02 n°91 sep/oct/nov 2019
02 n°91 sep/oct/nov 2019
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  • Parution : n°91 de sep/oct/nov 2019

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1 www.verbierartsummit.org 3 Interview Douglas Coupland 2 VR, the Hottest Medium — Daniel Birnbaum talks to Douglas Coupland This interview was conducted on 19 January 2018 during the Verbier Art Summit and was first published in More than Real  : Art in the Digital Age by Koenig Books. The Verbier Art Summit1 is an international art platformthat fosters innovation and change. The next Verbier Art Summit will take place in Verbier from 31 January to 1 February 2020 in partnership with Jessica Morgan, Nathalie de Gunzburg director of the Dia Art Foundation in New York. DB This conference is not only about virtual reality (VR). There are many kinds of new technologies that are based on new digital possibilities —augmented reality, mixed reality, new kinds of holograms, maybe. Do you think virtual reality will radically change our lives ? DC Yes–and an unqualified « yes » ! I think anything that allows you to escape from yourself, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or opiates or broadcast television, we’re always going to want that. Let me tell you about the first experience I had with virtual reality. It was in my living room in Vancouver, where I live, and we had some good friends over, and it was this beautiful July afternoon, and the light was coming through the leaves on the tree… It was just a gorgeous, perfect, perfect day in my favourite room on Earth, and there was this friend that works at Mozilla down in the Bay Area, and he broughtup the most recent version of Oculus, and I’d never used one before, and so I put it on, and suddenly I was floating above a purple swamp in Louisiana, and there were lights off in the distance–so I chased the lights like that [slightly rocking from side to side in his chair] —a very, very simple experience, and then, « Let’s do another. » It was asteroid mining on Jupiter or Saturn or something, except you could only look. You couldn’t really put your hands in or do anything— so, altogether it was maybe three and a half minutes, and then I took the goggles off and I looked at the real world and I thought, « What a dump this place is ! ». And I realised, « Oh, my God ! This thing is going to win ; there’s no way it cannot win. » The only caveat of VR experience is that if you stop suddenly or if you cut scenes, then it really affects your vestibular system and you feel seasick or you will puke–but there’s also this thing called « VR sadness » which is what I experienced. People put these things on and they come out, and they never quite return to the full world, and a part of them is invested in this machine. DB So it’s an escapist kind of technology. It will help us like drugs or alcohol. Is it a negative thing, you think ? DC Well, it’s going to happen. I mean, VR is this asteroid that’s going to hit the planet, apparently, in 2023. I mean, if I really had my act together, I’d be out there making a VR slasher movie or VR pornography or VR gaming or something. It’s going to happen. There’s going to be a first VR porno, there’s going to be a first VR slasher film. So what are you going to do ? You can’t fight it. You try to understand it. Have you tried it yet ? DB I have tried it a little bit. DC What was your experience ? DM Yup. I was similarly… Not shocked. That’s not the right word, and I didn’t see wonderful things, but I looked at it at the Warner Brothers studio in London. DC Like cartoons ? DB They were cartoons, but I don’t really know what they were. I think Disney Productions or something, but it was, you know, you turn around and there’s a very large gorilla there, but like really large, and there’s a snake which is that close, and it’s super-naturalistic. And these are, I presume, children productions–so, what is going to happen to children ? ! If you growup with that as a normal kind of entertainment, not a little cartoon or a little book or something that we grewup with, but with hyper-realistic jungle scenes with crazy mega-gorillas one millimetre away from you, you will growup with a strange kind of understanding of what’s normal. DC Oh, you would, wouldn’t you ? I was saying yesterday that in the 1960s, when hippies just suddenly appeared on the scene around’65, everyone was like, « Who are these people ? Where do they come from ? », and we realised they came from television, and now we have millennials, and they’re coming out of the early Internet era, and then you are going to have these next post-millennials (maybe one and a half
