Virtual reality presents the future. Filmmakers extol its ability to evoke audience empathy. Journalists champion its potential to mobilize audiences distracted into sensory malaise. Joe-Shmo praises the potential for an alien-esque hat and increased possibilities for video games and porn. Time and space disappears as viewers respond to events and experience beyond their geographic and temporal limits.
Although VR is positioned as an unprecedented development, it may not be so radical. Virtual reality ushers the viewer into a constructed three-dimensional universe that uncannily resembles a material landscape. This landscape prompts a visceral response like the Lumière brother’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat allegedly “caused fear, terror, even panic”. Though they were accustomed to photographic realism, film shocked viewers. Now, despite being accustomed to dramatic moving images, VR shocks users.
That Virtual Reality is needed to jolt audiences the way films once did suggests the medium is more polemical than newspapers and tech-mavens realize. Technology’s development of social forms extends beyond the digital age. Walter Benjamin explored similar matters in his 1936 work ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. At the time, society faced similar cultural and political stressors that were eroding previous modes of representation. Amidst internal threats, European society was fracturing as neighbouring countries became enemies with opposing ideologies. New forms of art — Futurism, Hollywood films, radio — responded by promoting a form of expression that matched the frenetic atmosphere. This, Benjamin argued, shifted how citizens interact with their environment. Art’s ‘aura’ —the unique attributes a product communicated to its audience — was no longer its defining attribute. Whereas art was once limited to irreproducible objects — a play can never be identically re-performed, painting required physical presence — film, photography and audio reduced the importance of being there. Mechanical reproduction collapsed time and space for artistic expression. When the viewer doesn’t need to be in the company of creation to experience art, art switches from a repeated ritual to a singular act. Benjamin contends that reproduced art becomes politicized as ‘exhibition value’ displaces ‘cultural value’.
This displacement provided the preconditions for celebrity culture, which commodifies the human image. The actor — aware they are offerings themselves to a camera which camera that endlessly copies their image — conducts himself for consumption. The emotions, the unique experience of their character and the audience’s ability to empathise, collapse together as the subject’s image is manipulated through filming, reproduction and editing. Mass marketing emphasizes the divide between man and his image. Representations of the body are sold and consumed, divided and reassembled, to create a beguiling reality for viewers.
Virtual Reality updates celebrity consumer culture for Millennial culture that prefer to commoditize experiences. If the masses have grown immune to film and photography’s absorption/alienation, VR re-engages audiences by renewing their belief in art’s potential for political expression. Filmmakers and journalists quoted in the New York Times cite VR as having ‘unique potential … to summon emotion in the viewer’, ‘ability to generate intense empathy on the part of the viewer’ and ‘command of presence’. Although these statements seem to promise revolution, read through Benjamin’s history of mechanical reproduction, VR resituates mechanical reproduction for the 21st century. If the economy has shifted from producing commodities to producing experiences, art has responded by moving from producing celebrities to producing immersive digital environments. While capitalism continues to structure Western society, technological changes during the past eighty years have reorganized production and class, conditioning the development of new ideologies and ways to express them. Not only can the viewer enjoy art from any temporal and spatial location, they can experience an event regardless of social viability.
Whereas Benjamin discussed ‘pure art’ — that is, art made to be art, to represent reality with the implicit admission that does not accurately reflect reality — VR tends to presents itself as a factual depiction, complicating the implications of reproduction. When used as a journalistic tool, VR echoes the Benjamin’s concluding omen, ‘[Experiencing humanity’s destruction as pleasure] is the situation of politics which Fascism is rending aesthetic’. Although VR may use real people and real stories, the editing techniques used to relate these stories are ignored to validate the generated experiences and emotions. While the audience is supposed to understand their response as authentic, the stories presented to them have been choreographed like a movie. VR negates its intended aim and inverts the question it appears to answer: what happens to representation when reality becomes virtual as opposed to lived?
In an ideal world, the multiplication of experiences — whether virtual or lived — would increase society’s empathy, building peace and understanding for conflict-ridden areas. As utopian experiments tend to demonstrate, even societies operating under ideal conditions are subject to strife due to individual interpretations of events. Since VR prizes the individual audience member’s experience as opposed to the collective response, it seems possible that the individualization of technology will intensify film’s alienation. The potential for VR to be a constructive force depends on how society unites the phenomenon with its response. If VR only provides entertainment, it will become another tool for capitalism to monetize Experience. If the separation is presented solely to build empathy, it threatens to commoditize human nature. VR needs to find a midpoint that allows viewers to share emotion, while understanding that an individual’s experience of this emotion remains unique. VR needs to find a storytelling voice that allows for the communication of stories outside of pleasure/information binaries. VR needs an ideology to harness its potential for social change.
Featured image via Flickr: Maurizio Pesce