Arjon Dunnewind is a Dutch curator. In 1988, he organized the first IMPAKT Festival and established the IMPAKT Foundation in 1993. In the early 2000s, he started the internet art platform Impakt Online, and in 2005, the Impakt Works Residency Program. Dunnewind has curated exhibitions and screening programs for among other the NCCA in Moscow and RURU Gallery in Jakarta.
Have you ever experienced a work of art in Virtual or Augmented Reality? What was your impression of it?
Yes, I experienced many and of any kind. Of course, the experiences varied from case to case. What I noticed is that sometimes technology was still “in the way” of the experience. This makes very sense if you consider that artists are experimenting with emerging technologies and pushing them to the very limit: it is very likely that one ends up in a situation where things don’t work the way they were supposed to, or where things need to be improved while you are already exhibiting the project – in the very moment when people are already inside the Virtual Reality installation. Some other times, the whole project results to be just an illustration of a concept rather than a fully functional experience. In such cases, as a viewer you have a grasp of what the possibilities enabled by this instrument could be, but still, you can’t experience them directly because of the still problematic aspects of innovation and technology.
However, I have seen also very nice examples of Virtual and Augmented Reality projects. Personally, I am more excited about projects that develop the idea of a collective experience in Virtual Reality. While most of the VR experiences leaves the spectator alone while interacting with the project itself, I get very excited when a project allows the interaction among different viewers that are physically in different locations but participating and meeting up inside the same VR experience at the same time.
In your opinion, what new artistic potentialities were uncovered by Augmented and Virtual Reality technologies?
Augmented Reality is interesting because it creates a layer that allows not only an interaction with physical environment, but also adds an extra level of perception and meaning to the physical world. Sometimes it also comments on it. This is very interesting, also beyond the artistic potentialities of AR, like in the cultural, political realms – fields where people interact with each other and produce meaning also collectively. As regards as VR potentialities, it is undeniable that it allows you to immerge in a new world in a very personal and individual experience. It is known that in this way users have the chance deeply understand and empathize with the person or of the entity they are exploring through VR. At the same time, the distance created by the gear itself is still so relevant that it almost outweighs the experience of empathy, proximity, and the possibility to be in someone else’s shoes. Indeed, the more advances design research for the gear, the more we are going to experience the expressive and artistic potentialities of VR. At this point you can wonder if maybe a more traditional form of media such as cinema is still more appropriate to make people understand a certain situation, feel what someone else’s has felt. The so-called suspension of disbelief – that is the act of accepting the reality you have in front of you as the dimension you are part of for the moment – might be still easier to be triggered with a screen and a good movie, because people are more acquainted with cinema. Not to ignore the fact that viewers need to be geared up before enjoying a VR project. Once VR will be more socially accepted and more of a smoother technology than what it is now, then the potentialities of immersion in another entity’s life and experience will finally be at its fullest.
Have you ever curated artworks in AR/VR? Can you tell us a bit more about your decision of including – or excluding – such artworks in your projects?
Not as much as you can think… IMPAKT as an institution has never shown so many AR/VR artworks. This is mainly for the reason that IMPAKT was not born to be a technology showcase. There are other contexts in the Netherlands where such technologies are displayed more, also for economical reasons. In fact, exhibiting such artworks is more expensive than the exhibition of other forms of media. Once, we have co-produced a VR work that was an extension of a video-work by an artist in residence at IMPAKT – Tabita Rezaire, whose solo-exhibition we will host soon. She also gave a presentation discussing the potentialities of AR and VR but more specifically related to the field of cinema.
The reason why we have not included as much AR/VR art in our exhibitions is mainly a financial one, but it is also connected to the fact that to open critical discussions and debates about the influence of technology and media on society, on our daily life or on democracy – that is what IMPAKT wants to do – one does not need to install a VR installation. Group discussions or presentations with an artist are more suitable formats to reach such goal. For instance, we had an event to analyse the potential of AR and VR, especially as regards as their influence on people’s worldviews in cases when these instruments are turned into ‘arenas’ to promote a given political message, either implicitly or explicitly. In short, we hosted events on and about AR and VR, but we did not showcase the technology itself.
Do you reckon that the immersion in alternative environments as offered by AR/VR technologies can be functional to the demand for a reconceptualization of ourselves in the world’s ecology?
