If there is a hot technology in museums right now, it is virtual reality–a technology sometimes credited as being the “ultimate empathy machine.” But can VR live up to the hype for museums? What happens when VR technologies are used to recreate or invoke traumatic experiences? What kinds of scaffolding do museums need to provide when preparing a visitor for these kinds of embodied experiences? And how can museums use VR promote representation and inclusion?
In this special two-part episode of Museopunks, Suse and special guest co-host Desi González, explore the realities of working with the virtual. In part one, Michael Haley Goldman speaks on the prototyping being done at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to experiment with VR, while Kai Frazier discusses the work she is doing with her VR start-up CuratedXKai to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of colour.
In part two, we take a deep dive into Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s academy-award winning virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA with VR film-maker Paisley Smith.
Desi writes, researches, and makes things at the intersection of art and technology. Her most recent position was leading digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum. Before that, she designed educational tech at La Victoria Lab in Peru, developed interpretive experiences at the Museum of Modern Art, and managed a kids website at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her writing has been featured in publications including Art in America, Art Papers, Indiewire, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Connect w/Desi on Twitter
Paisley is a Canadian filmmaker & virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Smith is the creator of Homestay, a personal VR documentary produced by the NFB Interactive Studio with Jam3. Homestay was selected for the IDFA DocLab2017. She is the recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for her forthcoming work Unceded Territories: VR a collaboration with acclaimed artist and VR pioneer Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, with support from Creative British Columbia. In addition, Paisley is a visiting artist at the University of Southern Interactive Media Division’s Mobile & Environmental Media Lab. Smith holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is an admin of the thriving Women in VR/AR Facebook group, with over 10,000 members of the emerging technology community.
Connect w/Paisley on Twitter
When the Headset Comes Off: VR at Museums in 2017
Into Iñárritu: How CARNE y ARENA sets the bar for how VR should be experienced (and how to push it even further!)
For My Son
Curated x Kai
Prototype # 1 – Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom
To learn more about integrating Virtual Reality into museum experiences, register for “Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?”, an Alliance convening to be held September 6-7, 2018, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Read the Transcript
Suse Anderson: Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. Welcome to a special two-part episode. In fact, this is part two of our two-part episode exploring virtual reality, or VR experiences, in museums. I’m being joined today by a special guest cohost being Desi.
Desi, how are you doing?
Desi González: Good, how are you?
Suse: I’m really good. In our last episode, we spoke to Michael Haley Goldman about the work that is happening at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We also spoke to Kai Frazier, who is running a VR start-up called Curated by Kai. What were your big takeaways from those discussions? Or is there anything that has come out those discussions that you’re still thinking about?
Desi: Yeah. I think lot of really great thought from the both them in terms of how they are exploring this relatively young medium that a lot of different industries and sectors are trying to figure out how to use.
One question that I had asked Kai at one point during our interview, which if you haven’t listened to it, I recommend you go back and listen to it. She is out there working with classes, creating kind of a more DIY 360 VR experiences, and I asked her what’s a virtual reality experience that she’s found powerful that’s out there somewhere in the world.
She brought up this one piece, that I’ve been dying to see, called Carne y Arena. It’s produced by the director Alejandro Iñárritu, and it’s been on view in Los Angeles, in DC, all over the world, and has received an Academy Award for kind of its groundbreaking work.
That was really great to hear her say that because actually, we’re planning to talk to another person who is going to take a deep dive into that work, and that’s Paisley.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. You and I have both been trying to get in to see or experience that VR film, and neither of us have been able to. Quick shout-out to anyone who has access, Desi and I both want to go, so if you can make that happen, please do.
But this is a really interesting conversation. I think Paisley had written a great blog post, that you had pointed me to, really talking about the experience from where it starts, which is well before the headset goes on, all the through to its end point.
I think this conversation gives a lot for museums, who are planning these experiences, to think about, that embodied experience and how they can create sensory or environmental, really, threshold and entry experiences that support and surround the VR experience to make it much more impactful, I think, than the film in it of itself.
Desi: Yeah, and this Carne y Arena deals with difficult subject matter. When we were talking to Michael in the previous episode, he’s also talking about how we can use this new media in a really thoughtful way to deal with things that might, for many audiences, be traumatic.
