In No Body? the artist Rindon Johnson considers VR, subjectivity and the question: 'What’s the point of having a body if I theoretically could make or step into so many?'
I became interested in writing poetry at the same time I became interested in virtual reality. When done well, both function outside of specificity in that their effects and produced sensations are purposely difficult to name. There is a blurring of body, self and time, a layering of memory and a fusing with the designer of the space, the poet, the maker, the artist. A viewer, reader, user, is provided an opportunity to stay within themselves while simultaneously vividly becoming and going towards another self, or at least to look down and see another body. This other, since it is narrated (physically or otherwise) in the mind of the viewer’s self is some kind of version of the viewer too.
I’ve been working on a new virtual reality film for a show. I’ve been getting high by throwing my VR camera off bridges, into pools, ponds, lakes, the sky and then reliving this throwing (and floating), over and over again. I wonder when I am making my work: What’s the point of having a body if I theoretically could make or step into so many? The self has been made malleable by the opportunity to become a form of language. Does the language form a version of code of the self? If I want to fly, I search ‘fly’. If I want to know what it might feel like to try and cross the Mediterranean as a refugee, I search ‘refugee’ and I can, and out of curiosity, I have. When I look down in these scenarios I do not often have a body that resembles what I look down and see without a headset on. Sometimes, I see the remnants of a tripod, sometimes a swirling nothingness, sometimes I see the people in the virtual space I’m meant to feel I am in. I’m still me then, I think.
In the real world, I make sculptures because you cannot see all of the sculpture at once. There is no turning around to leave in virtual reality. This, I think, is a sculptural sensation: implicit in large sculptural installations is a period of transition, there is a moment before I enter — before I am swallowed up — where I anticipate that I will be swallowed and in that same moment, I can nearly see myself entering. In VR (and poetry) the headset is as quickly on as it is off, the more you are inside of it, the more you read it, the easier it is to quickly disappear within it. The boundaries are fluid, specific to each viewer and their comfort and understanding of the medium. Worlds can be endless, limitless, emotional, tyrannical.
All of this also exists in this actual space of now. With the climate melting and the confusions of race and class and power and all of these things, one can become constantly but can one transcend? I’m sure, with enough money, eventually I might not need a body, I think, although I do like mine. I don’t think I’ll ever fully be able to leave it. I am still me even if I am walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon or shooting zombies or dressed as my avatar deep in conversation with another avatar. How does my flesh relate to all of this. It is there, sure. I can feel the hair standing up on my arms, for example, but it is also somehow not there. We both can and cannot leave ourselves behind. I am myself and I am not myself. I am here but I am also over there. What would I like to become? What phenomenon or idea? Who needs a body anyway? Well, who am I anyway? That’s an interesting question. Today I spent a lot of time underwater swimming, or rather sitting in a chair in my living room in the Great Barrier Reef. (It seems like the older I get the easier it is to do the things that I had wanted to do when I was young.)
The only thing that remains fixed in these spaces is the idea that we are in a state of becoming, but we also in this process remain the self that we are. I do not become a pilot, I play a pilot. I am still I and the pilot is still a pilot, sort of. So in this virtual embodiment muddle we have a form of a self and that self is made malleable by the opportunity to become a form of language. (Becoming in relation to the linguistic libidinal desire-y soup of the mind.)
The filmmaker Cécile B. Evans reminded me that the word ‘virtual’ is used incorrectly. She was speaking of the internet and how we think of it as not real – but she argues: how could a place where families are created via online dating and destroyed via online drone not exist? Following her line, another misnomer manifests: VR is not a non-existent reality, because we live it, feel it, can be changed by it. We can put on a headset and physically chat with another person far from where we are. Soon we will be able to see their whole faces, perceive if they are being funny or deceptive. Either way, physically, they are still over there and we are over here. I think we do not have the linguistic map to specifically pinpoint where there happens to be in this scenario. That is why I’m making all this art in this space; I actually don’t know where it is. What happens when language fails us? When it splits and severs? What do we call something or someone then?
If I’m being hyperbolic sometimes, I think it’s because VR is a funnel, a culmination of every sensation currently classified as a ‘medium’. Alas, for now, it is hard to work with; when an overly ambitious mind decides to construct for the technology it breaks and glitches. Although scent is still missing, we are close. I hope I don’t get sick from being too close to the screen; I love being this close to a screen. Every time I get in and put on the headset, I get very close to disappearing. They say you shouldn’t stay in there for more than 20 minutes. They say a lot of things that I do not do. I come out after a few hours and things are dim and listless. I’m trying to figure out what to call this sensation of being in two places at one time.
What happens when this virtual shapeshifting becomes commonplace? What type of person might someone become if they were used to existing on multiple planes and in multiple realities? Will we simply follow every utopian trajectory and recreate the society we sought to escape?
Rindon Johnson is an artist and writer living between Berlin and Brooklyn. He has an MFA in Sculpture from Bard College and his work has been published or exhibited by Artforum, Cultured, The New Museum and Rhizome.