More selected projects

Virtual Art and Technologies of Totalitarian Spectacle

by: Pawel Dziadur 

In this blog post I would like to talk about few artistic strategies which recently caught my attention and which I am trying to explore.

Virtual Art

Virtual Art understood in terms of one using the virtual reality technology is not very new, however is currently expanding due to availability of mass produced “affordable” headsets.  VR head mounted projection is distinguishable by 3D immersion resulting in emotional arousal and “transition to another mental state”. The practice of maximising illusion and creating immersion can be tracked back to panorama paintings which were commissioned by institutions of power to present current or historical battle scenes [1] and thus help to promote a narrative around them.

One of early Virtual Art pieces is "Placeholder" by Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland (1993). I haven't had a chance of experiencing it, although I can sense that apart of the rendered graphics being less detailed like in the current perspective the merit of the work resided in exploratory approach to the potential of the medium and particularly in placing two viewers in the context of the same installation and virtual space [2].

Another early Virtual Art piece The World Skin by Maurice Benayoun (1997) explores imagery from conflict zones and a metaphor of deadly photographic camera and printer which removes the elements of images from the projection:

Currently, as the VR tech is becoming popular outside of art we have attempts of youtube news reporting from conflict zones which can be watched using existing consumer viewers. Though I haven’t come across a realtime 360 feed it is likely this will happen. Still the demanded sensation of “as if being there” comes in segmented and edited sequences:

Jon Rafman

So what is special points of the VR and using it in art ? 

Currently highlighted feature of digital VR is memorability of the “experience”. I can confirm it by my own encounters: usually having watched a sequence of art pieces, the VR turned out to leave most vivid memories and seemed to be capable of potentially highly “influencing” the viewer. Question arises if this feature can be sustained over prolonged viewing of VR as normally repeated stimuli tend to lose their strength.

I strengthened my desire to explore the VR medium particularly after seeing the work "Swallowing the Swallowed" by Jon Rafman in Berlin Biennale 2016.

Joh Rafman is a very interesting artist discussing the way that technology affects people and known for his work on researching unusual things found on Google Earth, his sculptural works as well as video works presenting insights into Dark Web, pervert communities of Second Life and video gaming [3].

In the discussed Berlin VR work he continued tendency to present a transfer from known reality to deeply surreal landscapes. The piece lasted 7 minutes and started off by mapping in the existing environment of the Pariser Platz seen from the balcony as well importantly mapping in the balcony itself containing Rafman's sculptures of animals swallowing other animals.

The piece started with mapping in the reality and the computer graphics were very realistic but soon the viewer would realise that something is not quite like in a "reality" - and the sculpture animals started to move and Pariser Platz became arena of apocalyptically floating bodies. Then the viewer would be falling as if through different substances, stages of surreal, dystopian underworlds just to come back to the slightly modified "reality" of Pariser Platz and the balcony near the end before removing the headset.

I think the piece was really great, of very perfected designed and "intense" although it can count as passive and directed experience lacking any interactivity apart of panoramic head-tracking. 

Approaches to VR: Good Morning Mr Orwell

To assess the approach to VR medium which is new to myself I am trying to think of it in terms emergence of television after the cinema (which was just another flavour of moving image) and how artists like Name June Paik could utilise it in new ways.

Paik in what he expressed seemed to be enthusiastic about television and other new media like internet which he even predicted, however he was also aware of their dark and totalitarian function [4].

It might be important to know also that the emerging VR scene faced interest from major corporations like Google and Facebook who bought Oculus Rift. Since the acquisition we will see lot's of funny and sad features in social VR trying to invent new ways to brainwash and monetise on private experience. Next year the we shall see “virtual party rooms for 8 people where you can watch best videos from Facebook with your friends or play cards”. And it is very spectacular that Facebook is into VR hype, advertising the experience of "connecting" to distanced friends and family through acquired VR tech as some totally new level of telepresence and meaningful contact.

On the picture below we see a demonstrated avatars (which can be constructed out of wardrobe of possibilities like clothing, colours, materials), a virtual "party room" including a virtual flatscreen TV for communal enjoyment of "videos" as well as as small scene with avatars [5]. 

I would like to draw on a quote from Alexei Shulgin (one of the early practitioners of net art), as it would allow for a parallel between how expanding technologies and strategies can be criticised from both art use and consumer use perspective: 

"They are happily following very few options given to them by artists: press left or right button, jump or sit. Their manipulators artists feel that and are using seduces of newest technologies (future now!) to involve people in their pseudo-interactive games obviously based on banal will for power. But what nice words you can hear around it: interaction, interface for self-expression, artificial intelligence, communication even. So, emergence of media art is characterised by transition from representation to manipulation.”

Shulgin made this statement from the perspective of a person raised in totalitarian country. However analogies of  consumerism to totalitarianism can be traced easily without going into any specific political discourse, just on the level of art creation and it's identities, take Andy Warhol: 

"Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government; so if it's working without trying, why can't it work without being Communist? Everybody looks and acts alike, and we're getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should like everybody" [7].

TV, realities /simulacra and image appropriation 

All discussed artists (Rafman, Warhol, Paik) could be accounted as also as great appropriationists. Another strategy I am very interested in is analysing the language of the most classic / archaic TV and totalitarian spectacles (being updated by modern computer graphics which blend the “real” and “generated” successfully to extent that majority of the consumers loose the sense of the difference). As such I am very inspired by randomly encountered imagery from Russian television, which might be reflected in my work.

Another inspiring piece which I viewed in Berlin Biennale 2016 by Will Benedict – I am a problem is using a rework of TV show imagery telling a story story of “assimilation of alien” and a music video for the noise band Wolf Eyes.

Perhaps I liked the piece above because I am somehow interested in the aesthetics of a talk show or TV show featuring two people sitting at the table as I think it is an interesting material for a rework. In my piece “Paris Hilton in a Talk Show - Amazing” I basically re-recorded the existing bit of talk show replacing the soundtrack. My sound which is sonifying movements of “actors” and their faces with very simple musical notes in the video in a very straightforward and mechanistic manner achieved by Max/MSP video analysis patch I created:

Nominated voices versus marginalised voices

I am doing some other part of the research and prototyping in the domain of local surveys on the relevant subjects and forms of art. I am doing also a research into the subject of the marginalised voices with a prospect of subversion of the term (drawing from writings of Arundhati Roy). Inspiring piece using crowd sourcing “marginalised voices” is the Quilpu project where participants who might not be using internet can contact a project space over a phone and tell their story of their sterilisation abuse [8].

I believe the research in the above fields will start to emerge into conceptualised, processual and finally materialised form of artwork.



[1] Oliver Grau, Virtual Art - From Illusion to Immersion, MIT Press 1993

[2] "Placeholder" by Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland (1993) video

[3] Jon Rafman website
[4] Alexei Shulgin article 

[5] Nam Jun Paik - Good Morning Mr Orwell description 

[6] Oculus Connect 3 - 2016 Opening Keynote video  

[7] Andy Warhol - Interview with Gene R Swenson, 1963, pdf 

[8] Guipu project website