What I’m really interested in about this conversation, one of the many things I’m really interested in, is how we could create this experience using VR that might take difficult subject matter, but treats it in a way that’s really well though-out, that provides spaces for reflection.
Virtual reality, what it affords us, is this kind of this realness, right? Really putting us, or attempting to put us, in a new experience or a new place. So I’m really excited about this conversation that we had with Paisley because it reveals so much about what VR can do, what it could be, and how we might be able to expand and kind of push the limits of the medium.
Suse: Awesome. Let’s get into it.
Paisley is a Canadian filmmaker and virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Smith is the creator of Homestay, a personal VR documentary produced by the NFB Interactive Studio with Jam3. Homestay was selected for the IDFA DocLab 2017.
Paisley is the recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for her forthcoming work Unceded Territories: VR, a collaboration with acclaimed artist and VR pioneer Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, with support from Creative British Columbia. In addition, Paisley is a visiting artist at the University of Southern Interactive Media Division’s Mobile & Environmental Media Lab.
Smith holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, and she is an admin of the thriving Women in VR/AR Facebook group, with over 10,000 members of the emerging technology community.
Paisley, thank you for joining us on Museopunks. Welcome to the show.
Paisley Smith: Thank you so much for having me. This is so exciting.
Suse: It’s so great to have you here. We’re going to kick off with a bit of a discussion about museums, and VR, and embodied experiences. But before we start, I’d really like to know why, as an artist, you are drawn to VR? What does the medium afford you? Why do you work in this space?
Paisley: Well, it’s a very interesting question because when I first started in VR, I actually just fell into working in the medium. It kind of happened in a random way. But the first time I tried VR, and I experienced being in another world and just saw the possibilities of sharing stories in that way, I was drawn to creating in that medium.
Even more so than experiencing it myself, seeing other people’s reactions to VR, and when they came out of the projects that we were showing, and their look was so intense. Like they’d gone on this great journey and came back to reality when they took the headset off. That moment of connection really made me curious about the medium and decided to kind of pursue it more seriously.
Desi: That’s really fantastic. I’m wondering, when you’re thinking about working with VR, are you using a new or different kind of cinematic language to create these experiences? Or is it more of a continuation of other media that you’ve worked with before?
Paisley: I studied film and television production for my master’s, and I’ve been making films since I was in high school, so I am very fluent in that language of traditional cinema. For me, drawing on that experience has been very useful in creating virtual reality, but I definitely had to change the way I approach thinking about story.
For me, rather than thinking about story in a straight visual sense, like the frame of a film, I would think about space and feeling of a space, and your movement, and what you’re touching, and does anything appear behind you? So not just thinking what’s in front of you, or what’s visible, but what could emerge in these spaces, and how they make you feel.
I think that speaks to the language. But basically, for me, that would be in terms of a traditional story board where, for example, I wouldn’t be just drawing it in a little rectangle like we’re used to. I would be maybe doing a bird’s-eye view drawing, and then mapping those things out, and the movements of different things.
I often compare it more to dance. Dancers, I think, have a huge advantage in virtual reality because they are very familiar and natural in communicating space and movement in that way.
Desi: Yeah, I know. That’s really interesting. I’m kind of thinking right now about what you’re saying, and how there’s a little bit of this sense of you’re thinking differently than a linear film because of space, the feeling, and the movement, it’s a choreography. In terms of kind of the audience for Museopunks, for our podcast, for people who are working spatially as well, right? Who are thinking about exhibit design.
I recommended to bring you on as a guest to Museopunks because of a really fantastic and incredibly detailed account that you wrote on your blog about your experience in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning virtual reality installation Carne y Arena. I think it translates in English to Flesh and Sand. It’s been on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts among other places.
I want to talk to you about this because I think you did a really amazing job explaining how a public space like a museum can activate a VR work, which kind of is this medium that we’re not sure how to deal with quite yet, right? Is it film? Is it art? Is it installation? Is it spatial? Right?
Maybe just to start, can you give us a brief explanation of Carne y Arena, and why you were so moved by this work?