3 Interview Douglas Coupland 3 generations from now) who won’t even really have a connection with the physical world, I don’t think, and then–is it a bad thing ? Maybe it’s just an evolutionary stage. DB But even if the effects are stronger, the wish to leave this world, isn’t that basically what art and literature and theatre and cinema, all of this, is about ? I mean, didn’t Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dalí take some heavy kind of stuff ? Isn’t that just the same thing ? DC I think it’s actually a religious impulse to want to exit the body. I mean, earlier I wasupstairs in the lounge looking at my iPhone. You know, thirty years ago, I would have been reading poems by Rilke. So, something’s changed there. DB But you can read Rilke on your iPhone. DC It’s not the same. In terms of the escapist need, it’s something everyone wants to do. Maybe we should figure out why it is that we want to escape. DB So you think VR is a medium that is somehow stronger than others, and that will more or less dominate or killall other media ? DC Completely–it just overtakes your body ; you’re captured by it. It taps into the reptile part of your brain as wellas the frontal cortex and all your gravity systems. You know, when the doorbell rings and you are in VR, you are not going to be able to answer the door or something like that [stretching out his hand to turn a handle]. You’re really absolutely inside it ; you’re completely within it. DB I forgot to mention that Douglas is not only an author and a cultural critic and many things, he’s also an artist and designer, plus–importantly here, perhaps–you wrote a very interesting book on Marshall McLuhan ! Now I remember that, as part of that, that was an easy way in for me, somehow, since I know so little about these things that I could ask questions that somehow relate to McLuhan because, I did know a little bit about him, and he distinguishes between what he calls « hot » and « cold » mediums. What is that, again ? And what is VR ? DC First of all, the « hot »/ » cold » thing, even after all these years, I don’t quite get it. But I’d say VR is probably the hottest medium there is. DB Because it absorbs you totally ? DC Completely. There is nothing else you can do. You know, a lot of younger people don’t know who McLuhan is or, if they do, they only have a very faint idea. He was this English teacher in Toronto in the early 1960s who, at the age of fifty, began discussing changes that are happening inside our minds, bodies, and societies ; and, through a chain of really, weirdly, unrelatable experiences, he was able to, basically, see the Internet fifty years before it happened, but he didn’t know the correct interfaces–so, if you reread him now, he’ll be using Yeats or pamphleteers from theeighteenth century to describe what’s basically PayPal, or CNN. I’m continuing to read him, because he’s not correct justup to 2018, Daniel, he’s probably going to go way further into the future, and I think that if I continue to research him, we’ll probably find out more about what VR is going to do to us. DB If virtual reality is going to change our lives, it willalso change a sub-category–small, but very important for some of us  : namely, art–and what do you think ? I mean, now there are people here in the room who are working with this, but do you think it’s an entirely new art formcoming ? Or will it duplicate everything that has already been done, and recreate it in VR ? DC Well, the sensory part of it is so overwhelming and so wonderful that you forget that they’re probably going to have to throw some storylines in there too, and have new fables. Probably what Netflix is to TV, this is going to be the next Netflix, perhaps, but even then a bit more saturated, a bit more intense. It is the future of narrative. I’m certainly looking at it and going, « Ok, what story can you tell here that you can’t tellanywhere else ? » I think that probably this could be a lot about James Cameron and with the movies he makes with people who are blue, what was that again ? DB Avatar. DC I think that’s the first direction, maybe, with a very big budget. DB I know that Tate did something to accompany their Modigliani show. That’s a vehicle, a way to make people know about their show, and people can watch it even if they don’t go to the museum, but art that is produced for, or in, or with this new medium has also started–at the Whitney Biennale and at the Venice Biennale. It has many problems of a practical nature. You know, we could show something here because we’re a hundred people or something, but with the big museums or biennales and stuff where there are hundreds of thousands, it’s very difficult. But there is something also with it that I wonder about, I think we talked about this, but there’s something a little bit autistic, solipsistic, isolated, about it. You know, you put on that thing, and friends leave—are gone–and you feel you’re great out there on Jupiter, but I mean, when you go to art shows, isn’t it fun to actually go with someone ? I would love to walk through a museum with you and talk to you whilst looking at paintings, and this seems… DC Yeah. People just look strange when they’re wearing those goggles– there is no way around it–and, whoever is designing them, that is the golden design ring of the next twenty years. They have to look like you’re not being cocooned by a superior species, is what they ought to look like.



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