SALON at Saatchi Gallery welcomes you into a dark room illuminated by two screens, two windows into a peaceful and majestic forest. The screens are the background to a curious dance of people wearing headsets, sensors and whose movements, slow and cautious, excite your curiosity as you wait to start your own experience. What are they seeing, what will happen in this reality, what is the role of the forest, how will I be represented in the ocean of air?
We Live in an Ocean of Air is a new project by Marshmallow Laser Feast, a London-based collective of virtual reality creators, and it is their latest step in a long line of virtual reality experiences; starting with In the Eyes of the Animal, where they pushed the boundaries of virtual reality to show the world through another being’s eyes and Treehugger, where you could explore the inner system of a giant sequoia tree. The fil rouge of their work is to show the invisible and materialise our own symbiosis with nature.
In this latest multisensory experience at Saatchi Gallery, everything starts with your breath; you take your very first deep breath and the cycle of air is ignited. As a sudden flow of particles invade the area, participants realise their hands are visually pulsing with red oxygenated blood. The tracking system visually displays other people around you in the same way, red figures sharing the same experience as you. As the experience evolves the environment becomes brighter and more abstract and free. The new technology allows confident movement whilst walking around the virtual forest including the exploration of the inside of the giant sequoia where you discover what lies behind its bark. Scent dispersal systems adding various forest notes and subtle wind machines add a further dimension. A new sense of freedom is made possible thanks to the HP backpack PC that participants must wear which lets them walk around and interact in a bigger space.
Those who have yet to experience We Live in an Ocean of Air may feel that wearing such complex hardware might be uncomfortable but follow your curiosity and let the artists guide you through these new senses to perceive the world they have created. As the forest materialises, the electronic apparatus is soon forgotten – or at least the emotional participation allows you to ignore their presence for almost as long as the VR experience – and your movements become more natural, always slow, but still confident.
The purpose behind the project is to reconnect humans with nature, to re-establish the lost role of each individuum and to do so Marshmallow Laser Feast have provided the tools to see that which is unseen. The idea is challenging and intricate, virtual reality to rediscover reality, technology to let humanity recover its place in the natural world. To accomplish this purpose, each participant is taken on an emotional journey.
To enjoy and fully experience this installation, there is no need to understand the technical processes behind the art and there is no need to fully know what technology has been used. The on-site team are happy to answer any questions and welcome hearing thoughts of participants afterwards. For me, it felt as if I was a scuba diver again: immersed and levitating, looking at bubbles of air filling the space around me, wearing heavy and complex technology like a second skin and loving every minute.
Far from being a substitute reality, VR gives us unique access to explore new senses, to see and feel the invisible as well as the ineffable fabric of the natural world. At the end of this journey, we are asked to consider this and to keep the memory of the experience in our everyday. Mind every breath and remember its meaning.
We Live in an Ocean of Air is open at SALON at Saatchi Gallery until 24 February 2019.
Tickets are £20 (£15 concs) and can be booked via www.oceanofair.com.
For more information about the exhibition see www.saatchigallery.com/art/salon_009.php
Stay up-to-date with Marshmallow Laser Feast at https://www.marshmallowlaserfeast.com/
Words by Giulia Segreto.
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