Who Said VR Has To Be Visual?

An innovative art project uses experiential audio to create a true sense of togetherness.

I arrived as instructed at 8:45 pm, the warm rain adding more drama to the Berlin sunset. Spotting a group of people with eyes and ears plugged into their phones, I knew at once these were to be my fellow journeyers.

Created by husband and wife artist team, Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl, Unknown Cloud On Its Way To Berlin is an interactive riff on standard virtual reality concepts, which generally work with vision, instead focusing on hearing in an attempt to bring participants closer together.

To experience the artwork, people were told to head to Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld, an abandoned airport that now serves as a park comprised of old runways and huge expanses of grass.

Berlin’s Fernsehturm watches over the abandoned Tempelhof airport

So there we were, a group of strangers drawn together to take part in the experience. There was an initial friction at the encounter of these seemingly disparate groups of people. As I looked around, I could see several groups of people standing in circles, dispersed around the space, and lone wanderers such as I.

In her article about the experience, innovation anthropologist Erika Tanos writes how the Unknown Cloud generates a truly connected and interdependent group. So at first it felt somehow counterintuitive to be hooked to our screens. Then a soothing voice from my phone started talking to me, and I understood it was doing the same to the others.

The Caretaker starting chatting to me on my app right away
We’re so used to being in control of technology to make our lives easier. But as a form of hyper reality, the Unknown Cloud was designed to be experienced through our interaction.

The voice was Caretaker, an AI designed by the artists. It spoke of a cloud that was quickly approaching us. From the start, it was clear we were to follow the voice. The realisation was startling. We’re so used to being in control of technology to make our lives easier. But as a form of hyper reality, the Unknown Cloud was designed to be experienced through our interaction. We were promptly given instructions on how to attract the cloud to us. The voice urged us to come closer together, and to form a circle while holding hands. I looked around, and saw that the people around me were also a little reluctant to hold the hands of total strangers. Nevertheless, I held my hand out to the two closest people to me, and closed my eyes in order to devote my full attention to the Caretaker.

©Sebastian Bolesch
Once I began to hear and feel the presence of the ‘cloud’, I began to see it as a portal into another reality.

Tanos argues that, “a concoction of uncertainty, distrust and lack of meaning is the plague of our information culture. With fragmenting worldviews, it has also become more difficult to collaborate in large groups”. She goes on to argue that Unknown Clouds offers an antidote, bringing people together in a way that has “traditionally united us throughout history.”

Once I began to hear and feel the presence of the ‘cloud’, I began to see it as a portal into another reality. The Caretaker spoke of the sun’s electromagnetic waves, of different sounds emitted by other planets, and noises made by humans in Karbi Anglong in Assam, India. Though these noises I was hearing had been pre-recorded, Lundahl and Seitl later confirmed that they had actually organized a similar Unknown Cloud gathering in Karbi Anglong. In that moment, I felt drawn closer to a group of people embarking on the same experience as we were, even though I had no clue who they were. As it turned out, a group of people had united there in Assam to have the same Unknown Cloud experience at the exact same time as this group in Berlin. In this way, we were made even more aware of other human experience that occurs simultaneously around us all the time, in places drastically different to our immediate environment.

All at once, the field appeared to expand beyond its physical perimeter and I imagined it covering the entire world. I could suddenly and deeply sense that the field was made up of the same earth that makes up the steppes of Mongolia and the sidewalks of New York City.

The Caretaker helped us elevate our awareness of reality. It shifted our perspective by instructing us to interact differently with our physical environment. For example, placing my hand on the grass, I heard the footsteps of the people in Karbi Anglong. All at once, the field appeared to expand beyond its physical perimeter and I imagined it covering the entire world. I could suddenly and deeply sense that the field was made up of the same earth that makes up the steppes of Mongolia and the sidewalks of New York City. The same earth those feet from Karbi Anglong were stepping on.

Bending down to touch the earth, not only could I hear these footsteps that I thought were approaching me from India, but I could also hear what I assumed was the voice of the woman they belonged to. The Caretaker told me that I would soon feel a hand on my back. Sure enough, a few seconds later I sensed the touch, which, for a split second, I thought belonged to this mysterious woman.

At that moment, I felt connected to someone I didn’t know, who lived miles away from me. The Caretaker told me to breathe deeply towards the hand. I then held that hand, and was told to follow it. All the while, I still assumed that it belonged to this mysterious woman that I had never met. When I was told to open my eyes, I saw that the hand in fact belonged to one of my fellow group members in Berlin, who had been instructed to put her hand on my back. I felt at once connected to this person standing next to me, but I also saw her as an embodiment of someone else I had felt interacting with me from India.

©Sebastian Bolesch
Each person’s experience of the world is unique, but by creating this collective experience, the artists used technology to encourage us to trust more in the possibility of reaching out to someone.

The Unknown Cloud immersed us in what Tanos calls a “novel form of collective communication”, by inducing in what she describes as an “overview effect to lift us out from our individual difference to connect with ‘the others’.” It made us understand reality on a level that transcended the everyday. The cloud connected the audience not only with the natural world, but also with each other. It allowed each individual to expand the way they look out onto the world.

Screen time is commonly seen as a hindrance to real interaction, only reinforcing the boundaries that exist between certain people and others. The Unknown Cloud showed me that screens and technology can, in general, help re-interpret our reality, and foster interaction with the unfamiliar in a way that brings us closer together as humans. Each person’s experience of the world is unique, but by creating this collective experience, the artists used technology to encourage us to trust more in the possibility of reaching out to someone.

It’s not a question of putting our differences aside, but instead combining them and embracing the complexity and plurality that surrounds us all.