SEPTEMBER 22, 2016
I LOST MY VR-GINITY late in the summer of Pokémon GO. By this, I mean to say that I recently had my first experience at “the world’s first virtual reality cinema,” Amsterdam’s VR Cinema. VR-ginity is a neologism taken from the company’s wheat-paste poster campaign, which enjoins passersby to “Lose Your VR-ginity.” The advertisements, pasted throughout the city — and on the wall of the company’s Facebook page — have the insistent gracelessness of, say, a Red Light District souvenir shop. On them, a man dons virtual reality equipment with his mouth agape and his hands clasped behind the back of his head in what (with some embarrassment) might best be described as the position of both enjoying and preparing to perform oral sex. The ad’s bald eroticism tells us something more than that sex sells. Its invocation of virginity and its twinning of active and receptive pleasure alerts us to an economy of desire at the heart of media innovation. It forces us with unsubtle candor to reflect on what it is that we really want from our devices. What follows is an attempt to take this euphemism a bit too seriously and to write criticism from the risky position where description, analysis, and pillow-talk coincide.
Virginity is, of course, a fiction of normative heterosexuality. VR Cinema’s technical analogue speaks as much to its labile transferability as it does to its psychic potency. While today’s adolescents, at least those who have no interest in promise rings, tend to think less of talismanic hymens, virginity persists in its modern form as a “technique of the self,” a locker room precondition for full personhood. From a Freudian perspective, the long-standing virginity taboo discloses (in addition to a generalized terror over female sexuality) an anxiety about one of intercourse’s constitutive conditions: its deflating, immobilizing after-effects. Following the build-up of flirting and foreplay, orgasm quickly extinguishes bodily excitations and, as the French petite mort reminds us, temporarily shatters one’s sense of self, what analyst Jean Laplanche called ébranlement. Moreover, psychoanalysis teaches us that one’s first time is never really a first time at all, since sexual maturation merely restages and substitutes already formative experiences of infantile sexuality — new objects of attraction for an inchoate, yet fully operational libido. These, alongside one’s fumbling, nervous unfamiliarity with sexual mechanics, are the desublimated grounds for the commonplace disappointment felt after one’s first time.
Trading in the metaphorical language of “firsts,” the VR Cinema turns out to be plagued by these same anxieties. Located on Oosterdokseiland, a nieuw gebouw complex just east of Amsterdam’s central train station, the Cinema offers 30-minute screenings in hourly intervals. Visitors are invited to arrive early or to stay on after to enjoy a cocktail and a light bite at the bar-restaurant. The space’s interior — replete with Dutch Design fixtures, pseudo-Biedermeier vintage furnishings, a smattering of cacti, quirky objets d’art and strips of wallpaper printed with a grid of old movie posters retrofitted with VR equipment (think Holly Golightly strapped into an updated View-Master) — approaches kitsch with a pained, textbook rigor. And how perfect, since kitsch, at least as the art critic Clement Greenberg understood it, comprises cultural production that offers nothing more than simulated effects.
For VR Cinema, in which effects are precisely the point, the most important question becomes one of experience (“Was it good for you?”) rather than one of aesthetics (“Was it good?”). Consider how the company describes its offerings:
Going to the movies gets a whole new dimension in The VR Cinema. It offers you the opportunity to watch movies like you’ve (probably) never done before. For one, crisping bags of chips, ringing mobile phones and noisy visitors belong to the past. Furthermore, there are no traditional red cinema chairs and also the big white screen is nowhere to be seen.
Taking up the rhetorical stylings of an infomercial, the company promises an apparently un-impinged experience of the cinematic through its ambivalence to the traditional space of cinema: the movie theater. Indeed, its nervous claim to newness derives (probably) from its ability to offer up cinema that seems to do away with itself. It is a dream of a purely solitary, screen-less, site-less experience of the movies.
It should be stressed, however, that this is not what is actually on offer. Instead, visitors enter curtained-off rooms, bedecked with homey bric-a-brac, and sit on sleek, white, plastic swivel chairs facing plateglass windows that look out on the pedestrian walkway. In this way, one’s experience of virtual reality is simultaneous with one’s advertising of it for passersby. Each spectator then dons her own VR-equipment (souped up Samsung Galaxy smartphones and headphones). In the end, therefore, the movie theater’s ringing mobile phones remain, but now serve as stand-ins for both screen and projector. The plateglass window acts as an additional large screen, so that moviegoing becomes another act of urban seeing and being seen, reminiscent of the early cinematic obsession with the vitreous razzle dazzle of the modern metropolis. Finally, the noise of fellow attendees, which has always risked breaking the movie theater’s prized Wagnerian isolation, is replaced by the potential frisson of brushed knees as viewers rotate in their seats. This is the VR Cinema’s ultimate irony, indifferently maintaining the convention of collective viewing while showcasing a device that would be better experienced in complete sequestration.
