Innocent fun or destructive greed? Did you ask the river? is running at ACMI until the 31st of March and asks you to consider important questions about human interaction with the world as well as Australia’s troubling history.
Art has the unique ability to transport viewers out of their limited perceptions and encourage new outlooks, and with the advances in virtual reality (VR) technology, the immersive capability of art is about to take on a whole new meaning.
Did you ask the river? is a VR experience from artist Joan Ross, with the VR developed in partnership with Dr Josh Harle and Josh Raymond. Your experience starts when you’re ushered into a dimly lit room with nothing but a few dreary grey curtains adorning the walls. When inside, you’re fitted with an odd, clunky head apparatus and two hand controllers – these are the tools you will need to explore your new world. At the flick of a switch, the world before you opens up and you are transported from this vacant room into a virtual valley complete with towering rock faces, sparse forests, distant blue mountains, and the soft babble of a nearby river.
In this experience, you’re playing as an 18th-century colonial woman, complete with a large yellow dress and a rather fabulous wide-brimmed feathered hat. The space you’re able to explore is limited to the diameter of the room you’re in, however there are enough odd trinkets within reach to entertain you, including a casino-style fruit machine, an apothecary drawer, a grill, and a camera for taking selfies with (which you can print off and keep in real life). You’re encouraged to interact with all your surrounding objects however you soon discover that your actions have consequences on the surrounding landscape.
Artist, Joan Ross, likes to explore globalisation, capitalism and colonisation through her work, with this VR piece acting as a representation of Australia’s troubling colonial past. The more your character interacts with their modern possessions, the more the surrounding natural landscape is permanently altered. The tipping of a tree sculpture will cause the collapse of surrounding forests, the grilling of steak will prompt an increase in cattle wandering the land, and the breaking of a vase labelled “fragile” containing rabbit statues will cause a sudden and devastating invasion of rabbits.
When discussing her work with Art Guide Australia, Ross explains that “As people start to interact with things and try to get what they want, they start to destroy the world – they start to embody colonisation.”
The symbolism from these changes mirror the real-life natural alterations 18th-century colonialism had on Australia’s landscape. For instance, the mounting numbers of rabbits tripping over each other is a clear representation of the actual introduction of the invasive species European rabbits, which have caused millions of dollars of damage to Australian crops and incalculable amounts of devastation to native Australian flora and fauna. The slow destruction of the natural landscape prompted by human interaction is a stark and honest message. The mirror object present in the game leaves little doubt when it reveals that the cause for all these problems to be your frivolous actions driven by the greed and desire to interact with all your objects.
The history of Aboriginal populations are never brought fully to the attention of the player and are instead left in the background with only a murmuring narration from a gentleman on a nearby phone. This key part of history is easily ignored when distracted by the fun gadgets plying for our attention. Just like the actual colonisers, we’re too busy destroying the natural landscape with our introduction of foreign objects to even pay attention to discussions of aboriginal populations.
Did you ask the river? is the second instalment funded by the Mordant Family Commission VR, which is a program allowing Australian artists to explore this new VR medium in their work. As a method to immerse audiences in art, VR works marvellously. It forces the viewer to be an active participant in the art rather than a passive observer, which leads us to consider the intended message further and think more deeply about our actions in the context of the overall message. Did you ask the river? demands that we face Australia’s past and consider the lasting impact of our interactions with our environment.
Did you ask the river? is a free experience, running until the 31st March in ACMI. Although participants only have 8 minutes to explore this world, it’s still a brilliant experience for all ages and is well worth a visit or two (or three or four). And even if you don’t wish to experience VR for yourself, you’ll still enjoy watching strangers clumsily stumble around a dark room, wildly swiping at thin air and chasing imaginary butterflies!