VR Visionaries: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Oculus Blog
Posted by Oculus VR
November 7, 2017

Today, we’re excited to share that MOCA: Kerry James Marshall—an innovative collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) and VRt Ventures is now available for free on Gear VR!

The Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibit—a 35-year retrospective of the renowned artist’s work—toured from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art to The Met Breuer in New York before coming to MOCA in Spring 2017. This was the first time that roughly 80 of Marshall’s works were brought together in the same physical space. Using volumetric photogrammetry and laser scanning, VRt Ventures was able to capture the full curatorial experience in 360°—so while the exhibit itself closed on July 3, it’s now accessible for new audiences around the world.

To celebrate and discuss the potential impact of VR on art, culture, and curatorial practice, we sat down with MOCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth, Chair Emeritus Cliff Einstein, and Maurice Marciano Director Philippe Vergne.

What was your initial reaction when VRt Ventures approached you about bringing the Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibit into VR?

Helen Molesworth: I was terrifically excited. I’m always up for thinking about how to marry the museum with new forms of technology.

Cliff Einstein: I thought this was a breakthrough idea. Museum exhibitions unfortunately have a limited life. If you miss seeing one, you’re left with a catalogue of the exhibition at best. Now you can walk through a great show after it has disappeared and experience it as if you were actually in the museum looking at the art.

Philippe Vergne: My first reaction was enthusiasm. As a museum of contemporary art, the art of our time, we have to be aware of and understand the major cultural shifts happening around us. VR is one of them.

I had experienced several VR projects before but had hardly seen any art projects that carried the rigor and pleasure of an exhibition experience. In my mind, it was a way to expend the museum in time and in space—in time because the Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibition will exist forever, and in space because, thanks to VR, museum galleries no longer have physical limits.

My second reaction was: How do we make this happen? Thankfully, Jacob Koo and his team answered this question.

Normally, exhibit catalogs serve as the primary medium through which to archive curatorial projects and preserve them for people who may not have had access to the original exhibit. What benefits does VR offer over a more traditional print catalog?

CE: A VR tour of a museum exhibition vs. looking at the images in a printed catalog is as different as somehow seeing a movie from printed stills of the picture. This is an experience that has never existed before. It preserves the experience—not just the pictures of the experience.

HM: What VR offers that the catalog cannot is a record of how the exhibition actually looked and felt. The placement of paintings and objects in relation to one another is the basic grammar of an exhibition. VR is the first “accurate” documentation of this part of curatorial work.

PV: It’s a very different experience than enjoying a piece of art or reading the scholarly essays published in a book. With VR, one can walk through the exhibition—stop, go back, hear the voice of the curator, etc.

Ultimately, I deeply believe that publications and VR are complementary. Plus VR gives audiences far away from an exhibition the possibility to experience it and be in the same virtual space with the works. It’s active and can be playful in a very creative way. The beauty of an exhibition is as much to be found in the works themselves as it is in the space between the works and the juxtaposition that the curators create. VR gives you access to this.

Are there any limitations of VR in that same regard? If so, how do you think the medium might evolve over time to better serve the unique needs of curatorial practice?

PV: At this point, I think the conundrum to solve is accessibility and distribution. Not everybody has a VR device. That will change. In term of curatorial practices, VR will play a role at several levels. We’ll continue to experience exhibitions while remote in time and space. Over time, VR will be very helpful for curators in the concept phase of an exhibition and the planning of an installation, even though the physical act of the installation process is so subjective and, at times, intuitive that it won’t be fully replaced.

HM: I think the limitation of VR is the potential isolation of the experience. People in museums like looking at work together.

CE: No artificial visit to something real will ever replace the actual experience, but a VR version of a museum exhibition can allow someone who could never see the actual show to have the closest possible experience of being at the museum. We’ve seen visual technology improve exponentially over the last decade. Streaming technology and high-resolution flatscreen development is improving by the week. One can only imagine what we’ll be seeing and hearing as all this develops.

PV: We still need to understand the educational benefit of VR. You can bring the museum or an art studio into the classroom. It seems that for both teachers and students the benefits could be invaluable. We are so far away from the slideshows through which previous generations of art history students have learned about art. With VR, one can enter a pyramid or a zen garden, one can experience choreography with the dancers, one could walk Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, enter Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, and be inside Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels.

What effect(s) do you think VR might have at the intersection of art, curatorial practice, and the archive over the long term?

HM: I think VR may give us new archival possibilities of recording the special qualities of space, time, and movement. We could be leaving a record of what it felt like to be in the space (since traditional wide-angle installation photos tend to flatten and distort space). I also think VR may extend the longevity of the exhibition past its original appearance in the museum.

CE: Digital technology has transformed the entertainment industry. How can it not begin to affect the world of culture?

PV: What I would add is the impact, or not, on artists themselves. Will they create works of art that are “site-specific” to VR? Some have started with more or less success, and I would be thrilled to see this continue to develop.

Do you think more museums and galleries will embrace VR as a way to broaden their reach and preserve the experience of exhibits and installations moving forward?

HM: I certainly hope so!

PV: I think that they will if the technology makes it intuitive to do so, both for them and for the audience.

CE: Museums will naturally be initially resistant to compromising the current visiting experience with the production of VR exhibitions—but artists are already at the forefront of embracing this new technology. Did we think we’d be committed to streaming entertainment in just a few years after it was introduced? We now expect visual input to be available to us everywhere on all formats we use for communication. How can museums not become part of this exciting new chapter? The adventurous institutions will surely be the early adopters of this technology.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

PV: The key for me is to keep an open mind and learn from what is coming.

CE: It took 65 years for us to move from tiny black-and-white pictures sent into our homes to a world where we can don goggles and be transported anywhere and experience something we might never otherwise encounter. VR is here—not coming, it’s here. We can only imagine how we will be using VR in a few—and what we’re imagining may already be here.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us—we’re thrilled to help people explore this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit in VR.

Experience an art museum like never before with MOCA: Kerry James Marshall on Gear VR!

— The Oculus Team