Paisley: Sure, yeah. Just to give you some context, I work part-time as a researcher for the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab. Part of my job here is to research up-and-coming artists and to see what’s new and cool in the space in emerging technology.
And so it’s like I’m always trying new stuff, and meet with people, and we are actually across the street from LACMA, where the project is installed. These tickets have been super hot in LA and really hard to get your hands on. That’s, for me, a major VR issue in general. It’s just how to actually see these pieces when they’re exhibited. I was super fortunate that one of my colleagues couldn’t use her ticket one day, so I got to go over there. I’d been wanting to go from months prior to go and enhance the very overly enthusiastic blog post after.
So I went over there, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect because there’s very limited information on the project on the Internet. There aren’t any images from the inside of the experience.
I used to work for a company in Los Angeles called Emblematic Group, and that was founded by Nonny de la Peña, who is known as the godmother of virtual reality. When I was working with her, Iñárritu studio actually had come in and Nonny had consulted on the project, so I knew that he was working on something.
Nonny’s work is primarily immersive journalism. So we would put you on location of a serious event that has occurred in the world in order to kind of allow someone who’s not there to connect with the material, or to perhaps show them a perspective and to share what’s going on in the world. The idea behind this piece, in the sense of sharing the immigrant experience with a wider audience, was familiar to me. But I was not mentally prepared, or I guess, with my experience in VR and the way I’ve seen works exhibited, this was a totally spectacular version of that.
A lot of the time, in best case scenarios for VR viewing, you would have your project exhibited in a space, which is ideally a wide enough space to have walk-around ability because a lot of these projects are fully immersive and have the ability to, once you’re in the virtual world, roam.
That’s an essential part of that, so if you’re viewing a normal VR project, having that space is essential. And then on top of that, you want to have someone who’s there to kind of guide you, or be a leader, as you enter this virtual world, and make sure that you don’t walk into walls, and who helps you, if you’re a new VR user, getting in and out of the experience. For me, this person is an essential element of going into projects.
Especially immersive journalism, for me, can be very intense, and heavy, and you’re seeing a lot of often jarring images that you maybe aren’t expecting. Obviously there’s a reason for these things to have this element because it’s what people are actually experiencing around the world. However, I think when you come out of those projects, and you see the person who’s leading us through it, it kind of can give you context, so they can answer questions and help you kind of acclimatize to whatever you’re experiencing.
So I walked over there, I think I might have been at lunch time or something, and I went by myself, and I walked over there, and I met someone at the museum at LACMA who signed me in. They didn’t really give me much information, but I did have to sign a waiver. And I made a note of this in the blog post, but I’ve done so much VR, and I don’t think I’ve ever signed anything for it. So I was already thinking, “That’s interesting. Okay. I’m a little nervous.”
Desi: Yeah, it’s more than a trigger warning. It’s the next step after a trigger warning. Really escalated from that.
Paisley: Totally. Yeah. I was like, “Okay. Is someone going to touch me? Where am I going?” Because, I mean, the truth is with VR you could really be doing almost anything. Especially with really super advanced installation, for example, something at LACMA, you don’t know what they are capable of. They could have touch interaction, they could have walk-ability, many elements could be incorporated.
I’ve done VR where the floors change, and you’re walking across a fiery pity. You know what I mean? You just don’t know. So in this piece, I get to the location, they sign me in, and then they give me a bit of context. I would go in and read about the project in a dark room. Then when the bell rings, I will move into the next space, and then I will be given instructions on what to do next.
The first room is kind of context. I’d like to think of this as, kind of in a film, the credits. You’re kind of getting into the mood of the project, it’s setting the tone. So in that space, I read about why Iñárritu decided to do this project, how the migrant and immigrant moving into the United States, their experience has affected him as a Mexican American. It gives them the context in when he started researching the project, and all this, and all the people involved.
Actually, he thanked Nonny in that area, which I thought was really nice. So in that space you kind of get a hint of what you’re going to get into. I’d say it’s like the appetizer of the project. Then the buzzer rung, and I walk into this room, and the first thing I notice, it’s icy cold, and it’s super creepy.
