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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 gorgeous, unsettling worlds of Jess Johnson

Ixian Still_landscape
The gorgeous, unsettling worlds of Jess Johnson

Piles of humans balance on each other in impossible towers, stretching acrobatically; huge worms float through outer space, their threat of danger softened by how far away they seem; infinite eye-like gems blink back at you from dislocated darkness. You see these things while passing through gigantic archways and temples of infinitely complex design, the walls and floors made up on endless detail, all of it also somehow also in motion. This is what life is life inside the Ixian Gate.

“I’ve always been very suspicious of reality,” says Jess Johnson, the creator of Ixian Gate (2015), an Oculus Rift installation recently on display as part of Johnson’s Wurm Haus exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. “Probably like a lot of kids I had this idea that there was more to the world than what was being revealed to me, and if only I discovered the right access points a door would open in the air and I would enter the world of the ‘really real.’ The place beyond reality, where reality is made.”The sense that reality is not so much a fixed idea but a set of flexible terms is present throughout Johnson’s work. From the overwhelming, facade-warping Gamma World (2013) to Mnemonic Pulse (also 2014), a circular, “first person” 3D projection, her animations lean toward altering the perceptions of viewers.

Flesh Screensaver, 2015
Flesh Screensaver, 2015

Even in a 2D piece like “WWWMMM” (2014), the artist can be felt pushing for a deeper visual perspective, its focal point pulling backward far into the distance while openings in the walls lead off-frame into unseen areas. Her major motifs are present here: the blank-slate poseable bodies, the worms, the tentacle antennae, the grids. These drawings, in their manipulation of visual depth and perspective, often feel like a smaller articulation of a more expansive creative world, the templates for Johnson’s use of virtual reality.

Her more conventionally room-based installations like “Wurm Whorl Narthex” (2013) also reveal Johnson’s latent interest in creating an environment for a viewer to enter. In these works, her drawings and design patterns act as sigils, anchoring each space into the Johnson worldview. She refers to these early installations as a “crude attempt to drag the world depicted in the drawings into our reality.”

“I think I was always reaching for something, like I was trying to create a portal into this other world and was using these really ineffective tools of sticks and paint to do so.” Her discovery of 3D animation and then VR provided this portal, allowing for the construction of complete environments—total installations that, particularly in the case of Ixian Gate, transcend the limitations of physical space. As Johnson describes it, the Oculus technology made her traditional installations “instantly redundant, but opened up this incredibly world of possibility. It was the most exciting thing that has happened to me as an artist.”

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Still a developing technology as well as an artistic language, virtual reality can be disorienting to the new viewer. There is little precedent for the feeling of being immersed so fully in an invented experience, and the dislocation from conventionally “real” life is something still being integrated into our understanding of what creative work can do. Johnson observes that on the first day of Wurm Haus being open to the public, she “saw a couple of people automatically take out their phones and try to take photographs of what they were seeing. Just waving their phones around in confusion while wearing the headsets. Those kind of bizarre first reactions are really special because the technology will probably become completely ubiquitous fast.”

She also recalls watching viewers encounter the “Sky Walk,” a passage within Ixian Gate in which “you’re on a rail with this black existential void on either side of you,” the sensation not unlike being “brushed up against infinity.” As she describes it, this experience “deeply unsettled some people. The technology really lends itself to pushing people’s perceptions and comfort levels and those are the areas we’d like to investigate.”

At Wurm Haus
“I think I was always reaching for something, like I was trying to create a portal into this other world.” At Wurm Haus

The “we” here is Simon Ward, Johnson’s close collaborator on both Mnemonic Pulse and Ixian Gate (along with composer and sound designer Andrew Clarke). Ward has been instrumental in adapting Johnson’s sensibility to 3D animation, and the two of them have worked in concert to develop these installations. He agrees with the observation that Ixian Gate can, and even should be, unsettling: “One aspect that was important to Jess was to make use of the feeling of physical unease that one experiences in VR … which is pretty unique to the medium. She definitely didn’t want to follow all the rules of making it a totally comfortable experience.”

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A sense of physical unease is present even in her 2D art; the sparse, pinkish, unsignified bodies (which she calls “unformed as people”) are constant, shaped architecturally into geometric patterns that reimagine what the human body is capable of. Even in their “still” states, there is a feeling of activity to their positions. Johnson describes her figures as being “caught in these repetitive .gif cycles. They’re trapped in this digital netherworld, endlessly repeating their movements for millennia.”

A still from within Ixian Gate, 2015. The experience "deeply unsettled some people."
Ixian Gate, 2015

Also within the drawings is also a more subtle experiment with perception. At first glance, they show the mechanical precision of digital artwork—infinite patterns that appear cut-and-pasted, shapes seemingly snapped into a grid. These pieces are all, however, drawn by hand. As Johnson describes it, originating this material on a computer allows her to “make mistakes throughout the drawings, and those mistakes act as mutational directions that I have to integrate into the work. If I were able to digitally erase my mistakes, I wouldn’t necessarily get that organic growth in the world. I like that it’s a little out of my control and driven by something else.”

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This same technique is carried over into the projections, which animate Johnson’s source material. “Making the human hand visible in the drawings and VR adds this Frankensteinian touch where it gives it life,” she explains. “It attracts the psyche instead of repelling it as CGI can have a tendency to do.”

This tension between the natural and the digital, and how these elements converse and ultimately blend together, is part of what makes Jess Johnson’s work unique. It gives a piece like Ixian Gate an immediate personality distinct from both the dream of a fully enveloping interactive environment and the you-are-there 360 realism of the kinds of documentaries currently available on apps like Vrse and RYOT. Noticing the seams of drawing lines and shading draped over a precise digital framework makes the experience seem imperfect, and therefore particular, and alive.

Ixian Gate, 2015

It also allows for an intimacy with the art, which Johnson suggests may be doubled-down on her future collaborations with Ward: “The direction we went with Ixian Gate seemed like the most logical application of the technology .… to build a huge immersive world and navigate people through it. But I’m not that excited about just continuing to put people back in that world. I’d almost like to pare it back with our next project, go smaller and deeper psychologically.” It will be interesting to see how artists like Johnson, now at the vanguard of a medium still being defined, articulate the possibilities of what these ‘smaller’ virtual reality experiences look and feel like—what room there is inside the Oculus android headset for a world that is distinctly organic, and human.

“If the world were created digitally,” clarifies Johnson, “it would be a really cold place.”

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