Matt Collishaw VR work, Threshold, at Lacock Abbey, National Trust Estate, Wiltshire.
I’ve not felt compelled to write a review of any work lately, but today’s visit to Lacock Abbey fascinated me in many ways. I went specifically to see Matt Collishaw’s VR work about Talbot Fox, to inform my own learning about the potential of VR in contemporary artworks. I was not disappointed.
I’ve seen a few in the past year – Bjork’s show at Somerset House; Rafman in Berlin Biennale and one in a Cotswolds barn, Corridor, by Helen Kincaid. All very different and satisfying in their own way. But I wish to consider context and the visceral experience and interactive qualities of Collishaw’s piece, not just in the space it was exhibited and experienced, but also in the wider location.
Firstly, you need to know that Fox Talbot was a pioneer of photography, so the medium is perfect shown here. Secondly, you need to know that the VR offer was in a tent in a courtyard within the Abbey walls, which enhances the circus-coming-into-town feel. After all, technology is contemporary snake oil, isn’t it?
What you also need to know is the ‘the village’ of Lacock is used regularly as a film set, so is designed to be easily adaptable for that purpose. It too is a VR environment, with all trappings of contemporary living removed from sight – no satellite dishes, no telephone cables, no PVC doors or modern trappings. Flip-flap – the street conceals the real, yet pretends it is real; the VR artwork presents a seemingly real experience that is virtual, by overlaying onto museum display simulations.
Photography was terrifying for many, and Talbot’s first ‘photos’ were made with real objects, such as plants and pieces of lace, on light sensitised papers to capture virtual images. Contact prints. Touch.
This touch thing is important to our experience of place. What works extremely well with Collishaw’s work is the way you can hold onto the display cases, and even lean on them, (they are naked white blocks, like CAD designs of the wooden ones they are modelled from). Being able to touch the surfaces of the cabinets locates your own body in VR space and time. The virtual fire emanates real warmth and the images in the cases can be extracted and expanded by your hand movements. I even played with a virtual spider which was walking across a portrait on the wall (sadly it only had six legs so wasn’t very convincing!). When rioting chartists are heard outside, you can look through the window and see them shouting below you.
Outside the grounds of the Abbey, in the ‘real’ village, life felt more virtual than it did in the headset. It was more theme park than a theme park. It all messed with my head and really made me consider, yet again, about this merging of real and virtual, and what it means to us and how we experience this world we live in, and create. It all reminds me of Benjamin and Baudrillard, about how a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Somehow the street reverses that phenomena, and Collishaw exemplifies it.