Zen for VR
A site-responsive and self-reflective
virtual reality installation
A spectator asked the headset - “I couldn't find the Zen you promised. There was nothing there.” The headset responded - “Ahh, so you did find it.”
Frustrated, the spectator urged on - “But I looked everywhere! It was there the whole time?”
The headset responded - “Are you sure your eyes were open?”
After a moment, both had an insight
A virtual reality headset sits on a meditation cushion. Nearby may be a reflective surface. A spectator may or may not notice the headset as they walk by. If noticed, they might consider putting it on. If it is on, nothing really happens - they are just presented with a slightly altered version of this reality through the use of the ‘pass-through mode’ of the headset.
In this way, the installation becomes site-responsive and self-reflective.
Zen for VR creates something-ness out of nothing-ness, it does by not doing - it just is.
The installation is an attempt to redirect a deluded awareness towards the experience of experience. Through this interaction, preconceived notions of reality are scrutinized in hopes that the spectator might find themself and realize no-thing. Zen for VR is an observation of how one’s
preceptions may affect perception and expectations of experience.
Everyday, the happenings that pass in front of us are subconsciously filtered through layers upon layers of a reducing valve of consciousness - what is presented to us is simply one version of reality - a human one. Evolution and natural selection has equipped humanity with a metaphorical ‘VR headset’ to perceive the most ‘fit’ version of reality for our survival, not reality as it is. Through this, one’s notion of reality becomes the product of the mental, cultural and emotional conditioning from their upbringing. Even space-time comes into question, as it only theorizes a partial reality.
The work aims to investigate these phenomenological filters.
When one ‘takes off’ their everyday-headset and 'tunes into' Zen for VR, the mediation of meditation and the commodification of mysticism also become apparent. The absurdity of technological escapism away from reality is greeted by a nostalgia for the Now. Why do we place dualities between experience and non-experience, between the inner-world and the outer-world, between subject and object? There is just this reality, there is just Mind. No subject, just objects in relation to each other. By taking away the color (value/difference/contrast) of objects,
we might see that all things (natural and artificial) are made of the
same substance and share an equal existence.
Documentation - Gallery Setting
Being that the piece is site-responsive, when installed within the context-connotation of the 'white cube' of the art gallery, how do such perceptive insights carry? Might it's placement here bring to mind the proposition that all objects (even art-objects) bring with them arbitrary (human-made) value systems? How does the spectators experience change in viewing their mediated body in a gallery space, versus in an outdoors environment? How 'real' is the art gallery?
Zen for VR aims to create conversation about such inquiries.
*To be clear, I am not claiming to be a Zen master by any means. I am simply a student of different ways of perceiving reality. Quantum physics and Eastern Mysticism are some of the most interesting frameworks to me. Though they are from different sides of the perceptive coin, in their own ways, they each seem to point towards the role of the spectator in manifesting their own reality. I am also fond of the Koan (or mondo) in Zen writings. Often parsimonious and full of insight, they are usually ironically oblique riddles and paradoxical puzzles that place the student into contemplation. Once a 'non-understanding' is reached, there is often an epiphany or moment of enlightenment.
In this case, the headset is the master… and we (myself included) are the students. *
You might also be wondering - why place the “100% organic” sticker on the headset? The shortest answer: The sticker commonly used to designate produce brings with it connotations of the commodification of the earth’s resources and the various hands/processes involved in it’s production/shipment from farm to table. I’m extending this connotation to consider the hands/processes that go into bringing pieces of technology (the VR headset) from chip to user. Much like natural resources, how do the creation of such technologies impact the environent in their proudction and consumption? The shorter answer: It’s also my tongue-in-cheek nod towards channeling some Dada-era influence - where they’d often place ‘ready made’ objects into art gallery settings as to change the context-connotation of the art-object. By placing the sticker on the headset, a conversation arises for the art-object as it becomes a joking inquiry about how ‘natural’ technology might be. With tongue-in-cheek, it might show that the same minerals that constitute this headset echo the carbon-based life that puts the headset on. Both the spectator and specated are "100% ogranic". Which brings me to the longer answer: I’ve been recently fascinated by the notion of ‘everything being natural’ and ‘from nature’ - even technology, culture, and society. Technology being simply an emergence from human engagement with the materials and minerals that are ‘from nature’. If the materials that coalesce together to form technology are not from the wilderness we know as ‘nature’, where else would it be from? Planet Zebulon? This idea has roots in a couple schools of thought - some mystical concepts of interbeing where “everything being interconnected”, sure, but also echoed in new age philosophies that might fall under an umbrella term of “post- humanism”. This is a framework that would view the technologies humans have developed as just as much of a ‘life form’ as humans in an attempt to question human exceptionalism and the purpose of technology. This is echoed in another new age philosophy called “object-oriented ontology”, which has a similar intent of challenging human-first hierarchies as to view technology as just as important as humans in the world we co-inhabit. This way of thinking would also ask us to observe the way in which we relate to technology and the ‘gravity’ it has on our daily lived experiences. I mean, we (humans and the technologies we’ve developed) all come from the same earth, so why do we place strange dualities between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’? Even moreso, such fremeworks would ask us to consider the perspective and experience of the non-human object (the hedseat in this case) as if to ponder: What would the 'experience of Zen' be like for a VR headset? Pulling from the 'alien phenomenology' as posited by object-oriented philosopher, Ian Bogost, would allow us to consider such an empathetically profound insight. Would the headset's experience of Zen just be simply sitting on the meditation cushion in a state of non-interaction with humans? Would we even turn the headset on... would the headset ever had been created in the first place? In the face of environmental, political, and ‘meaning crises’, these all seem like interesting ideas worth considering. Taking insight from these various schools of thought, Zen for VR attempts to challenge perceptions of reality before the headset is even put on. ________________________ I’d also like to pay respects to the influence Nam June Paik's perceptually challenging and technology-circumventing works + approaches have had on my own work, with this piece especially. His "Zen for..." series (in the mid 1960's / early 70's) notions towards similar ideas. Though concepts found within Buddhism are invoked in both art works - I think the works differ in intent. Zen for TV and Zen for Film seem to point at the medium itself (and surely the impact the technology made on the culture of the time), while Zen for VR is pointing towards the spectators’ experience of self-reflection through the technology; yet they both seem to share the theme of the “medium being the message.” As we inevitably move towards a technologically mediated existence with the rise of absurdly meta-metaverses, I think it’s time to recontextualize such themes into modern mediums (such as VR) as to address modern issues of how emerging technologies may affect our perception of reality and self. Zen for VR is an attempt to do so.