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Roll from the couch to the ballroom for a safe and virus-free space to look at art

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Viewers of 'Venice VR Expanded 2020' at the Portland Art Museum, Sept 2 -12, put on sanitized virtual reality goggles and follow onscreen prompts to experience immersive environments. Here a viewer checks out the most sophisticated platform, the HTC Vive.

Contemporary art show the Venice Biennial has a multimedia section, and its content has been made available to 15 museums around the world. The Portland Art Museum is the only one in the United States. The show, called "Venice VR Expanded 2020," runs Sept. 2 to 12 and costs $25 for an hour ($20 for members).

The Venice Film Festival introduced a virtual reality category three years ago. In 2020 there are 44 works from 24 countries, and Portlanders can see 39 of them.

Viewers can choose from four HTC Vive VR systems, five Oculus Quest and five Oculus Go systems. The Vives are the most sophisticated, using a kind of radar to track (two black cubes on tall tripods) where your hand-held controllers are. Go is the simplest and has no hand controllers.

"It's the difference between Coke, Pepsi and Sprite, they're all going to satisfy you, but they're going to be a little different," said Amy Dotson, director of the Northwest Film Center and the curator of film and new media at the Portland Art Museum who helped bring the show to town. "If you can sit on your couch and use the clicker to find the show you like on Netflix, you can use an Oculus Quest. We encourage folks not only to come and try one but try them all." Dotson said the VR works bring together Hollywood filmmakers, gallery artists and video game designers.

COURTESY PHOTO: KEISUKE ITOH - Viewers can pick up the beating heart in 'Beat,' by Keisuke Itoh, and put it inside a Wall-E type robot, thus animating it. The heartbeat is felt through the handheld controller.

"Baba Yaga," is a Slavic folk tale about two girls who must find a medicinal plant in the forest for their ailing mother. It's made by Baobab Studios, which specializes in animation.

"Baba Yaga is minimal acting and it's minimal interactivity," Dotson said, but she also calls it a beautiful piece, and very empowering. "It's a story of a strong young girl that's brought into the context of both social justice and also environmental issues. It's a great project for people who are maybe new to VR to go in and begin to think about how VR is going to start to change lots of things in our world as we use these technologies."

The technology is improving, especially in the realm of haptics or physical feedback. Right now, that is mostly handsets vibrating — such as when you pick up the beating heart in Beat, by Keisuke Itoh. But Dotson said "the sense of touch and how that is starting to interplay with everything from vests to sensors to second skins, that informs your experience."

COURTESY PHOTO: BAOBAB STUDIOS - In 'Baba Yaga' you, the viewer, follow your little sister into the woods to find a medicinal plant to save your mother. Beware of witches.

"We Live Here" by Rose Troche (who broke through with her 1994 film "Go Fish") puts the viewer in the shoes of Rockey, a 59-year-old woman living in a tent in a homeless camp in Los Angeles. It's an example of 360 video, which is shot on multiple cameras, where you can look around in all directions.

The video begins with Rockey being advised by a fellow camper to abandon her tent because there's an LAPD sweep coming and she has no ID. She does, reluctantly leaving behind everything — including her little pan in which she makes her coffee. In the next scene we're on our own inside a smaller pup tent, and can touch items, such as her notebook (which includes a great poem), her radio and her hot plate.

The work shows the power of virtual reality (in this case 360 video) and how it can help us see the point of view of a person in a way we might never dare approach in real life.

"When we watch a movie, or television, or put the podcast in our earphones, we're still not present," Dotson said. "But with VR, there's a lot of science, technology and also just an art form, to figuring out how we manipulate space to make people feel and to make people empathize and to make people walk in other people's shoes."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Viewers of 'Venice VR Expanded 2020' at the Portland Art Museum, Sept 2-12, put on sanitized virtual reality goggles and follow onscreen prompts to experience immersive environments.

Dotson compared VR now to the pre-cinema zoetropes. We're no longer at the cantering horse phase, but we are still mostly dealing with microcosms and have not realized the potential for world building and architecture in VR. (Although many Minecraft or Fortnite players probably have, in the video game world).

Users line up on dots along the hallway of the Fields Ballroom, waiting their turn to don the virtual reality goggles of one of three different systems. Museum staff take great care over social distancing and coronavirus hygiene, down to controlling everything you touch and disinfecting it afterward.

The CleanBox technology might be more interesting than some of the art. Headsets are put in the chamber and blasted with ultraviolet light. CleanBox claims a 99.99% efficacy on plastics and hard surfaces in 60 seconds.

"The most exciting part of VR is it's a grand experiment," Dotson said. She sees artists, technologists, architects, young people and experienced filmmakers converging. "They're saying 'Hmm, I don't really know how this works. But let's figure it out together.' It becomes a very collaborative and a much more equitable experience than something where there's a canon and grandmasters in place."

Know before you go

For $25 an hour ($20 for members) it pays to read up on the works before you go and not waste time in menu hell at the museum.

Bear in mind that the technology is not mature, and that the sound or visuals can crash at any moment.

Each interface takes a few minutes to learn. If you don't like the art, then there's also the meta-experience.

Standing in a large ballroom with 13 other people (maximum) whom you can't see is perhaps the perfect metaphor for 2020. It captures what Portland artist Malia Jensen calls this period of being "alone together."

'Venice VR Expanded 2020'

When: Sept. 2-12

Where: Portland Art Museum & Northwest Film Center, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Portland

Cost: $25 for an hour ($20 for members)

Contact: 503-276-4249;

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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