It’s basically a big empty room with long benches, and there are shoes of people, who are not there, all over the floor. Like people have left their shoes, like their belongings are there. So honestly, right off the bat, I have a very creepy feeling like I’m in a place that I don’t want to be, and I feel trapped. The feeling of being very, very cold, it really brought the story, and the mood, and the tone of the project to life.
Desi: And just to clarify, you’re physically in this room. You’re not in the VR world yet, right?
Paisley: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah. Sorry, I should have clarified.
Desi: Where you’re looking at … Yeah, you’re in a room with real shoes there … Yeah.
Paisley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Desi: Okay, great.
Paisley: Yeah, so this is still in the real world. I walked into this room … I mean, I guess in theory you could’ve done this in a virtual space. I think what really is amazing about this project is that they were such a large area to work with in the real world. I think that’s what’s so incredible about this project.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s something I would like to dig into a little bit more as well, once we sort of get into this conversation.
Paisley: For sure, I’d love to talk about that. It’s super interesting to me.
So you’re in this icy room, this kind of detention center waiting room, where they have told me I’m supposed to wait for instructions. I’m nervous, I’m wondering, “Is someone going to come in and talk to me? Is it going to be a voice on the intercom? What’s going to happen?” A voice actually comes into the room and says, in a very cold way, “Please, remove your personal items and your shoes. Please, take your personal items and take your shoes off and put them in the locker.”
At the back wall of this room, there’s a little kind of metallic locker that reminds me of either a kitchen stainless steel or kind of an industrial locker. So I was already totally in the world of this project, and I was petrified. I actually forgot to take off my socks, even though they told me to do it. I had my socks on for the whole project, which you’ll understand why that’s kind of funny.
I had my socks on, and I put my stuff into the locker, and I get ready to go into the next room, and I wait for the buzzer. So the red light flashes signaling that I can move on to the next space. I get into this room, and it’s a massive, massive warehouse space. It’s darkly lit with a beautiful ominous orange and yellow kind of fiery lighting that’s coming from, I believe, I mean, it’s bit of my own imagination now at this point, but what I can remember is some sort of neon or atmospherical lightning from somewhere in the space.
Across the whole large warehouse space was dirt, like sandy dirt. There are two LACMA attendants who are there, and they say for me to come to where they are, and they said … they don’t actually even speak to me, they just put the headset on. In my blog post, I talk about this part of my job in VR has often been to show people VR. So I’m very familiar with how to put on the headset, and introduce people to what they’re going to see, and kind of get them into the mood. Which they are clearly trained not to talk to me because I was trying to be funny and charming, and they were like, “No. Don’t talk to us.” So I’m like, “Okay. I just won’t. I will go with it.”
I put on the headset, and instantly I’m transported to a virtual desert space. This is when I just knew it was just so powerful. You’re in the desert, and you’re alone, and there’s some small plants around, but basically it’s pretty barren and there’s not much there.
After a while of kind of walking around … and so I should note that in this piece you’re tethered. So you kind of wear this VR headset, and you have a very long wire that follows you around, which is how you have tracking in the space, and how the system knows where you are, and how it all flows. It’s because you’re mapped to the space through the headset. It’s very cool to have a project with room scale walk-ability like this space, so I could really freely explore this desert.
Desi: How big is this? So you could walk throughout the entire warehouse space? Yeah, I’ve done VR experiences that might be a tiny New York bedroom space that you can walk in, right?
Paisley: Yeah, I would say probably it felt like I had a very vast space. I’m sure it wasn’t actually a whole warehouse, but it definitely felt like bigger than a New York apartment. It felt like at least two LA apartments, like it felt that big. I mean, it might have been a little bit less. Once you’re in the headset, it’s hard to tell how big things are because they’re moving you and your perspective is changing based on what direction you’re facing. You can actually feel like you have a lot more space than you might.
But for example, with something like the Vive headset, it would show you when you go outside of the space that you’re allowed to walk in, so that you don’t hit a wall in your own apartment or something, but this didn’t have that. It was all relying on the people.
Suse: Paisley, I actually will just break you at that point. Talk a little bit more about the people. A few years ago there were a lot of conversations in the museum technology space about immersive theater productions, and as you’re talking, it really sounds very similar to some of those sorts of things. There was the sort of the priming that happens before you enter the actual production space from the start.