Even though the VR Cinema attempts to generate its uniqueness through its infidelity with the traditional movie theater, its actual cinematic offerings bear a much closer relationship to the experience of going to the movies in the era before the advent of the Cineplex. The individual viewing apparatuses recall Edison’s Kinetoscope, while the 30-minute showings of short videos are akin to the first screenings of the Lumière Brothers. Viewers choose one of three thematic offerings — horror, documentary, or fun — so even the content could be said to resemble the so-called cinema of attraction, a term developed by film historian Tom Gunning and originating in the writings of Sergei Eisenstein to describe a tradition of cinema that eschews narrative in favor of carnival exhibitionism (think Meliès’s spooks, factory worker exits, and polychrome Serpentine dances).
Reverberations of this same turn-of-the-century fairground milieu surface in the VR showings, most indecently in “Butts,” a short featured in the “fun” series, which cartoonifies the same racialized physiognomic spectacle dating back to the exhibitions of the Khoikhoi woman, Saartjie Baartman, known in the 19th century as the Hottentot Venus. “Butts” is just one lowbrow example of a more diffuse problem of taste in the VR universe. For instance, in his showman’s pitch for each of the three themes, the VR attendant described the documentary series as appropriate for those interested in heavier content, including, he remarked with worrisome blasé detachment, child slavery and sexual abuse in Kenya. The deployment of this technology to document such atrocities felt perverse in and of itself, but turned out to be outright misleading through the unscrupulous omission that this short, “Amani,” is not even a documentary, but rather a fictionalized production shot in the Netherlands by the international advocacy organization Terre des Hommes. Available as a downloadable app for anyone owning a smartphone, “Amani” exemplifies the pernicious naïveté of certain strains of virtual technophilia, which confuses illusory proximity with understanding, and sentimentality with politics. Queued alongside other “documentaries” like the Eames-ish Planet Earth exposé, “Pale Blue Dot,” even these self-satisfied sentiments start to ring hollow.
In the end, I opted for the horror series, which apparently offers the most intense effects, since, we were warned (or assured), that previous viewers had left thoroughly frightened. Horror is also probably the best developed of all of the genres, relating to a longer history of virtual reality and technologies of fear, including the University of Amsterdam and Delft University of Technology’s research project, Virtual Reality and Phobias. Initiated in 1999, Virtual Reality and Phobias developed experimental protocols for including VR in exposure therapy treatments. This science has since been adopted by militaries as a tool to treat soldiers with PTSD, a development in contemporary warcraft sensitively reflected on in the late Harun Farocki’s Serious Games (2009). If these practices suggest the sensorial efficacy of virtual reality, they also clarify the limits of the VR Cinema’s preference for effects over meaning.
In an experimental or therapeutic context, the simulation is structured around a particular individual’s fear or trauma. In Serious Games, we see military-contracted game programmers painstakingly approximating the nightmare topographies and including, in a strange twist on the Barthesian reality effect or the Freudian fetish, enough remembered people and objects of the scene for the soldier to be convinced that he is recalling a particular site of trauma. The simulation’s success is reducible to a set of physiological and therapeutic metrics, such as neurological and respiratory response and day-to-day psychological functioning. In a cinematic context, which we might risk naming the aesthetic, the simulation shifts to a public audience, meaning that its effects can no longer be anticipated with the same precision and that its content, freed from experimental constraints, becomes the product of individual know-how and imagination. Such a transformation opens up different grounds for evaluation. Should a viewer not experience fear with a desired physiological response, we could still be reasonably justified in saying that a piece of cinema succeeded. It would even be possible to say that it was scary, since our judgment would now shift from an appraisal of individual sensory response to a reflective evaluation of the work itself. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance, may not literally unnerve a modern horror aficionado, but it remains a powerfully unnerving cinematic achievement.
It is precisely because of its near-exclusive obsession with effects that the VR Cinema fails in its promise to deliver revolutionary cinema. Its horror series was pitifully redundant and painful to sit through. Almost every scare tactic depended on a ghoulish fourth wall break. Far from eliciting a feeling of immediacy, this tedious sequence of advancing specters only confirmed their virtual reality, so that the moments meant to be the most affecting were also inevitably the moments that were the least convincing.
