Eclectrc Panoptic by Jess Johnson

We Dream of Networks...

This article by Emily Dunlop focuses on Jess Johnson’s exhibition ”Eclectrc Panoptic”, at Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh.

Emily is a student at the University of Edinburgh and her exhibition is all about art and virtual reality. Emily is completing an MA in Fine Art and History of Art. Whilst avidly researching interactive and cybernetic art, she’s created her own interactive installations using Bare Conductive’s Touch Board.

In this installation, New Zealand born artist Jess Johnson collaborated with the video maker and fellow kiwi Simon Ward, they utilise the cutting-edge medium of virtual reality.

The gallery pamphlet quotes Johnson, ‘my reality is different to your reality… I think of it as flowing lava, moving under the surface of time’. Yet in this space, Johnson’s visual imagination is offered to us in her electrifying exhibition; her reality becomes the spectator’s reality as one delves into her psychedelic realm.

Talbot Rice’s Gallery 3 offers exhibition space for young promising artists: the exhibition design is effective in its use of the circular glass-domed space. ‘Eclectrc Panoptic’ consists of a series of meticulous mixed media drawings, a holodeck floor, a wallpaper populated with twisted demonic figures and the centrepiece: the virtual reality animation Ixian Gate.

Two Oculus Rift headpieces are offered on one side of the room held on intricate bronze zoomorphic hangers. A small cinema viewing space displays a trailer for Johnson’s Ixian Gate and acts as a makeshift waiting room whilst crowds eagerly queue. No one could walk past without noticing this exhibition; there is no empty wall space visible in the vibrant environment.

Visitors are instantly drawn to the black polished headsets; a technological device that has increased in popularity in the media recently, thus the drawings are neglected. Are the drawings displayed to illustrate source material for Ixian Gate or do they exist as art in their own right? An awkward juxtaposition of these mediums is salvaged by the decoration of the floors and walls.

The hand drawn artworks are not so disparate in the decorated space; illustrations of the dismembered nudes are consistent throughout the drawings, wallpaper and animation. It would have been a very different experience to walk into a bare white space and to only be offered the headset. Therefore, Johnson’s consideration of the physical space and effort to unify the collection of multi-media works is successful, but undoubtedly, Ixian Gate is the main attraction.

The first and most famous virtual reality artwork, Osmose, was created by Char Davies in 1995. After it’s initial success and hype, virtual reality’s acclaim in the art world appeared to decline. However, with the successful market of gaming, virtual reality has stepped back into the spotlight with a more affordable and accessible development. It offers an entirely new aesthetic expression. Ixian Gate is not a concrete artwork but a cybernetic virtuality; it is an art form in which a constructed world is given virtual embodiment in three dimensions, and that can be investigated through full body immersion and interaction.

New heights of virtual reality have been reached in Johnson and Ward’s collaboration. Unlike Davies’s depiction of the natural world, the viewer is led through a world of cult-worshiping, naked figures, and strange floating caterpillars. The variation of being inside and outside elevated and lowered in the numerous looming edifices creates real sensations of vertigo. The use of a slow navigation through the world is somewhat constricting, but the spectator fervently awaits each turn in the exploration of the unearthly environment. In contrast to Davies’s naturalist immersive experience, Ixian Gate creates a sci-fi inspired dystopia.

The technology offers full body immersion, and the longer one looks around the virtual space, the more real it seems. Towards the end of the animation, you look behind yourself to be startled by a crouched nude figure; details such as this illustrate the treacherous environment. Boundaries between the real and virtual dissolve in this enveloping space. This absorption into the intimidating world cannot be compared to meagre framed drawings on the wall opposite. The works may be unified in their presentation and running themes and styles, but Ixian Gate steals the show.

One experiences Ixian Gate in solitude, becoming a lone figure in the intimidating landscape. This solitude furthers the spectator’s envelopment and trance-like state, and possible interaction with others becomes impossible. There is nothing to distract you from pure observation of the artwork. Ixian Gate’s new dimension of experience can limit the ability to critically detach yourself.

Technology has brought artistic expression to life; it creates a psychologically manipulative experience. However, the final effect of Ixian Gate for the spectator is not merely the awe of convincing immersion. The space-age dimension generated is a thought-provoking artwork with retro appeal, as Johnston’s world envelops the spectator; one begins to question what is real and whether it could ever be real.

Johnson is heavily inspired by science fiction; the holodeck floor is taken from Star Trek’s own visualisation of a virtual reality facility. The esoteric references display a vast variety of sci-fi content. It is not crucial that they be recognisable, as Johnson unifies various ideas and themes in creation of her own sci-fi world, animated by technology and displayed on the walls. Yet a collection of books is made available outside the exhibition. The famous novel ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert and ‘Inverted World’ by Christopher Priest are major influences of her work. This is an enjoyable addition to the exhibition, as the viewer can – if they choose to – get a real sense of what Johnson is referencing.

The musician Andrew Clarke created the pulsating rhythms accompanying Ixian Gate. The soundtrack encapsulates the viewer’s progress through the alternative reality with varying unsettling synth effects. The atmosphere conjured by the sound is reminiscent of old sci-fi movies and video games.

Technology remains to be a male-dominated area of expertise but Johnson has no apprehension in approaching the advanced medium of virtual reality: a step in the right direction for women in technology. Furthermore, this exhibition exemplifies the transformation from the lone creative genius to an innovative focus on collaboration of artists, engineers and musicians. Simon Ward’s contribution can be overlooked; the dystopian realm Johnson fabricated in her drawings combined with Ward’s technological ability were both essential processes in creating Ixian Gate. Ward had never tackled the intimidating process of using virtual reality, yet his usual DIY approach was employed in comprehending the new medium. Ward had access to Johnson’s drawings and scanned them into the game engine Unity.

Johnson states that ‘he has a lot of autonomy in what he does. It keeps it interesting for me because he actually expands the world to feed back into my work, so it’s this interesting loop. In the studio, he will come up with imagery which I’ll then take and rework into a drawing, and then it just builds like that.’ The collaborative efforts of the artist, engineer and musician in Ixian Gate displays a creation of a simulated artistic system, since there is constant feedback loops between the many layers of the work. Every part of Ixian Gate worked harmoniously in construction of the perfect immersion.

Johnson’s patterns have been crafted into some sort of mysterious language that the spectator has to unscramble and make sense of. The hypnotic swirls and intricate patterns decorate the whole exhibition. The illustrations are reminiscent of Egyptian and ancient Babylon dynasties with the interlocking bricks, pillars and arches. Imagined vulva gods proliferate in Johnson’s work. Indeed, once taking off the headset you return into the gallery and such a god confronts the spectator on the wall directly opposite.

One of the illustrations framed on the wall really caught my attention, with the inscription ‘WE DREAM OF NETWORKS’ at the top. The lifeless nude figures, with their limp arms and arrested focus on their virtual reality headset—essentially blinding them to the real world—is a chilling proclamation of what is to come. There was a standard waiting time of 5-10 minutes, and to be confronted by such an image was provoking. As I queued, I wondered how this is only the beginning of virtual reality. Will we dream in networks? Technology has become embedded in our culture as humans and machines are more tightly bound than ever. This exhibition succeeds in incorporating technology and art both in medium and subject, and in the process highlights a possible dystopian realm to come.

Images: Emily Dunlop

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