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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The lucid nightmare of VR porn

Pv3
The lucid nightmare of VR porn

It typically begins in POV, archetypal male body—glistening, devoid of hair, boxers coyly hiding a bulge—seen from the nipples down, lying supine and motionless at the bottom of the screen, implying that this is your body, your blood, your rapidly engorging member.

If you tilt your head up, you’ll see the ceiling; down, more of your body, more context as to how your nipples take up the precious skin-scape of your baby-smooth pecs; right or left you’ll see a vase or a workout bike, a bookshelf or an ottoman, subconscious cues that your “body” is lying within a nondescript room, one that offers such a vague but clean sense of place it could only be “California.” As in: the place Anthony Kiedis is always singing about.

In this case, as in most cases , your view is technically limited to 180 degrees, though it amounts to more of a fish-eyed rectangle, concave, with all of the bookshelves and Buddha statues and windows and house plants at the edges of the frame diffusing and slightly warping away from the center of vision. Out of which—just as you are getting your bearings, just as you’re able to figure out how your body belongs to and interacts with this heightened reality—emerges the person who will fuck you.

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Behind every great technological advancement are two people fucking. If the daguerreotype was invented on a Sunday, then by Monday someone was using it to chronicle some hot-and-sticky 1830s coitus. Imagine two awkwardly assembled meatbags posing interminably while they waited for the exposure time—in some cases as long as 30 minutes—to lapse, wallowing in the pain of artifice for our pleasure.

As soon as any “thing” becomes a thing, it will almost certainly be used for pornographic purposes. From the camera obscura to Chat Roulette, in time every epoch-ushering technology follows suit, putting the greatest minds our world has ever known to the task (indirectly or not) of condensing, compressing, and disseminating the luxury, the fun, of voyeurism as an end unto itself. As NPR, bastion of worthwhile knowledge, once postulated in 2003: “Is Pornography Driving Technology?” You’re goddamned right it is.

The progress of technology, broadly, is measured in connectivity. The more our access to media, to knowledge, to each other is strengthened, the more comprehensively, exponentially even, technology broadens our individual views into the one-time unattainable corners of the world.

intimacy commingles with passivity

It’s natural, this progress: The only things with which we are more fascinated than our own bodies are the bodies of others The ways in which these “other” skin-sacks come together, are used, are exploited, are manipulated or developed or simply carried, flicked, poked at, bobbled from hand to hand. It’s how we understand our corporeal essence—by knowing where “I” begin and where “you” end, we get at the limits of self. The bigger the world gets, the clearer we see how we fit—both physically and emotionally, the latter an extension of the former—into this ever-massive place.

Pornography works the same way. It embraces technology and in some cases pushes it forward. Porn uses technology with a precise sort of entelechy: to realize the ideal pornographic experience, closing the gap between one’s sexual imagination and actual, physical, external genital stimulation, all the while learning how the two can effectively cooperate with each other. Some might even call that a kind of “visceral” empathy—intuiting how fantasy can cooperate with reality as the limits of one’s flesh meets the limits of another’s. As Descartes meant to say, “I fuck, therefore I am.”

But NPR’s assertion that pornography is irrevocably tied to technology isn’t so revelatory anymore. Especially because, today, with perhaps greater social aversion than ever, the world at large seems to understand the indelible connection between money (of which the pornography industry has and will always have a lot of) and access to technology. On some level, you probably know this—you recognize that the only way for porn to move forward is to draw people together, to provide more and more venues for people to live out the ordeal of fucking without making them navigate the emotional terrain of physical intimacy.

Pv2

As an evolutionary step, POV-based porn is a no-brainer. The spatial context; the hint of intimacy in having the performer “look” you in the “eye” (or: an “eye”); the sentiment of engagement at its basest level, wherein the person you’re watching acknowledges you watching, laying bare the transaction between watcher and watched, stripping it down to its most honest core: This “genre” of porn chips away at the voyeuristic distance, at the morally charged middle ground between someone watching sex, and someone having it. All the director is doing is holding the camera in an ergonomically reasonable position while having sex. But there is something so much more arresting about having a performer look into your eyes, rather than stare, their pupils at an average aperture, nothing behind them, into the bellybutton of his or her fifth partner of the day. Errol Morris knows this, which is why he invented his Interrotron—he can dredge a palpable intimacy from the basest of gestures.

