The Work of Art in the Age of Virtual Reality

Walter Benjamin, ca. 1925, photographed by Germaine Krull. Early adopter of Oculus Go.

Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” has been reproduced and reprinted just as much as the media which the German philosopher laments. Benjamin’s work is 82 years old, having transcended the advent of disruptive new media like television. Yet in 2018 the paper shows its age and struggles with nearsightedness: proximate media like theatre and film remain lucid while new media like Facebook or virtual reality (VR) are blurred. The essay retains its wisdom as a document of media history, but its continued relevance necessitates an epilogue regarding art in a digital world.

This paper evaluates the work of art in the age of virtual reality. What does VR take from its media predecessors? What about it is radically new? What is lost? Benjamin could not have anticipated a technology and art form as metamorphic as VR, but within the text lies the theoretical foundation for the fully immersive medium. Benjamin notes: “Just as the illustrated newspaper lay hidden within lithography, so the sound film was latent in photography.”[1] Virtual reality, likewise, was latent in film — it reaches for representation of reality like every other branch on the tree of media technology. VR has already sprouted its own disparate content twigs: gaming, medical treatment, athlete training, 360° cinema, and journalism are just some of the possibilities in an immersive head-mounted display. All this content advances and satisfies the desires “to get closer to things” and “assimilate [reality] as a reproduction.”[2] What follows is not a treatise on the merits of virtual reality art, but instead an unimagined epilogue to Benjamin’s essay. In particular, it examines live-action 360° cinema as a VR art form poised for proliferation.

VR is simultaneously foreign and familiar. It is the toy in vogue, the object of philosophical fear, and the gadget of consumer fasciation. Nonetheless, its attributes are all too familiar. VR is just the latest advancement in technological reproducibility, echoing how “The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room.”[3] The ethos of VR is the ability to most accurately recreate reality for private viewing. The wearable head-mounted display eliminates peripheral vision and creates a singular, private experience for one individual at a time. VR can reproduce any setting in 360°, transporting everything from live sports to Syrian refugee camps to be witnessed in a private headset.[4] The VR experience exists for the masses, available on any Oculus or Google Daydream console, but it creates the illusion of singularity and uniqueness. In this way, it combines the traits of unique “cult” media like painting as well as mechanical “exhibition” media like film.[5]

360° cinema and (realist) painting both point their arrows at the same target: verisimilitude. The appearance of being true or real. The legacy of panoramic painting, for example, made its way into VR thought and practice; the appeal of many early VR experiences has been the transportation to an unattainable or distant landscape (the summit of Mount Everest, the streets of Cuba, or even Antarctica).[6] Moreover, the painter depicts a “total image, whereas that of the cinematographer is piecemeal, its manifold parts being assembled according to a new law.”[7] The VR camera toes the line between these two techniques: cameras like the Google JUMP rig create the illusion of a “total image” by stitching together sixteen camera shots into a spherical 360° whole.[8] Stitching creates the optical impression of stereoscopic depth of field. The product is a VR environment which maps the totality of a space and reveals nothing of the process of piecemeal assemblage. The single viewer is thus granted the liberty of a 360° field of vision. VR cinema insists that art is meant to be experienced by a single user, in the same vein as painting: “A painting has always exerted a claim to be viewed primarily by a single person or by a few.”[9] The aim of both VR and painted art is to thereby trigger “contemplative immersion.” Such was the intention of Dadaist painters, who “attached much less importance to the commercial usefulness of their artworks than to the uselessness of those works as objects of contemplative immersion.”[10] Further, Dadaist art and VR cinema both have an “asocial” gene — VR seeks to create an intense sense of presence in its user. VR cinema shares with painting the priorities of the total image, individual viewing, and contemplative immersion.

