What does it mean to view a work from within? I recently experienced Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights in virtual reality at a local museum. Strapping on the headset, I rolled forward on an invisible track through bright green hills, past animated cutouts of vengeful angels and hybrid creatures, jolting and waving. I gawked at the world of Bosch lit up like Christmas lights.
The journey came to a stop after about five minutes, and I pulled off the goggles, blinked, and rubbed my eyes. The tingle of nausea gave way to a sense of disappointment with the low-grade graphics and clunky animation. It was hardly the shiny future promised to us in recent films like Ready Player One, and certainly not a place I would like to spend considerable time. With the original triptych across the sea in the Prado in Madrid, it felt misleading to have this in a museum, like billing a fairground ghost ride as an exhibition about the afterlife.
Virtual and augmented reality technologies are part of a growing multibillion-dollar industry, highlighted by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent rebranding of Facebook as Meta and his plans to build the metaverse — a virtual world that exists in tandem with the physical world in which we are to “live, play, and work.” However, beneath the noise and publicity surrounding this announcement, something else has escaped our attention: the more subtle ways in which virtual reality as a symbolic form — a model for the world and how we think about it — is increasingly manifested in culture with the rise of immersive forms of theater, films, music, and art.
The “immersive entertainment” industry, which includes nondigital experiences such as escape rooms and other content in which the participant feels a sense of presence in an artificial environment, is large and growing, spanning contexts such as live events, arts performances, and museums. DesignMyNight currently lists no less than thirty-one different immersive experiences in London, from an Alcatraz prison cocktail bar to a “Wizard Exploratorium.” In 2019, the US immersive cultural industry was valued at $61 billion.
The UK has seen the commercial success of companies that specialize in immersive film screenings (Secret Cinema), theater (Punchdrunk), and, increasingly, live music. There is a profitable industry trading in Van Gogh experiences (five separate companies are operating pop-ups in cities across the world in 2021, two of them in London). Here visitors “step inside” a Van Gogh painting — typically a disused factory space projected with images of his paintings — occasionally supplemented with scents to “transport people to orchards, gardens and fields.” What does it mean to “enter” an artwork? Since scale, composition, and color are impossible to gauge, the one destination that is off-limits is the actual paintings themselves.
Punchdrunk’s brand of immersive theater takes a Choose Your Own Adventure approach in which the audience individually explores a multistory set, leading to myriad combinations of narratives and experiences. While an atomized experience like this can be exciting for each participant, it inevitably replaces the social phenomenon of experiencing the same performance together, individualizing experiences that were previously shared.
Whether it is through a VR headset, the manipulation of projectors, or clever set design, immersion fulfills our desire for escapism, instantly transporting us to far-flung, exotic worlds conveniently differentiated by genre: aliens, dinosaurs, cowboys, zombies, steampunk. Excitement and wonder in a familiar imaginary, this mode of immersive entertainment is a suspension of the present rather than an exploration of hypothetical futures.
As the protagonist of Ready Player One says after strapping on a headset, “You don’t need a destination when you’re running on an omnidirectional treadmill.” For Raymond Williams, popular science fiction represented “desire displaced by alienation” — the transformation it offers is not a social or moral one but that of nature itself: “alternative society is on the moon of a far planet.”
Influenced by video games and fantasy role-playing, experiments in VR cinema enable viewers to choose where to look in any given scene and interact with objects and characters. Save Every Breath, a VR adaptation of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, sits the viewer literally in the pilot seat as missiles and bullets tear through the sky. One hundred and twenty-six years of cinema history and we are back at La Ciotat station watching the Lumière brothers’ train arrive.
Indeed, VR moviemaking is still wrestling with fundamental problems like “narrative paradox,” when individual agency and customization of the viewer compromises the director’s control of the narrative (the gamebook format is not widely used in literary fiction for this reason), and viewer FOMO, anxiety at missing important elements of the story, leading to frustration and low emotional engagement.
A good book, play, or film can be absorbing, enabling our imaginations to engage and take flight, but rarely does it envelop us; there is still space for reflection and contemplation. By privileging immediacy and affect, immersion requires us to submit to our senses. But culture is not just a matter of feeling. It is also a way of knowing and understanding the world. The immersive precludes the discursive by collapsing the distance needed for critique.
Are there more creative and progressive potentials in immersive culture? In Laurie Anderson’s recent VR work Chalkroom, created with Hsin-Chien Huang, the viewer flies through an enormous black structure made of words, drawings, and stories. The inherent qualities of disembodiment, dislocation, and isolation are embraced as qualities of the work.
In Habeas Corpus, Anderson used telepresence to beam in former Guantanamo prisoner Mohammed el Gharani, who is still barred from entering the United States despite being released without charge in 2010. His live virtual presence as part of an immersive installation had a clear political message. By maximizing the possibilities for disembodiment and presence inherent in the technology, Anderson opens new creative modes for immersive technology. Yet the structural logic of the culture industry leaves more experimental, challenging work like this on the margins.
The technologies we produce also produce us, shaping not only what culture is but how we experience it. Immersive experiences should not replace communal and discursive forms of culture, or enjoying and discussing work together. As immersion becomes an increasingly dominant cultural paradigm, it is important to pull off the headset, step outside, and resurface.