There were also the human elements. So thinking about the gentle tug on your backpack that you wrote about in the blog post when you were going out of range, and you’re talking now about how you sort of steered into the right direction. I would really like to talk or find out a little bit more about those human factors and those guiding interventions. And even those questions of touch, and consent, and how you’ve mentioned that you had a consent form at the start.
But those human factors, those people who guided you through this space, how did that play into this immersive environment? Was it done in a way that it was quite obvious or quite subtle? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Paisley: Yeah, sure. So it definitely has something to do with immersive theater. Everyone who is in this project working for LACMA, from at least my assessment, has definitely been trained not to try and engage with the people that are walking in. The idea here is to move people through rather very quickly and efficiently, but also it speaks the piece.
I actually was rereading my blog post regarding this point because I had talked earlier about how much I love that part when you get to talk to someone after they come out of the headset. At first, when I was thinking about this project, I really kind of wished I could have talked to those two people and asked them questions about their experience.
I wanted to talk to them, but the fact that I couldn’t, and that they were not interested in talking to me, and that they had to be very efficient with how they communicated with me, actually, I think spoke to the experience of the project that they were trying to get across. Like migrants are taken to a holding space, and not given much information. On top of that, there’s probably a language barrier, so communication between people, it’s very limited.
I thought that in this instance, it really spoke to the experience and amplified the message that they were getting across. That frustration, I felt, was definitely heightened because of it, so I thought It worked. But I think that the way they did it was pretty respectful of the audience and gave me an understanding of what they were doing. When they touched the backpack when I was going out of range, that didn’t take me out of the experience.
I actually felt release, which is a privilege because we’re dealing with these really intense issues where if you were an actual migrant, you wouldn’t have someone who’s like they are secretively protecting you outside of your world, that’s real. So those were moments where I recognized that I was not in danger, and that actually someone was looking out for me, which has a pros and cons to the point of the project.
Suse: And as you say, it was touching your backpack, not the actual body as well. So there are ways of sort of navigating how you maneuver someone through a space, but you’re not also having to physically touch them, for people who might not be comfortable with that.
Paisley: Exactly. This sounds like a humble brag, but one time, at our own lab, Will Smith came into our studio, and I had to put the VR headset on him. The VR headsets that we used at Emblematic Groups when we first started were 3-D printed, and they looked like an alien headdress. Because at the top of it there was basically three sticks that came out with different lights on the top. And it had to be tightened under your head with a … I don’t know what you would call it, but we had this thing that you had to basically screw in the back to put on your head. So I had to be like, “Uh, excuse me, Will Smith. Is it okay if I touch your head now?” It was one of those things where I’m like, “I will never forget this virtual reality experience.”
Desi: Yeah, there is something so intimate about virtual reality because if you’re, for example, someone who’s assisting put on a headset, you are the one who is getting so close to their body, putting something on their head which is one of the most sensitive points of the body.
You are there kind of watching them, and I can imagine for someone who is a staff member who’s tugging on the backpack while you’re in Havana. While it’s part of kind of your character, your role to seem like you’re really cold, and maybe like you might be treated if you were a migrant. Really what you’re doing there, is caring for someone, and that’s really fascinating.
Paisley: Totally. I totally feel that. It is this weird intimacy that is created through technology, and I think the thing that’s really weird to me about VR, is that it’s not really tapping into that in terms of the marketing of this technology. I feel like there’s a missed opportunity there in the way that we’re communicating VR to people and to the public audience, as people who don’t know a lot about VR.
On top of that, when you take off the headset, you’re staring right into someone’s eyes. You’re so close to them. The first time I did VR, I was terrified. First of all, I knew that there were people in the room who were watching me do it. I was very hyper aware of my reality, but then also very aware of the virtual world, so navigating between those two worlds with my consciousness was really interesting.
Desi: I’ve always struggled with VR experiences in getting away from the physical world outside of the headset. I’ve always felt very self-conscious about it, like you described. But it seems like in this project, this new world starts far beyond the headset, right? It’s starting in the three rooms that you enter before you put on the headset. Every little detail is immersing you deeper and deeper.
