The VR Avant Garde

Frames from Stan Brakhage’s “Dante Quartet”

I hear a lot about VR as a new platform for storytelling, and as someone who likes to make up stories, this is tremendously exciting to me. But sometimes the reason I love literature has more to do with loving language than narrative. Some of my favorite writers–Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis, Bruno Schulz–are more craftspeople of language and image than of narrative. There’s a continuum in literature between poetry, which explores the inherit beauty and possibility of language, and fiction, which traffics in narrative arcs, character development, plot, and all of the other elements we think about when we hear the word “story.”

But just the English language allows for both narrative driven art and language-based art, so too should VR allow for experiences that both drive narrative and exploit the qualities of the medium for their own sake.

You can look at any art form through this frame, really. It’s the difference between representative and abstract visual art. Or music–the difference between John Lennon and John Cage. The point being, any healthy medium should have room for an avant garde. A vibrant avant garde feeds the mainstream. I’d love to see what the VR avant garde will look like.

I imagine a starting point might be to consider avant garde cinema. One really interesting 20th century filmmaker who could serve as a point of reference is Stan Brakhage. Brakhage created his films by physically mucking around with the actual celluloid. His short, mostly silent films are the result of his scratching, defacing, marring, and painting the substance of film itself.

Here’s a cool one called “Stellar” from 1993. Don’t bother turning up your volume, there is no sound.

Here’s another cool one from 1963 called “Mothlight.” I’m pretty sure it was made by gluing insect wings to celluloid.

One of the interesting things about watching a Brakhage film is that even though there’s no sound, there is rhythm. There’s a certain percussive sense of propulsion as the frames speed by. This both accentuates your awareness of the film as a medium while sort of hypnotizing you. You don’t watch a Brakhage film the same way you watch a Spielberg film much the way you don’t look at a Rothko the same way you look at a Rockwell.

One area that could be promising for avant garde vrtists is volumetric VR. I’ve come to understand that there are basically two ways of making a VR film. The method that will be most prevalent is by using a camera array, or collection of cameras facing outward from a central point, as on a tripod. Volumetric filming, on the other hand, involves an array of cameras arranged around a scene, facing inward. The first instance of this that I can remember are those fight scenes in the Matrix movies, where you fly around Neo as he’s suspended in the air.

Volumetric VR to me suggests a sculptural approach to the medium. Instead of dealing with planes and parallax you’re engaged with the film like you would interact with a sculpture, considering it from different angles. One cool thing you could do is create sculptures in VR that could be altered by the viewer in some way, and then send these sculptures to a 3D printer to render in the real world what the viewer had seen in VR.

It’ll be cool to see what the VR avant garde dreams up. Much like how the Beatles were inspired by the avant garde composers of their day, all vrtists will benefit from those who push the medium forward with the craziest, most mind-boggling experiments.

Note: Thanks to Tarik Merzouk for inspiring this post.