In POV porn, intimacy commingles with passivity, which is probably the laziest of stews when it comes to inhabiting the body of a person who has a lot of sex with attractive strangers. Hence evolved a kind of Choose-Your-Own Adventure porn movie—bearing thousands of names like “Interactive Sex Stories” or “Choose Your Erotic Adventure”—in which the user can employ a DVD remote or a mouse to indulge in the fallacy that the “story” (which concerns who the protagonist, being you, fucks, and when and how you fuck) of the porn is left to the agency of the viewer. Should I stay here and get a blowjob in this bar bathroom, or should I go back to the table where my best friend was telling me about how his mom has cancer? Life is full of possibilities.

Virtual reality then seems like the logical next step in bringing viewers into the experience of having consequence-less consensual sex with strangers. With the Google Cardboard setting the stage for an already oversaturated field of affordable VR goggles, and with the ubiquity of smartphones meaning that practically anyone can at anytime, anywhere watch two people fucking, VR porn—finger firmly pressed upon the pulsing G-spot of consumer expectations—is very much a given. (Do G-spots even pulse? Am I doing this right?) But that doesn’t mean it should be.

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You have a Google Cardboard headset (actually, it’s a Cardboard Adjacent: the IAmCardboard version, which has suffered a torn velcro strip after one use) and, choosing from one of the limitless cadre of porn sites—which began building a virtual reality section as soon as VR porn became a thing—you have downloaded their recommended VR app so that the bridge from site to app, from unnervingly 3D preview vid to panoramic download, is automated, especially if you already have to hold your brand new headset together. You only have so many available hands.

Assimilation into the body of the headless humanoid on your screen is already, before you even enter the virtual realm, a physically awkward circumstance. And so, you must adapt to the shock of your new corporeal circumstances quickly, because your libido is already strained, extending from the mysterious core of your body-wearing-cardboard-goggles through your phone and into the body-lying-corpse-like-atop-a-virtual-bed-or-futon-or-leather-couch. If you listen closely enough, you may be able to hear the creak of leather, immediately adding cognitive dissonance to the experience, because as far as you can tell, there is no movement in your lifeless digital person to warrant any leather noises.

Pv1

Enter the porn star, three-dimensional in the cell-shaded sense of flat planes layered one over the other, like a fourth grade diorama or a Speed Racer cartoon: the virtual room achieves depth while each individual part of the room remains two-dimensional. The porn star teases your rigor-mortis’d shell, intending to be so alluring that the through line—the lifeline—of your libido will be twanged hard enough to affect the “outer” self fumbling with the velcro on your cheap headset. But the utter lack of sumptuousness on the part of the porn star removes all organic girth from this supposedly sexy entity. A real human being’s body is curved, dimpled, spilling out and over the empirical lines that god once used to draft the thing. This porn star is all, only lines. It descends upon you, and you accept it without flinching.

That is the extent of it: You will be fucked. You will do no fucking. Thrustless, flat on your synthetic back, what you can see of your chest rising and falling calmly (the only proof that this version of you is “alive”), your head swiveling around to take in as much of the digital space depending upon how interested you are in what’s happening directly in “front” of you—agency isn’t even an illusion. It’s non-existent. To hear a porn star coyly ask, “Do you like it?” or, “Is this what you want?” is more frustrating than titillating. It doesn’t matter what I like or what I want.

In this VR space, I am a passive sex doll bent wholly on autonomous responses, a dreamer in the midst of a lucid nightmare, unable to move yet hyper-consciously aware of what seemingly nefarious goings-on are happening around me—what’s happening to me.

That sense of helplessness grows if you attempt to look away. Lift your headset to the ceiling or crane your neck to catch a glimpse of some detail of the room left unexplored behind the convolving nodes of flesh apparently writhing on top of your comatose body, and you’ll never be able to escape the person fucking “you.” Even if the field of vision somehow (unintentionally) allows you to only see the tip-top of the head of the person on tip-top of you, or only the occasionally outstretched hand or foot, there is no respite. You may be able to ostensibly look away, but the evidence of what’s happening remains at the fringes of your field of vision.

Sometimes, too, there is a mirror on a distant wall, reflecting the soulless act directly back at you, but from a heretofore unexplored angle, like Duchamp’s nude descending the staircase onto a dick. Let alone ignore, you cannot deny what is happening on you, with you, to you.

