fine – but the ease-in and ease-out motion of a standard motivated camera move. When the ears detect that you’re doing something impossible it’s time to prepare for emergencies and up comes lunch.

VR is about sound.

If this sounds as if VR is more problem that potential, and if you are a standard film maker please go elsewhere and let the experts take over. By experts I’m speaking about sound designers who have dealt with 360º for a very long time. We build realistic spatially coherent environments out of the materials of sound. We turn your head to the events you then watch. We signal that something is occupying a point, an arc, all of space. We signal that something went by, causing a Doppler. Our Foley gives substance to things in all directions.

VR demands that the old equation of vision first / sound second be turned on its head. Because you are not going to be able to navigate the worlds that you’re filming without first realising the air, the tone of the room, the placement of all the sound sources. If your set has three walls and relies on a particular orientation to work – you’re in deep shit.

But if you are a sound designer for film – don’t be smug because the game is going to get considerably harder. Get a VR helmet, learn how it works. Then start to build soundscapes that work in 360º. 5.1 won’t work any more there is no front/back. Listen to your mixes as somebody would in a room. What size room? Round? Carpeted? You are suddenly required to not only capture the air, but to construct it. I can’t tell you how we are going to do that. I can tell you that if we want to get past the demonstration films it’s going to be up to you.

So what the *&*@#&$@)*$& is sound art?


Maybe I’m getting old, but that seems a little harsh. I think there’s actually something else afoot. Let me try to get there.

Any statement that talks about art is problematic, and having the word ‘sound’ in there is only a small part of the deal. The question ‘what is art?’ is a well known idea pit. Like the famous money pit, you can keep on throwing ideas into it and never touch the bottom. Some people refuse to answer the question on that basis, but I am protected by being a ‘dumb-fuck musician’, and like the small child, can endlessly fail to see the clothes.


If the bed had been made up, would it have sold for less? That’s a pretty profound art thought right there.

Duchamp is a guide and he points out that an unseen painting is not yet art. When it is displayed the audience provides the other side of an alchemical process, where two ingredients form a greater impression than the components. The gallery is nothing without the painting and vice versa, the two combine to create the art. And the roles of artist and curator are entwined, to the extent of antagonism from each recognising the forced collaboration.

If you accept a ready made by Duchamp as art, then why not the Tracy Emin bed? I personally don’t accept the bed – here’s where I part with Duchamp by saying that the inscrutable is required. Not all the energy comes from addition, some of it comes from what is hidden – even from the artist themselves. I call that ‘the birds’, which are the pricks and urges that compel creation and made poor Henry Darger an artist long before his books were discovered by the culture industry. Duchamp was compelled by things he did not know and says so, which makes me think he talks about ‘art’ in a different meaning to his own creativity. All the evidence I have is that Emin executed a single idea according to plan. For me Emin is a designer that provided a site and culture specific public exhibit.

None of this is categorical. Marclay’s The Clock is also obviously a single idea according to plan, but becomes inscrutable by the sheer excess of process – the unreasonable amount of execution. Marclay has (among other achievements) taken process up to the more human level of obsessiveness, and the result is therefore more interesting than the cold schema would suggest.

(This is the worry with the ‘production thesis’ or any attempt to measure and force metrics on creativity. But that’s another problem.)

‘Sound art’ is no better or worse than any ‘X art’ really. From what I am hearing the ‘sound’ is such a minor part of it that the distaste of musicians is overwrought. There may not be any sound involved and in general music is still alien to the visual arts. When I asked about one particular work, the artist conceded that it could be a ‘video’ piece in that there was a signal, some noise that disrupted the signal and an interesting response from the people affected by the disruption. But he pointed out that ‘video’ still is a visual art and that’s the problem.

I asked what then is the point of sound art, and he said that it was about thinking with sound. That is, so much thinking with visual art has only got so far – vision is limited in where it can go, and there are experiences and ideas and inspirations that could come from thinking outside of images. I can’t fault the idea of expanding the tedious old ‘ways of seeing’ to become ‘ways of seeing and listening’, and I think we can all agree that this brings something more. In the negotiations for space and recognition there are going to be compromises, but the movement as a whole is worth the support.

Thinking with …

However this last Friday I was accidentally at a book launch and heard from a panel of art historians about an exhibition in the Venice Biennial in which an older exhibition was completely recreated, up to building copies of the walls of the old gallery space in the new. I wasn’t entirely clear whether this was a good or a bad thing as the panellists insisted on talking International Art English.

But it struck me how certain they were that this was an earth shattering idea – that a curator could now put on a show which reiterated the work of an earlier curator. While they bickered about who was the most important person involved old or new, at no stage did they touch on the most obvious failing of the whole idea – that the original exhibition had the artists come and work with the space. The copy just took the works out of whatever museum they had entered and placed them back in roughly the same spot. Artists didn’t matter except as a name check list. It was what Stockhausen would call a postcard of the original performance and God know why the authenticity of the bloody radiators was worth so much discussion in comparison.


Authentic Bern radiators, something that requires a fair bit of Thinking With Curation.

Anyway, several times throughout the talks one or more would talk about thinking with curation with such nonchalance that it must be a commonplace in their own ivory tower. This is more worrying than ‘sound art’ – a deeper, more encompassing point of view where any practice that doesn’t run fast enough will be absorbed into ‘thinking with…’.

Immediately it’s our duty to find as many examples as we can. Thinking with spray cans. Thinking with pasta. Thinking with Twitter. Thinking with not thinking too much.