Experience Virtual Reality at the RISD Museum

The RISD Museum presents "DiMoDa," a virtual reality exhibit where visitors can experience art in a whole new way.

Surrounded by unblinking stars in the shadowy vacuum of space, I’m not entirely sure how I’m breathing. I tread across an enormous asteroid towards a museum, a building that looks like a cross between a Greek temple and a greenhouse. Smaller asteroids hover far above me: One has an enormous head (with its tongue lolling out) sprawled across the rocky surface. It’s safe to say this is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

So, where am I? That question has two answers. Literally, I’m perched on a small stool in the RISD Museum’s contemporary art gallery, strapped into a virtual reality headset with a game controller firmly in my grip. But I’m also wandering through the Digital Museum of Digital Art (DiMoDa), a virtual art exhibit.

The Digital Museum of Digital Art

“DiMoDa brings together the work of several artists,” explains A. Will Brown, former curator of contemporary art at RISD. “Two artists designed and coded the Digital Museum itself, creating a space for four other artists to present digital artwork.”

Brown had his first encounter with virtual reality art at a small experimental exhibition space in Chicago where he was introduced to the artists behind DiMoDa. He was excited about the project and the artistic implications of virtual reality, but he waited a bit before bringing the exhibition to the RISD Museum.

“RISD is fairly conventional, but they do sometimes take risks. Most people don’t go into museum expecting to see this kind of project,” he says. “But those who have tried it are surprised and excited to see it at the museum.”

Their surprise is definitely justified. The digital artwork is far from conventional; it can be loosely described as virtual experiences. In my brief stint within DiMoDa, I only manage to discover one.

I walk into the Digital Museum itself (the aforementioned glassy Parthenon) and  brush past lush greenery towards four monoliths at the center of the room. I stare at each black slab for a few moments before white text miraculously appears out of thin air: “ROSA MENKMAN 3….2….1.” Suddenly, I’m somewhere else entirely.
Black and white shards shoot past me and a river of grainy pixels flickers by my feet. Gently floating cubes are covered in an oscillating black and white checkerboard. It’s as if a surreal landscape was painted with television static. I walk through the space, although I’m not sure if I’m moving or if it’s the environment moving around me. Everything is vibrating and shifting without any apparent rhyme or reason.

I’m mildly confused, but still fascinated. Meandering around this fantastic topography, it’s hard to not think that this technology will sweep through museums and change the way we approach art and education. Outside of RISD, virtual reality has already been used to submerse audiences in paintings and to teach them about science.

Despite this, Brown is hesitant about overestimating the technology’s role in the future of museums.
“I don’t necessarily think it’ll be a revolutionary thing. I think the content is more revelatory than the medium itself. I also think artists will use it in ways that are not anticipated. They’ll use it as a part of a larger experience,” he explains. “As a solo entity — I don’t think that will be its best use.”

Content is key, and Menkman’s black-and-white landscape is as mesmerizing and mind-bending as anything I’ve ever encountered. I later learn that it replicates the process of an image being transcoded. It explores, as many of the DiMoDa exhibits do, the relationship between people and technology.

After a couple of minutes of roaming through the exhibit with no exit in sight, I pull the headset off. I’m instantly transported back to the dimmed RISD gallery; a small crowd of people behind me are watching the TV screen where my actions were displayed. A little pig-tailed girl is hovering inches away, gazing wide-eyed at the chunky headset.

I pass the headset off to my girlfriend, who accompanied me somewhat reluctantly on this virtual endeavor. After one trip-up (she fell off the asteroid into the infinite abyss of space), she ventures out to a far-flung peninsula on the asteroid and discovers another exhibit. She steps into a floating cube and is suddenly transported into a psychedelic vortex of rainbow colors and patterns, a living kaleidoscope. Although visually appealing, she can’t move, so after a few minutes, she takes off the headset and hands it to the next person in line.

The other two virtual exhibits are a bit more linear, although equally bizarre. One, titled “Self Portrait (interior),” is an exploration of one of the artists’ tumultuous digestive system: It’s a pink, slimy wonderland complete with tapeworms (artists are supposed to have inner demons after all). The other exhibit, which explores the promotion of violence in males and the sexualization of females in video games, has the user wander among tanks and busty, half-naked women.

Each project has a different message and style and demonstrates how diverse virtual reality is as an artistic platform. They all share one similarity though: They are deeply immersive. This aspect of virtual reality, Brown thinks, is the medium’s greatest asset.

“The more time you spend looking and experiencing, the more you get out of it,” he says. “For me that’s the greatest advantage. This pulls people in. If they want to understand it at all, they have to engage. You have to go into it. It asks and pushes people to spend more time with art.”

His point is valid. I doubt I would normally spend more than five minutes looking at a portrait or statue, but I could easily spend an hour rambling around DiMoDa. The technology’s crowd-pleasing and immersive nature seems to make it a likely candidate for adoption in museums around the world. But this kind of change takes time, and the technology is still far from perfect. The museum of the future might not be a blank room full of virtual reality headsets, but the technology will undoubtedly be a game-changer in the art world in the years to come.

“DiMoDa” is on display until May 14 at the RISD Museum, 20 North Main St., Providence. Access to the exhibit is included in the $12 general admission. risdmuseum.org.