We are now used to praising artists for their ability to reflect on their medium, but the self-regard exhibited in these VR videos proves the occasional insufficiency of this critical criterion. Almost all of the diegetic spaces tended to metaphorize the VR apparatus by depending on a situation of enclosure or absolute incorporation. In the first video, an abandoned house becomes the site of memory (an unseen weeping child calls out for her mother) and of haunting, but only after all of the doors are closed by unseen forces. This form of claustral creepiness has obvious technical benefits. By locating the viewer within a fully circumscribed space, the video becomes more amenable to the device’s 360-degree rotation without having to grapple with the inevitable fissures and distensions caused by continuously regrafting perspectival depth onto the spheroid panorama of virtual space. Indeed, the only images of boundless extension were those that tend to annul perspective or are simply not subject to realistic depth cues — oceanic expanses, oneiric vistas, and telegenic non-sites. These latter two spaces, which were encountered only after “entering” into an avatar’s mind, still depended, therefore, on a similar invocation of a mediated identification capable of rhyming virtual reality’s technically facilitated hallucinations.
Two fears were confronted in the horror series: being touched and losing control of one’s mind. Starting with the first short’s murderous mother, a Medusa-like insectoid who in the final sequence lunges toward the viewer before dissolving as the video concludes, these fears are often instantiated by desired (“Mommy, where are you?”) and reviled feminine principles. In a basement-captivity scene, a Ringu-derivative girl zombie menaces an incarcerated boy; later, a part-object mouth siren coos at the viewer from a floating television set asking them to notice how soft her lips are; and, in a short that arrives just short of self-parody, a bloodthirsty mother superior escapes from her painted portrait in order to terrorize the spectator. In a different vein, a male avatar also threatens us with the possibility of losing ourselves to another, by airily inviting us to choose to “come along” and “come inside” his dream, his “last empire of innocence,” which we, of course, actually have no choice but to enter. These specific fears should come as no surprise, crystallizing as they do the perceptual thrill of virtual reality’s more tactile, active cinema, while repeatedly deferring the actual breach of literal space or psychic autonomy.
Amid these pitiful ghosts and dreamscapes, a series of far more menacing specters haunt the VR Cinema’s offerings, vestiges of the media that they unsuccessfully seek to cannibalize. Lacking any sophisticated montage principles, these simplistic shorts attempt to mask their dependency on a continuously fixed point of view and their limitations in editing (how to crosscut, for instance) with pathetic substitutes, most frequently flickering lights. Electronic video and televisual imagery are also virtually introjected. In one short, the viewer stands in the center of a basement, pivoting between a live-feed monitor and a video camera positioned in front of a psyché mirror. The camera, facing the mirror, which in turn faces the viewer, creates a feedback circuit with the monitor that triply underscores the viewer’s non-presence, as various corpses and ghosts replace her in the spaces that she is ostensibly meant to inhabit live. Even video games, perhaps the most influential creative industry for VR technology, have a clear advantage over VR Cinema, which sets up similar fixed sets of movement choices, but lacks the gratifying play capable of compensating for underdeveloped narratives.
The billed highlight of the horror series was the David Cronenberg–inspired “Body/Mind/Change,” which amounts to a superficial retrospective of the director’s oeuvre strung together through an ad-cum-demonstration of a fictional, bionic implant. Cronenberg appears in the short as a Wizard of Oz version of himself, seen in a television set, face lit from above, so that his features are cast in deep shadow. In his role as Cronenberg-guru, the director describes the implants as the next step in human evolution. The short — an embarrassing misstep for an accomplished, yet uneven director — effectively undoes the VR Cinema’s claims to newness, both by transforming it into the toothless revelation of ’90s sci-fi paranoia and also signaling its own finitude and design deficiencies, imagining a device that would render it clunky and useless.
At a time when apps augment real space and where real bionic implants apotheosize media prostheses, one can’t help but be disappointed by the banal attractions on offer at the VR Cinema. Our media continuously promise transformative firsts, and we accede by chasing after them, only to repeat the temporary thrills of a desire capable of endless updates. It may be from the position of distance, receptivity, and impersonality — those same conditions that VR cinema fears and seeks to repress — that we might imagine forms of cinema and forms of being that finally break from this interminable loop. Maybe we already have them at our disposal, sitting in common on plush red chairs in front of a big white screen in that outdated, imperfectly social space of the movie theater.