NEXT: Virtual Reality and the Future of the Arts

Emilee Geist

I have a friend who recently confided in me—somewhat sheepishly—that she had spent $50 on a virtual concert ticket for her favorite band, Blackberry Smoke. She worried that others might judge her for such a seemingly extravagant purchase for what amounted to a live stream of a concert. (I should note […]

I have a friend who recently confided in me—somewhat sheepishly—that she had spent $50 on a virtual concert ticket for her favorite band, Blackberry Smoke. She worried that others might judge her for such a seemingly extravagant purchase for what amounted to a live stream of a concert. (I should note that the $50 also got her a concert t-shirt and other SWAG).

You shouldn’t feel bad, I told her. First, because you are helping to support the band during a really difficult time. Her favorite band is not one of the big headliners like Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. Because music is so easily downloadable, bands need live performances in order to support themselves. Since so many concert venues are closed because of COVID, there is little opportunity to tour. Indeed, as the COVID crisis continues to linger, such virtual events may be the only thing that allows these bands to stay intact.  

But a second reason why that $50 was well spent is that such virtual events are a harbinger of the future; that they will become an important way that we will experience music and other kinds of artistic performance, even after COVID-19 has dissipated. What will be different in the future is that the nature of that experience will be more than cameras livestreaming a band on a stage.    

In April, hip-hop artist Travis Scott conducted a series of virtual concerts inside Fortnite, attended by an estimated 12 million fans. (The DJ Marshmello conducted a Fortnite concert in February 2019 that similarly attracted millions.) In the case of the Scott performance, this was not simply a livestream of a concert. According to NPR, “Over the course of the performance, Scott appeared as a towering version of himself which transformed into different globe-headed avatars transported through a series of impossible landscapes.”

That is, Scott was using the virtual medium to do things that he could not do in a live concert setting. He was taking the attributes of virtual reality and creating a new kind of experience with them. This is not better than or a replacement for a live concert; it is only a different form.   

I think back to the first MTV music videos I watched back in the early 80s. (Remember those, kids?) Those music videos were more than recordings of performers on a set—more than just an Ed Sullivan-type stage appearance. Bands like Duran Duran experimented with the form, and turned their songs into mesmerizing visual narratives. The experience of the video was different from simply listening to the vinyl record. Videos didn’t replace records or concerts; indeed they were excellent advertisements for these. Music videos joined a repertoire of experiences enjoyed by fans.  

Something similar might result from the use of virtual reality by the arts.  Virtual reality may very well make the experience of attending a “live” performance unique and unlike anything that can be done when crammed into a concert venue or walking through a gallery.  

It will be similar to the way watching sports has been changed by VR. Even before COVID, the NBA offered games via virtual reality: a fan can pay to have the virtual experience of sitting courtside. Sports—at least major league sports—have demonstrated through the COVID crisis that they do not require tens of thousands of spectators in attendance to make the games enjoyable. Sports teams might discover that a virtual experience is coveted by fans, who would be prepared to pay the kinds of ticket prices that they would if they were at the arena. As long as the virtual experience offered something that the live performance could not. Pay-per-view has been a feature of sports broadcasting for decades: might we see a similar kind of PPV experience of the arts?

Live theatre performance has been severely impacted by the COVID restrictions. As you might expect, some venues are livestreaming performances, but, as we all know, there is nothing quite like live theatre. That is why any virtual form would need to be an arresting experience, something that a live performance could not match. If Scott can traverse “impossible landscapes,” set designers might discover a whole new canvas with which to interpret plays. Rather than simply translating classic works into the virtual medium, playwrights might compose original works that utilize the particular capacities of virtual worlds, in other words, plays written expressly to be performed in spaces like Fortnite.

Art museums will ask what a virtual experience affords that a live experience cannot. What results will not be the same as replacing a live experience: this would be simply an alternative to a live experience.  Imagine being able to walk inside a painting. As a virtual patron, you could walk up to Seurat’s Grande Jatte and Circus and then “step inside” the painting, walking along the shore, greeting others as you stroll past them. Perhaps you could engage in conversation with them? What is that brooding young man lying on the grass thinking about? What can you learn from the couple with their parasol? Perhaps you might also be able to visit Seurat’s studio and see the environment in which he painted Grande Jatte? Maybe you could be transported to Florence to see Michelangelo’s David as it was originally displayed in the 15th century.  

It turns out that any given art work was displayed in different contexts before they arrived at the museum gallery. Jackson Pollock’s enormous drip canvases were originally displayed in the apartments of wealthy New Yorkers. The Winged Victory (Nike)—which is now displayed at the Louvre– was originally located in a rock niche dug into the side of a hill that overlooked the theater of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the Greek island of Samothrace. In a virtual environment, a viewer could see the same art work as it appeared in all of its originally-intended contexts. Perhaps the viewer could be given agency to move the piece into a new or unexpected context to see how its placement effects the perception of the artwork.  

What will the movement of the body in space look like when that (virtual) space can be as malleable as we’d like it? Choreographers might ask what other kinds of movement could we explore in virtual space, and whether or not such movement would have to be confined to the human body?

If this all seems improbable, remember that this year’s Burning Man was conducted virtually, or “Burning Man in the Multiverse” it was called. 

Virtual performance will not displace live concerts, or the experience of walking through a gallery and seeing the actual painting, or enjoying the performance of Macbeth from the first row. Until we learn how to safely co-exist with COVID-19, the arts will, of necessity, need to move into virtual space in order to survive as cultural institutions. But after COVID-19, even as they return to theatres and galleries and performances spaces, audiences might discover that they continue to enjoy virtual performances as well. 

David Staley is an historiographer and futurist at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast and president of Columbus Futurists

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