VR meets art

Kiran Bhumber and Nancy Lee.| Photo by Jevan Crittenden.

Kiran Bhumber and Nancy Lee will be presenting Telepresence, an interactive virtual reality (VR) experience on Dec.14 and 15 at Western Front. The creators of the project bring together their mutual experience in music and visual and multimedia art in a piece which seeks to subvert the hierarchy of aural and visual artistic elements.

“The medium of VR is a very visual medium, and its main applications are video games and VR-based cinema. So we wanted to explore how [we can] use VR technology in a way that hasn’t been used before,” says co-creator Nancy Lee.

Vision and collaboration

Before meeting each other, Bhumber and Lee had steadily been building their artistic careers both in Vancouver and abroad. Bhumber’s area of expertise has centred more around music, composition, and interactive installations. For Lee, musical involvement has involved a more ‘curatorial’ position, while her personal creations have been more in the realm of interdisciplinary media and film.

But both Bhumber and Lee were interested in experiential performance and interactivity, and so a chance conversation between the two at an electronic music event, hosted by Lee, would lead to their first collaborative endeavour.

“One of our first collaborations was a swing installation called Pendula where we had these swing sets and they have [people swinging] on them. Based on your position and motion, those change the projections that are around you, and also [the] sound that’s coming from all around you as well,” says Bhumber.

Since the success of Pendula, the two have collaborated on a number of other performances, their latest being Telepresence, being arguable their most ambitious project to date, taking the aural, visual, and experiential elements of performance to another level.

An experiential and subversive approach

In essence, Telepresence is a piece which brings together the all-encompassing visual elements of VR with a dynamic surround-sound musical performance. A combination of real and virtual elements, audience members wear VR headsets which visually places them in a virtual space, while trumpet performer JP Carter plays live along to Bhumber’s pre-recorded electronic soundtrack.

Perhaps what makes Telepresence stand out the most is this interplay between the virtual and the real worlds. Using VR artistically, while still in its relative infancy, Bhumber describes how the duo are already pushing the boundaries for what’s possible with this kind of technology.

“Usually with VR it’s a very individualistic experience. Say, when you go to a VR installation, you usually have your [VR] headset on and headphones on, so it’s binaural, and you’re kind of in your own world,” says Bhumber. “With Telepresence, what we wanted to do was create an atmosphere where multiple people can be in the same space witnessing the same VR experience instead of everyone wearing headphones.”

Furthermore, the duo notes the physical element to VR that no other audience experiences can match.

“Depending on how you’re situated during the performance, whether you’re looking up, looking beside you, looking around you, you’re putting your body in very different positions that you would never have your body in during a live performance, like in a concert setting,” says Lee. “So depending on how your body is situated and posed and choreographed, you receive the piece differently. There’s more elements of discovery that could happen.”

New possibilities

For Lee and Bhumber, VR represents an artistic frontier with a wide array of possibilities. But being a new frontier, there’s a lot of work that has to be put in to make it work. Indeed, the pairing had to develop much of the technology to be able to create Telepresence.

“When we built this system, it’s not just the “Telepresence” system for performance,” says Lee. “We had to build the system and the infrastructure to support the performance, as well like all the software and hardware… so that we can make a performance out of it.”

But the hard work has been rewarding, and so the two hope not only to tour Telepresence next year, but also to see what others are able to create with their system.

“What we also want to do is also allow other artists and collectives to use it for their own means as well,” says Bhumber. “We’d like to share our knowledge and share the technology that we’ve created.”

For more information, please visit www.front.bc.ca.