Assuming that AR and VR are part of the future and part of the world’s ecology, using these technologies will make us understand and reconceptualize ourselves in these future ecologies. So, the answer is yes, supposing that in the future such technologies will be more and more widespread. This means that the immersion in (art) projects that are built in another environment – an alternative, fictional world – will make us understand this hypothetical future while making us aware of the potential dangers of these technologies.
Do you think AR/VR technologies could be instrumental to societal changes as regards as, for example, the problem of misrepresentation of specific social groups or the plague of systemic racism?
Yes, immersive technology is and can be an effective way to make a person see the world through the eyes of someone else so to understand what another person might encounter in their life. Put in this way, yes it can help to this regard… But I believe that also a great book or a good movie about the same subject can do the same thing. As I already said, as long as technology will be so visible and present in AR and VR, the positive effects of such technologies are kind of limited. I am not putting into discussion the above-mentioned potentialities, but I am once again highlighting the fact that at the current state of the art, these instruments are a bit overestimated especially concerning this specific aspect of enabling a peculiar political or social transformation.
Few years ago, I saw a VR installation in Ars Electronica in Linz, where the viewer could identify with a person coming out to their old-fashioned family, whose members react in a negative and threading way. The attempt to let the viewer completely experience the burden of not being accepted by one’s family was less effective because of the intrusiveness of technology. Then, the concept could be better translated and communicated through other forms of media. Another project worth mentioning is Immersive Journalism, where one VR is used to bring you in a city at night during a demonstration. Here, you can switch your role within the same context, and you can be a rioter, a police-officer or a journalist. This project was very nice as it helped bringing forward the possibilities enabled by VR for matters like being in another person’s position.
So, would you say that maybe empathy is enabled by the viewers’ previous experiences or personalities rather than being enacted by the materiality of the device?
No, I think that technology has quite a special quality. Of course, also the spectator’s position has a role in it, but the most important factor is determined by the design of it, so it depends on the artists’ use of technology as an artistic tool. I am not at all denying that the technology itself has more potential than a video work or a book in terms of immersivity and self-identification with the virtual experience.
I just want to point out that we must be aware also of a huge industry behind us, that wants us to believe that the revolutionary impact of new technologies enables us to do things that we have never done before… Whether this is true or not, this narrative does not acknowledge the primitive, complex or expensive aspects of technology. This means that we need to be open to see the advantages and the disadvantages of an instrument, without being necessarily negative towards technology nor falling into the pitfall of simply believing the industries’ promotional messages.
What are your expectations about the development and use of these technologies in the artistic field in the near future? Do you expect them to spread and become popular in the artistic field or do you see AR/VR as irremediably elitist?
These and similar technologies will become much more widespread. At the same time, I do not think we are going to speak about AR/VR with the same terms in ten years from now: they will be hybrid and mix with other technologies as well. We perceive AR and VR as brand-new technologies now only because big tech industries want us to do so in order to launch their new headset or wearables. As a matter of fact, primitive forms of Virtual Reality were existing in the 1990s but were not so appetizing for tech industries. Ten years ago, Augmented Reality seemed to be the latest brand-new technology when Google launched their first AR Glasses. After some months, they interrupted the production of them, so AR stopped being popular. This means that the popularity of such technologies depends a lot on the industry’s push to promote and sell them. After Google stopped selling AR, there has been a sudden shift of interest – also in the arts – from AR to VR, mostly caused by the shift in research prompted by tech giants. Since the development and the spread of new technologies depend on the industry’s commercial interests, then I am sure that immersive technologies will be less elitist. For what it concerns the way they are going to be used in the artistic field, we will probably see them mixed and hybridized with other forms of media, so much that they probably will not be perceived as separated anymore. I am saying this because it happened the same also with other once innovative art-tools. For example, video art is now part of the artists’ toolkit. At the beginning, some people were experimenting exclusively with it and proudly wanted to set themselves apart from conventional artists that still were not using such original tool. The more a new technology becomes socially accepted, the less interesting is for artists to be labelled and identified with it. Nowadays, producing videos is such an ordinary practice (see, for example, grandmothers filming their grandchildren), that it is not anymore a special skill for an artist. Producing a video is now like using pencil and paper. Maybe in the future it will happen the same for artists using AR and VR in their projects. Augmented and Virtual Reality might become just two of the many components of multimedia installations and art projects. In the final analysis, I expect AR and VR to merge with other technologies and to be hardly distinguishable from other formats.