VR video’s closest relative is traditional cinema, due to the basic connection of live-action video capture. Benjamin’s claims about the disruptive potential of film in 1936 parallel the rhetoric surrounding VR in 2018. VR finds itself at a Lumière Brothers-esque phase today: filmmakers experiment and viewers are shocked, even scared, by the novelty of the media technology. VR has nurtured a mythos of its own, redefining many of Benjamin’s superlative claims about its forefather. Benjamin quotes an inquiry by Séverin-Mars: “What other art has been granted a dream … at once more poetic and more real? Seen in this light, film might represent an incomparable means of expression.”[11] The answer is virtual reality, which affords “more real” dreams and is a directly comparable means of expression. Just as the film camera appropriates “individual perceptions of the psychotic or dreamer” for collective consumption, the VR camera bestows viewers with access to individual perspectives of the blind, for example, in Tribeca Film Festival-featured Notes on Blindness.[12] Indeed, VR and 2D films (“flatties,” as they are dubbed) both foment human self-alienation. In a VR headset, even more so than during a solitary viewing of a film, we lose sight of our bodies, surrendering to the extreme equilibrium between our point-of-view and the camera.[13] Finally, Benjamin posits that the notion of “reception in distraction… finds in film its true training ground.”[14] VR distracts from reality like no other — it is a refuge and an escape from external reality into a myopic head-mounted display. If film is like a tricycle for escapism, VR is a motorcycle. VR cinema shares with film the focus on individual perspectives, self-alienation, and reception in distraction.

Virtual reality combines select qualities of predecessor media with its own radically new features: agency and presence. 360° cinema — although ostensibly similar to film — capitalizes on these attributes as potent narrative devices. Agency is the first distinguishing factor — user autonomy of attention is both the most important most challenging facet of VR filmmaking. Viewers can look wherever they want: how does a director point their attention? In live-action experiences, viewers have 3DoF (degrees of freedom) — yaw, pitch, and roll — which are simply head movements that viewers use to survey the 360° world. In roomscale experiences, which are digitally-rendered 3D worlds, the viewer has 6DoF, adding in the abilities to move forward/backward, up/down, and left/right. In no other art form can the audience be dubbed a “user” — such a semantic distinction amplifies the unique agency enabled within a VR headset. Benjamin argued that cult art forms “made the maximum possible use of human beings,” while exhibition art “reduces their use to a minimum.”[15] VR, here, mirrors cult art forms, maximizing the agency of the human user. VR directors must give credence to the user’s freedom to look around, utilizing intentional cuts on points-of-interest and spatial audio cues to ensure the user does not miss narrative plot points. The camera is treated as a person, sometimes with as many as sixteen eyes, existing within the shot and watching whatever action it desires. Autonomy in art is radically novel and staggeringly attractive; virtual reality cinema elevates the human user to an echelon unreachable by any other art form.

Agency is the crucial input in creating presence: the sensation of “the here and now” in a VR artwork.[16] Benjamin deplores cinema’s distinct lack of presence: “It is impossible to assign to the spectator a single viewpoint which would exclude from his or her field of vision the equipment not directly involved in the action being filmed — the camera, the lighting units, the technical crew, and so forth (unless the alignment of the spectator’s pupil coincided with that of the camera.”[17] The final parenthetical statement is an accidental prophecy for VR. In 360° cinema, the spectator’s eyes directly align with the camera. VR cinema can harness the POV shot in a revolutionary way — it facilitates both a self-alienating effect and foments the sensation of being in someone else’s body. VR re-subjectifies, re-orients, and re-assembles. Users can embody a new subjectivity and sensory experience simply by wearing a head-mounted display. When on the roof of a building in virtual reality, looking down precipitates the visceral fear of heights — as if the user is actually there. In a VR adaptation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, exiting a dark cave into broad daylight simulates the shock and adjustment of a first exposure to light.[18] Further, the presence effect unique to VR dismantles Benjamin’s dichotomy between distraction and concentration. “The masses are criticized for seeking distraction in the work of art, whereas the art lover supposedly approaches it with concentration.”[19] VR is ostensibly the peak form of distraction, and yet, once the headset is on, there is no choice but to concentrate and assume a new subjectivity. Hyper-mediation, excess positivity, and profuse distraction are intractable facets of contemporary society, and VR meets users at the site of distraction and implores them to concentrate. To feel present. As VR cinema proliferates, and users overcome the novelty of the product through habit, the human apparatus of perception will adjust to VR’s distinct tendency to re-subjectify.