And I really loved … I mean, I haven’t had the chance to experience it myself, I tried going. As you said, the tickets are really hard to get, but it’s something that I’m interested to see. That blurring of the virtual world and the physical world.
Suse: There’s also something that I think is quite interesting is, we talked about this… that idea of vulnerability and trust that you’re really handing over trust to, not just the filmmaker, but also the people, and the environment, and the context, and that’s a very vulnerable place to be.
If you’ve never had one of those experiences before, or in fact, even if you have, there’s something quite tenuous about the decision to basically be put into a context where you don’t know what’s happening outside of that VR world, and have that sense of trust within the environment and within the people.
So it’s not just about caring, but also vulnerability. It makes me wonder with something like both this experience, but also other VR experiences that are maybe successful, whether they play into that vulnerability, whether they actually lean into those feelings of discomfort, or being on edge, that people have just by handing over that trust to someone that they don’t know.
Paisley: Yeah, and then one of the things that’s come up a number of times, and I’ve seen discussions about it is, for example, when someone’s in VR, a photography of that person in VR and permission of using that image. Because technically their face isn’t fully in it, but you’re taking liberty of capturing an image while they’re in a different place, essentially. So that’s a conversation that’s come out of that too on the other kind of end of that, is consent when someone’s in VR.
I don’t really know how … Maybe I’m losing a point here, but I was just thinking about this whole process of moving someone through VR and following them around. Because all of the people at LACMA, who were running us through this project, had to trail us with the VR headset, and the train, essentially, of wires that go behind you from the headset. That whole process really, you get to know someone’s movement and whether they feel safe in this space too.
For example, in this project, at a certain point a helicopter flies over you, and in the real world a giant fan is blasting air at you. So all of a sudden it’s very shocking, and you can see the helicopter flying over you in the virtual world. My instinct is to get down on the ground, and they’re also shouting at you, “Get down on the ground. Put your hands up, get on the ground.”
For me, I’m fighting my knowledge of being in a real world and staying standing because I know that nothing can actually happen to me. But on the other hand, if I want to fully embrace being in a virtual world and experiencing what they’ve designed for me to experience, and on top of that, the fear that is really inside of me when I hear someone screaming at me with guns saying, “Get on the ground. Get on the ground.”
So I did do that and then had to really talk myself out of my fear to actually get up, and move around, and explore the space while other people are still on the ground. That really was playing with fear and virtual versus real fear, in that way that comes from VR…what it evoked.
Suse: Paisley, can you talk a little bit about, then, those physical sensations and those sorts of things? I mean, you talked about the fan with the helicopter, you talked about the cold. I know, from your blog post, one of the reasons it was so significant that you kept your socks on is that there was dust in the environment throughout the space. How much do you, as a filmmaker, think about those kinds of aspects of the display context? And when you’ve worked with museums, how much control have you had over those aspects of that exhibition or of that display?
Paisley: First of all, it was really interesting to do the experience in socks because it truly felt like I’d been wearing socks and shoes on this trip that I was on and had lost my shoes. I really got this sense and the discomfort associated with dusty socks, like rocks in your socks, and carrying around these things that feel like a burden. Because it would actually feel, in some way, better to have bare feet because, I don’t know. I was just very conscious of the fact that I was wearing them and on the one hand not feeling the ground that I was designed to feel, but on the other hand, there is a sense of not being in the right place.
So I felt that a really special detail that they were able to bring into this exhibition, which is a sense of touch and feel on the ground of this piece. I mean, to really bring it home was to have you walking through the desert. It really brought the project to life in a way that was really unexpected for me.
I think it’s a really, as an artist, it’s a huge privilege to have an exhibition space that would allow something like that. Because it is very rare to have that kind of liberty of design of your exhibition space. The museum spaces that I’ve worked on projects and the exhibition of those projects, we’ve had some space to do design, but most of it has to be… it’s never for a permanent exhibition, for example. It’s usually something that would be there for a week or less than that. So we might be able to bring in some art department style props, and signage, and that kind of stuff.
