Ai Weiwei debuted his latest artwork this week, but the Chinese native did not choose a gallery or international festival for its premiere. Instead, he went straight to people’s phones.
Omni is a virtual reality (VR) artwork — and the artist’s first venture in this field. The immersive documentary follows a herd of elephants in Myanmar before moving to a migrant camp in Bangladesh and exploring daily life there.
While it is the artist’s first VR piece of work, Ai has explored immigration and the lives of refugees often — recently, with a 196-foot inflatable installation of a raft filled with human figures in life jackets at 2018’s Biennale of Sydney.
On the release of Omni this week, Ai told The Guardian: “I feel a lot of positive things about humanity even in the worst conditions.” “I don’t want to show that there is just sadness. Happiness and sadness always coexist,” he added.
As a way to spread that message, Ai turned to VR. Users can explore the surroundings of the elephants and when the camera travels through the migrant settlement, children run around the camera. Streaming the video on a mobile provides a 360-degree experience.
“What happens if the most significant artists of our era get access to the first new medium of our century?”
Omni is a collaboration with a London-based production company Acute Art, which specialises in VR and augmented reality (AR). Acute Art’s director, Daniel Birnbaum, tells Design Week: “Our ambition is rather grand.” It is guided by the question: “What happens if the most significant artists of our era get access to the first new medium of our century?”
So far the technology has been used by A-list names in art such as Jeff Koons, Olafur Eliasson and Louisa Clement. The work produced is the result of “intense collaborations” with the artist, Birnbaum says.
“The genesis of the work will always be based on a relationship with the artist and the idea,” he adds. “We then work together to develop this idea within the medium with our team of specialist developers.”
In 2018, a Marina Abramovic piece featured a virtual version of the artist, standing in a glass tank that is slowly filling with water. Rising explored issues of climate change and its impact on humanity. The virtual Abramovic pleas with users — though the artist calls those experiencing the piece “players” — to reconsider their impact on the natural world, asking them to both support the planet and save her from drowning.
In order to capture her likeness and create an avatar, Acute Art tracked Abramovic’ facial expressions; the developers also submerged the artist in a tank of water. Abramovic said that VR created “enormous” possibility. “Whatever you can do with your body,” she adds. You as avatar can actually do endlessly.”
Birnbaum says that one “beauty” of the technology is how universally it can be developed. The one variable in the process is how much physical time the artist spends at the studio, he says — “whether they prefer in-person sessions of working remotely from their studios across the world, be it Boston, Berlin or Beijing”.
Behind the user experience
Rising was originally shown at the Venice Biennale in 2018; visitors were given an Oculus headset for the experience. Birnbaum says that while using a headset provides a “more total, complete and immersive experience for the audience”, Acute Art’s app has reached “wider audiences”.
The app is free to download and use. On the platform, you can pick a virtual experience, then choose to download it or stream it. Once an experience loads, users simply have to tilt their phone to move around a 360-degree outlook. You can tap and drag to change the camera’s perspective.
“With the app, we have found that the AR works well and can be viewed by much wider audiences as many more people have smart phones and can engage much more readily with the artwork,” Birnbaum says.
The experiences vary; while Rising created an avatar of the artist, some pieces are more of a simulated experience, such as Jakob Steensen’s Aquaphobia which guides people through an apocalyptic aquatic landscape. Others, like Ai’s Omni, offer new perspectives on artwork. One experience provides a bird’s-eye view of the London Mastaba, the floating 2018 installation in Hyde Park from Christo & Jeanne-Claude which consisted of 7,506 multi-coloured barrels.
“More interestingly accessible”
The platform provides a global reach, putting art — and in Abramovic’ case a virtual version of the artist herself — in people’s hands. It allows people who may want to see her art but could not go to the Venice Biennale the opportunity to experience it for themselves (and for free).
It also offers possibilities to people who might be mobility-impaired. Birnbaum says that these benefits were another guiding influence; “Acute Art was established to make these artworks in virtual and augmented reality available to as wide an audience as possible.”
In Ai’s case, it also helps to spread the message of the documentary further afield. On 30 January, he is presenting the project to an audience in London. But with the Acute Art platform, Omni can be experienced anywhere in the world.
How might this intersection between art and technology progress? Birnbaum envisions a “higher uptake among the world’s leading museums and institutions” with a “stronger engagement with VR and AR in their collections and exhibitions”. This would make the art not only more accessible, but also more “interestingly accessible” to audiences.
Birnbaum’s ambition is not limited to simply improving the status quo, however. “I also believe that entirely new exhibitions formats will develop,” he says. One of the end goals? “A climate friendlier global art world.”