The virtual reality experience Eight leaves Robert Reid spellbound
This is a remarkable experience. I’ve often found VR to be a somewhat underwhelming phenomenon, demanding you stay in place and only look around at a roughly rendered 3D world. Eight, created by composer and multi media video artist XX, plays with your perception of space and presence in such as way to really trick your senses into feeling things that can’t be possible.
My hands float in front of me if I lift them up to look at them. They look like my hands, but dirty, a little older, and my scars and scratched off nail polish are missing, even though it takes me a moment to realise this. It’s remarkable how quickly one loses one sense of physical self, giving it over to the machine representation.
I know I’m standing alone in an empty-ish room with a few material screen corridors, but the changes in altitude register as though they were really real. The sense that a person is just in front of me is almost convincing. Enough to make me reticent to reach out and touch her, even though I want to try and confirm that someone is or isn’t there. Part of me expects there to be a stage hand roughly where the digital bodies are. But I don’t want to interrupt the hologram’s own reality, its dignity maybe; it feels like a gross invasion of personal space to reach out and touch this non-existent stranger, so I don’t, even though I know she’s not there.
‘There’s a feeling of absence mixed in with her presence, something that comes of bodies recognising other bodies.’
There’s a feeling of absence mixed in with her presence, something that comes of bodies recognising other bodies. The feeling you get when someone silently enters a room unseen, the movement of air, the sub-audible heartbeat that resonates in the space where a human is, aren’t there. It’s an intellectual engagement with this representations. Even though I can sometimes see through the rendering to the digital frame work, I can see the creases where the faces don’t quite matchup. It still feels real
And this is to say nothing of the moments when we go from standing in a hallway to perching at the ledge of a high cliff. The first time it happens there’s a safety rail in front of me, and I need to reach forward and grab it. Even though I know I’m just on a flat floor that I’ve already traversed, far below me my guide is on another platform, and I really feel like if I stepped out over the edge I’d fall. Am I going to be asked to do that, can I take that kind of leap of faith? Of course I can’t, and I’m not sure I would even if I could, but I can feel my fear of heights momentarily tricked into rising. I have to remind myself where I am, and even then I don’t want to get too close to the edge.
My guide begins as an older woman, but changes from younger to older and back again, eventually becoming a young girl. Often this happens when my back is turned, unable to keep from looking around into the impossible depths that stretch away from me: falling snow, or stars that stretch off into nothing. Fading walls and shadowy figures (other people taking the same unreal walk that I am, I imagine) catch my attention, and when I turn back she’s gone, or she changes, or she’s not where I expect, closer to me or further away.
These moments are jarring, like a sudden appearance in a horror picture, a gentle jump scare, although I don’t think they’re intended to be scary. Again it’s the ghostlike non-presence of her that allows for this. I can’t sense her movement when she moves because there’s nothing behind me.
Spaces expand and contract around us. We’re walled into caves, or the space opens out into an endless wooden parquet floor, becoming a broken maze of floating rocks, with fragments of the path way I’ve walked scattered around, jutting out into nothing. There’s a park at night with the same fragmented pathways and the distant bodies of other virtual explorers. A dark dreamscape. And still changing again with a few steps back through a corridor, into an aerie high above a forest that stretches onto out into a far distant mountain range. I’m less anxious of the height here, but I still hold on to the safety rail.
My guide sings with the voice of Kate Miller-Heidke. It’s a song of soaring and dissonant melodies, telling a story of aging humanity, of eternal earth, of times folded into themselves, evolution suspended in a void of perception. Eight figures are depicted on a cave wall, which opens into a bright white corridor. A table appears and our host is a now young girl who invites you to climb under it with her while a red blanket is draped over it. I really do feel the sense of the table right over my head. I can’t help but flash sometimes on how I must look, with a bulky headset and noise cancelling headphones strapped to my head, walking, stopping, kneeling, crawling, looking around at nothing with an unconscious look of wonder on my face, but it doesn’t last. It’s so powerfully over-ridden by what my deluded senses are telling me.
The little girl finally becomes droplets of ruby red that float above my head. Has she become a blood cloud leading me the way back out? It’s sort of gruesome as an ending if that’s what it is, but the experience is no less remarkable for that.
The gentle touch of the attendant on my shoulders from behind, alerting me to their presence and the end of the experience, drops me back into my real body with a dull thud. What a heavy and blunt thing this meat case is. I lift the off the headgear and return to the world.
Its only 15 minutes long but it feels like an age. I already know that this will have been my favourite 15 minutes of the weekend.
Eight, by Michel van der Aa, featuring Kate Miller-Heidke. Presented in the Hertzel Lecture Theatre, Institute Building, State Library of South Australia. Adelaide Festival. Until March 15. Bookings
Eight is recommended for ages 12+. For visitors ages 12-17, a parent or guardian should be present.
One person per session.
Not recommended for individuals who suffer severe claustrophobia, seizures, epilepsy or extreme vertigo. Please wear comfortable shoes.
For the audio guide of this page please click here.
Partly surtitled or includes dialogue, background music or sounds.