In one of our exhibitions we did at the Sundance Film Festival, was for Project Syria. In that project we had signage that we built to kind of look like it was on a street in Aleppo. Then we had kind of a smaller scale of one of the things that I really liked about at Tim’s project, was that in his piece there’s a reflection space where you can kind of make sense of the project and come to terms with it. There is a guest book you can sign, and that’s what we did in a number of our installations.
We had a space with music where you could kind of collect your thoughts about the experience that you witnessed and reflect. And we had a space where you could write notes, and then hang those notes onto a map of Syria, and kind of connect with the story and your thoughts in that way. It offered this kind of conclusion to the heightened emotions of the project.
In this project at LACMA, we had a similar space. First of all, once you get out of the project, you go down this dark hallway. It’s a new room, so first of all, you’re allowed to clean off your feet and your hands of the dust, which is a very nice touch, I thought. Because there is a bench there, and you can kind of sit there for a second, and I actually was just like, “Wow!” I was sweating profusely. I was like, “Okay, I need to sit here for a minute.” Then you go into this next room, and as you walk down this hallway, it’s super beautiful and very well designed.
To your left, as you’re facing forward, there are basically LED screens that have been positioned inside of what looks like shadow boxes, but very deep shadow boxes. You can’t see what the light from each screen is. I’d say there’s probably six or seven screens that are embedded into this wall, but you can’t see what they are when you first walk into the room. You have to physically walk forward to see what’s on the screen, and when you do, you see the face of different people whose stories are being told.
As you go through this room, and you read these stories because they’re not speaking, you’re just reading. You realize that those are the people who you were traveling with in the desert. That really brought the experience back home for me too because I got to understand why certain things were happening in the project.
For example, there’s one guy who is with our group, when the border patrol kind of stops us, and they’re interrogating him, but he doesn’t understand what they’re saying because he doesn’t speak the same dialect as anyone else. He doesn’t speak Spanish. It was a really interesting experience to kind of make sense and draw the connections between these stories of real people and the virtual people that I had been traveling with.
Anyways, this whole hallway and this experience offered kind of a conclusion to the story. Then at the end of it, your heart rate’s going down, and you’re making sense of it. You’re coming to terms with the realism of the piece. And then there’s a place where you can rate in the guest book, and reflect, and share your own experiences and reactions to the piece.
I thought that was a really nice touch because whereas normally someone might have been there for you to talk to, this guest book offered a place for you to kind of share your heightened emotions about the piece and make sense of it.
Desi: That’s really fantastic. And that kind of reflection space at the end, I think it’s so crucial. Yeah, to me that seems like it’s part of the piece itself, or at least from a museum educator perspective.
Desi: People need that, right? To have a meaningful and not totally terrified traumatic experience from that.
Paisley: Yeah, and you know what’s interesting? It’s actually, there’s been some studies that have come out in the last little while that have been saying that jumping in and out of your experience is actually pretty bad for your vision. So going directly from a super real world to then going into a virtual world that has a lot of action or bright lightning, these introductory spaces like the home room kind of entry point into a VR piece, and then the exit conclusion room. Even if they’re in a virtual world, offer your eyesight the ability to kind of regulate, get back to some sort of normalcy before you go back into the real world, for example. Does that make sense?
Desi: I was just going to say-
Suse: Yeah, it makes total sense. It actually sounds like one of the purposes for us doing the show is for museums to really be thinking about the conventions for display and for experiencing VR within the museum context. As we wrap up a little bit, one of the things I’d just love to know is what you think VR exhibitors are getting right and what they’re getting wrong? And 10 years from now, what you think we’ll be doing to experience VR in a museum context?
Paisley: Well, I think the most important thing right now is that museums have these tools available for the public because as a VR creator and filmmaker, my biggest issue is that still so many of my friends haven’t tried the medium that I’m working in. Unfortunately, that means that there’s not really an audience for the work that we’re making.
For example, Homestay, I worked on for three years, and it’s a lot of late nights, and tears, and so much effort went into making it, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how to show it to people. So museums offer a space that frames it and gives a context.
They understand their sense of time is dedicated to being in the museum. A lot of the time with exhibiting on the go, for example, VR/AR people are kind of in the middle of something else or not really necessarily dedicating time to it. This kind of offers a frame for understanding and processing the piece. Also, it solves just a major accessibility issue, so that’s a major win.
