“I can’t believe I have to ask you this, Nancy,” I said. “But how long was I in there?” It comes as a genuine surprise to be told it was more than half an hour. “There” was in Nancy Baker Cahill’s suite of virtual reality programs, four pieces called Hollow Point 1, 2, and 3 and Strange Laugh. Technically we are standing in the familiar gallery space of progressive nonprofit art space LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) on Hollywood Boulevard, in the physical world, with functioning gravity and linear time. The gallery had not only set up a VR station, in which what the user sees inside the program is projected onto the gallery wall for curious onlookers, but also installed a series of Cahill’s trademark drawings — large-scale graphite and pigment works on paper that already suggest movement, and blur the boundaries between image and abstraction. They’re gorgeous. But the world inside Cahill’s headsets demanded attention.
The drawings are more or less exactly the same as what was animated for both the VR station and the smartphone app she made, and it’s helpful to have the drawings there for reference, especially for art people. But the VR is compelling even without that context, whether you’re an art person or just someone who likes to have their brain entertained. Strange Laugh has a more linear “narrative” with a central object, a pulsating, luminous riot of reds and an unexpected emotional arc. Hollow Point 1, 2, and 3 are the black and white and grayscale, shards and tresses, circular, oracular works familiar from the walls. You zoom in and out and around and the pieces come at you like a meteor shower and rain down from above. Like the extreme mark-making of Cahill's graphite work, the VR images pull apart into swarms of sharp, gestural brushstrokes. It’s like — no, not like; it is in fact — shrinking yourself down and going into a deep dive inside her works on paper, except instead of 2-D paper it’s the 8-D cosmic void.
What happened at LACE was full-on headgear and handset, a clunky technology that it’s hard to acquire and awkward to share. And while Cahill’s forays are genuinely terrific, a great many artists are working on such projects. Of course they are. What better topic for contemporary art than examining an entire new universe of sight, and exploring the potential of a whole new image-making technology? But Cahill has gone the extra mile and developed an IOS app that takes the whole experience, pardon the pun, to another dimension. 4thWall is a free download (though you do need an iPhone 6S or newer) that translates Cahill’s VR environments into a portable mixed reality/augmented reality experience.
From railroads to airplane windows, alleyways, art galleries, beaches, lakes, parking lots, forests, orchestra halls, cafes, churches, bedrooms, mirrors, gardens and literally anywhere you are, you can see what the world would look like if Cahill’s drawings were objects with which you share space and interact. It’s almost always better than the world as it is. And unlike the one-at-a-time, in-gallery VR version, this one is easy to share. Aside from the fact that folks could gather around a single device and have a proper shared experience, there is, naturally, a robust community of people posting and tagging their saved and screen-captured photos and videos. That includes “collaborations” with other artists, such as Tanya Aguiniga, who went to the U.S./Mexico border wall.
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You can explore the full universe constantly being uploaded to Instagram for yourself without new tech, and then if your phone is fancy enough, download the app and get ready to head down the rabbit hole.