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Watching most VR porn would be a violating experience were it not so disembodying. While porn, and especially VR/POV porn, handily ignores the fact that a lot of women, I’d suspect, would not like to have their digital body portrayed as a pre-pubescently-hirsute bone-white dude with a monster wang, it’s difficult to imagine that any VR porn, all-inclusive or not, is actually succeeding in what it’s supposed to be doing.

For VR porn, body horror comes in “full 360”

It’s a good question: What is VR porn supposed to do? As is the case with pretty much any major technology, like Viagra or the iPod, its existence automatically outpaces its functionality, at least until society takes over and recreates that new technology in its image. This doubly applies to porn, as NPR informs us, because at the very least, even if it isn’t a primary force behind the development of virtual reality technology, porn will embrace that technology if only because it exists. Whereas POV porn feigned a certain degree of immersion, and Choosing One’s Own Sexy Adventure provided a sense of agency to that immersion, VR should more nimbly than ever be working to recreate in a digital realm the feeling and full-bodied sensation of intercourse. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll get fitted with elaborate codpieces, like that globular, drooling man-sphere in the Pearl Jam video, completing the immersive experience that these early VR porn vids so readily tease.

And yet, there is still the long Cronenbergian phase through which we must pass. For VR porn, body horror comes in “full 360,” in which you are able to see completely behind “you,” hilariously avoiding looking into the eyes of the digital person fucking you while sorely aware that this is not how bodies work, that this “person” gyrating on top of you should probably be terrified by the Exorcist spectacle contorting through the lump of flesh on which he or she (usually she) sits. Body horror is tipping your headset and phone totally to the side, as if your digital ear is connected directly to your digital neck (represented by an opaque-black hole at the bottom of the virtual field), the person on top of “you” again not reacting to the black magic present in the room. Body horror is the deep-seated knowledge that this vessel, which carries you through this universe, is the only one you have, and that it is infernally, reprehensibly weak, archaically fragile, and will always be disappointing.

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Your cold hard avatar has succumbed to the porn star practically falling from the sky to grind heedlessly on your foreground, while, turning as far as you can to your right, the background you can see is filled with two additional porn stars (who must have come in while you were turned elsewhere) sort of fooling around, but mostly just staring at you blinklessly, which they probably have been doing the whole time you refused to notice them. By now, you have accepted that this is what this is, what it will only be. You are trapped in this digital body, and, like in every kind of porn, agency and immersion are only thinly propped-up ideas trying to make you believe that you are this close to having sex with a porn star who seems totally turned on by you.

But then, the normally sedate arms of your digital self lurches, as if shaking off a weighty dream, and reaches up to grab the waist of the person on top of “you.” It is not something you expect, nor is it in the realm of what you—the mostly clothed person with your pants around your ankles, a cardboard pair of goggles on, your “VR face” a stereotype of slack-jawed shamelessness, unmoored from the reality in which such an image is depressing—wanted to do in that moment.

Instead of reminding you, the passive viewer with cardboard on your dumb face, that the moment was meant to be transportive, to trick your mind and hopefully your body into arousal, it shakes you completely out of the moment. The VR porn vid has gone too far. In feigning control, assuring you that no, your digital self is more than a narcotized slab of beef on top of a lavender duvet, those two moving arms only emphasized the horror of disappointment. This most definitely is not your body—your real body is the feeble, somatic lump with its pants down, and this is the only reality you will ever know.

Pv5

Like the mirror behind “you,” where you could turn to watch the undulating bodies undulate from a different angle, VR porn is a phantasmagoric reflection of the helplessness of your real body. You put on cardboard goggles, aspiring to escape the limits of that body, to expand your sense of self through the most carnal of means, but all you find is another prison. Prisons within prisons, horrors disguised within horrors—this is VR porn. At least for now.

Sex isn’t cannibalism. You don’t become imbued with the powers, hopes, dreams, and feelings of a person if you have sex with them. But sex can facilitate such a connection. It can provide our sense of self with the best basest understanding of what that means—where I end and where you begin. It’s an imperative, so this will change. In time.

But for now, though much of you is revolted, even terrified, by what’s happening within your cardboard goggles, you finish. You wake from the nightmare, realizing that maybe you should have turned off your light-sensitive settings on your phone’s screen. You flush what you’ve finished into down the toilet. You delete what remnants you can of the video and website from your phone. You pull up your pants, suck in your belly, and notch your belt. You accept yourself; you are scared by yourself. Life finds a way.

Versions is brought to you by Nod Labs,
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