The fact that museums are open to this stuff, and are including them in the exhibitions, and making it available, I think that’s great. I think there’s a lot of room for growth and experimentation within that. Obviously, getting this kind of equipment is quite expensive, and that makes it more challenging. But if they’re open to having some sort of space where people can kind of freely experiment with different projects, or try different things, that’s really cool, and will allow the medium to become even better.
Because when people start to see this stuff and actually experience it, it finally gives understanding to why it’s cool. You can talk about VR all you want, but until you go into a virtual world that takes your breath away, or causes you to think when you get home and reflect on it, you can’t really fully understand how cool or amazing it is as a medium.
I mean, as a creative person, it’s just limitless the amount of stuff that you could do or create for people to experience. So that’s really compelling.
Desi: That’s amazing. And I think that’s a really good note for us to end on, that idea that museums can be the space to open up a new medium and new worlds to visitors. That medium that we’re talking about this time is virtual reality, but we’ve been doing this for years, and years, and years. This kind of opening up new wonders. So Paisley, thank you so much for joining us.
Paisley: No problem.
Desi: It’s been an amazing conversation, and I have a hundred more questions I could ask you, but we are running out of time. One last question to wrap up, if people want to learn more and get in touch with you, what would be the best way to contact you?
Paisley: I am very reachable on the Internet. I have a website, which is just paisleysmith.com, and I have an email. My email is on there, and you can send me an email. Or you could connect with me on Instagram or Twitter, all of those ways of getting in touch are great. I wanted to say thank you to both of you for having me. It was so nice talking to you today. It’s so cool that you read the article and got in touch with me.
Suse: Awesome. Paisley, thank you so mush. This has been amazing, and I’m going to have to go back and listen to it all again just to take it in.
Paisley: Thank you so much.
Desi: Yeah, thanks.
Suse: Desi, thank you so much for joining me today as a cohost on Museopunks, talking about VR experiences in museums. It has been so great to have your perspective and to have you really hold my hand, virtually, as we navigate this territory. Because I think you bring such a thoughtfulness to the way that you’ve been approaching these questions and approaching this topic.
Desi: Well, thank you so much. It’s great to hear that. It’s been an interesting thing for me to explore. One thing that in my role at the Warhol Museum, which I’m wrapping up right now, we’ve been thinking back. Andy Warhol was an artist who always explored the medium of his time. So what would it mean for us to do a virtual reality experience? I think you really do need to probe these questions really deeply. It’s not just about throwing anything up, but rather figuring out what kind of works with the story you want to tell, and does the medium afford you.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point. And that, as you say, having a superficial engagement is not going to be the thing that makes our worthwhile museum experience of VR either. Experimentation is great, and we should absolutely be doing it, but we also need to be aware that there are many factors that come into something like this.
That it’s not as simple as just creating the thing itself. There are many layers in terms of perspective within the films, but also those settings, those contexts, these questions about consent when putting the headset on people or allowing them to put on. There are multiple layers that come into what a successful VR experience is.
Desi: Right. And what is the role of the museum within all of it, right? Well, especially when we think about something like, this is an artwork or an experience that requires such intimacy that invades, that goes right into someone’s more personal spaces. So how can we, as museums, do this in a way that’s respectful and ethical.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. It has been so great to talk to you. Now, I’m going to do a little shout-out myself saying, hey everyone! It turns out that Desi is going to be doing consulting work, so you should hire her. Boy, was that a nicely timed coincidence to this podcast. It was not the heart of it, but I do think that anyone whose interest has been peaked in Desi’s thinking and her work, now would be a good time to be checking out what’s she is doing because she is available. Am I right?
Suse: That’s fantastic. So we did cover in the last episode where people can get in contact with you, but in case anyone is listening to this episode who did not hear that episode, where can people find you?
Desi: Two ways that I think someone could best find me. The first is through twitter. My handle is @desigonz. You can also visit my website. It’s gonzalez.desi.
Suse: That is great. Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on twitter @museopunks or @shineslike and check out the extended show notes at museopunks.org. And of course, you can subscribe any time at iTunes or Stitcher.