Visiting VR: Mat Collishaw’s ‘Thresholds’

10th June 2017

To Somerset House to experience Mat Collishaw’s VR artwork Thresholds. You have only until tomorrow, 11 June, to see this – and I would definitely recommend a visit, although you’ll certainly need to book.  Hannah-Ellis Petersen wrote for the Guardian about the background to the exhibition, Mat Collishaw restages restages 1839 photography show in virtual reality, and this is from the press release for the show:

Using the latest in VR technology, Collishaw is set to restage one of the world’s first major exhibitions of photography for contemporary audiences. Visitors will travel back in time to 1839, when British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public at King Edward’s School in Birmingham.

The experience will be a fully immersive portal to the past; visitors can walk freely throughout a digitally reconstructed room, and will be able to touch the bespoke vitrines, fixtures and mouldings; even the heat from a coal fire will be recreated. Infrared sensors will track visitors’ movements, creating ghostly avatars that indicate their position and enhance the feeling of travelling through time. Collishaw has also created a soundscape to accompany the exhibition: the demonstrations of the Chartist protesters who rioted in 1839 on the streets of Birmingham, and who can be glimpsed through the digital windows.

The original 19th-century exhibition, staged by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, celebrated cutting edge technological innovation. Many new inventions were premiered there, a number of which have been faithfully researched and digitally reconstructed for today’s audiences. Unfortunately, Fox Talbot’s original images have faded almost beyond recognition with several of the surviving photographs existing only in light-proof vaults. Thresholds not only restages an important historical exhibition but provides a way to view images that have since been lost to the public.

So how was it for me?

With around 10 other visitors I waited by the cash desk until the my ticket’s allotted time. Then I walked through to the preparation area, where after looking at some explanatory panels that felt a touch perfuntory, I was helped to put on a relatively heavy backpack and goggles. The trickiest bit was fitting these slightly uncomfortably over my glasses. Seeing at first only white light, I was guided into a space next door, and the VR image popped up before my eyes, accompanied by a slightly distant audio track. I was in a modestly sized room with a number of showcases, in which were displayed photographic prints and scientific instruments. I could walk between the cases, touch their edges (there were physical objects replicating the virtual shapes), feel the heat of a fire (a real world heater) and look out of the windows. Virtual mice scampered across the floor. My hands appeared only very faintly and indistinctly – and it’s definitely strange being aware of a hard edge but not being able to see your body feeling it.

I was captivated by a sense of being in a historical space, and I was particularly engaged by the other people in this enclosed area being represented to me by ethereal columns of white light. I certainly got an overall idea of what the Fox Talbot exhibition must have been like. But at the same time I was disappointed, largely because I didn’t feel a sense of being immersed aesthetically rather than spatially.

Throughout my 10-minute timeslot (a notification pops up telling you to remove the goggles) I was always acutely aware of the technology on my head, although I recognise the modest discomfort caused by keeping my glasses on didn’t help this. The visualisation, for all its sophistication, still felt like a computer game, and the dominant sense was of learning to move through this rather than concentrating on the photographs in the cases. The background of the Chartist demonstrations felt very distant, both aurally and conceptually. And my overwhelming impression remained of the general novelty of what I was doing rather than of specific elements of the Mat Collishaw’s show.

Perhaps that response is comparable in some way to how Victorian visitors first encountered Fox Talbot’s photographs. Perhaps they could feel only wonder at this extraordinary ‘pencil of nature’, whereas to our eyes, long familiar with photography, Fox Talbot’s pioneering images have an exquisite and entrancing fragile beauty. Thresholds unquestionably had a touch of wonder, and of course I look forward to seeing how Collishaw and others develop the potential of this form, but this time around I really felt the absence of anything that one might think of as fragile beauty.

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