What is lost in VR? VR’s claim to reproduce and aestheticize “the aura” and “the here and now” of a real experience would both enthrall and appall Benjamin. Although VR is the digital medium most capable of simulating authentic experience, its reproducibility still threatens the prized notion of “the aura.” “To follow with the eye — while resting on a summer afternoon — a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”[20] In VR, users could have the agency to follow the mountains with their eyes and the presence of resting on summer afternoon — does that qualify as experiencing the aura of the mountains? Benjamin would likely answer with a categorical denial. What is missing in VR is a sensation of liveness. Ayad Akhtardec argues that theatre is the only art form left which is truly “live” — collective viewing of a play can synchronize heartbeats of audience members. For Akhtardec, theatre is “something brighter, more vivid, more loving, more alive.”[21] Indeed, VR could never truly replace that collective viewing experience; the fact that it purports to do so is what bothers thinkers like Akhtardec who chastise a “world increasingly lost to virtuality and unreality.” Liveness is the contemporary iteration of “aura” and it does not exist in virtual reality at this juncture. VR sees individual experience as paramount to collective activity; the cultural implications of such a liberal standpoint are enormous. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites imagine “a public where each citizen is turning away from the others. The closest equivalent is private reading, which is indeed crucial for bourgeois public culture but by itself insufficient for a robust conception of public opinion.”[22] VR, like private reading, is insufficient for any real conception of a public. VR threatens — among other things — liveness and notions of collective and community.

This paper poses as an epilogue to Benjamin’s seminal work, but VR is not necessarily the endpoint of media technology. VR is another new technological vector with an unpredictable direction. The trajectory of VR may be uncertain, but it may be determinable. Consider Benjamin’s two contrasting use cases for film: fascism or socialism. Likewise, there are two routes for virtual reality: escapism or empathy. Some users will look to VR as an addicting, aestheticized, and controlled alternative to their reality. Others will utilize VR to augment their reality by experiencing art that encourages agency and affords empathetic presence in a new point-of-view. Some will use their VR headset as a blindfold, while others will use it as a lens to understand their world. VR art like 360° cinema can improve life outside the headset by providing the best qualities of painting and film with its own radically new agency and presence. Time will tell if VR surrenders to a dystopian future as depicted in Wall-E or Ready Player One. What can help evade that troubling destiny for the virtual age? The work of art.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 21.

[2] Benjamin, 23.

[3] Benjamin, 22.

[4] Chris Milk and Gabo Arora, “Clouds over Sidra,” UN VR, http://unvr.sdgactioncampaign.org/cloudsoversidra/

[5] Benjamin, 25.

[6] “The Antartica Series,” New York Times VR, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/climate/antarctica-virtual-reality.html

[7] Benjamin, 35.

[8] Google JUMP: https://vr.google.com/jump/

[9] Benjamin, 36.

[10] Benjamin, 39.

[11] Benjamin, 29.

[12] Amaury La Burthe, Notes on Blindness (Ex Nihilo) http://www.notesonblindness.co.uk/vr/

[13] Benjamin, 32.

[14] Benjamin, 40–41.

[15] Benjamin, 26.

[16] Benjamin, 21.

[17] Benjamin, 35.

[18] Reference to my film Aletheia: Plato’s Cave in VR.

[19] Benjamin, 39.

[20] Benjamin, 23.

[21] Ayad Akhtardec, “An Antidote to Digital Dehumanization? Live Theatre,” New York Times, December 29, 2017.

[22] Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 299.

Former Editor-in-Chief @ Brown Political Review. VR x Politics x Journalism.