Moving Image fair embraces virtual reality

The fair’s co-founder explains why now is the time to look at works that use the nascent technology

By Sarah P. Hanson

The Moving Image fair, cofounded in New York in 2011 by gallerist Ed Winkleman and Murat Orozobekov to present video and film-based art, has entered a new dimension this year with the addition of virtual reality works.

No longer the exclusive province of gamers or medical trainers, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR) works are filtering into the art world via museum shows like the 2015 New Museum Triennial, Surround Audience, and the forthcoming Whitney Biennial. And the could soon be a regular feature on the market, as headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive, Samsung’s Gear and Google’s Daydream View, become more common and more affordable for private buyers.

Moreover, the medium is quickly approaching an inflection point, as artists learn how to create, rather than simply execute an idea, in code. “Artists really need to know the possibilities of their medium before they can maximise the metaphorical potential of it”, Winkleman explains, citing digital natives like Rachel Rossin and and, in the fair, Chris Manzione and Seth Cluett. “Their brand-new work is pushing envelopes as well,” Winkleman notes, through its back-and-forth blurring of the real and virtual worlds. “It’s a real head trip.” A highlight of the fair is Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s Primal Tourism: Island (2017), which plunges viewers into a reconstruction of Bora Bora—seemingly deserted after an ecological disaster—and allows them to “explore” the island by moving around with a remote.

At the fair, which runs at the Waterfront Tunnel building in Chelsea through 2 March, around a third of the 28 galleries are presenting VR work, including Brooklyn’s Transfer, London’s Gazelli Art House, and Portland, Oregon’s Upfor. Most works are priced between $5,000 and, at the highest end, about $20,000—comparative bargains in the contemporary arena. But the market’s response remains an open question. Winkleman knows fewer than a dozen collectors who have acquired VR works, but he says that now is the time to buy, while the art form is in an important nascent stage. “When museums decided in the later 1990s and early 2000s to go back and fill in the gaps in their video collections, several of their curators mentioned that the work was often in very bad shape or impossible to even find.”

Included in the fair is a now-historical media piece from 2000 by Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand, presented by Winkleman and Orozobekov’s Moving Image Immersive Media. Titled Beyond Manzanar, viewers manipulate a joystick to “tour” an environment that documents the experiences of Japanese Americans interred in camps during the Second World War, as well as those of Iranian refugees who, during the hostage crisis of 1979-81, feared a similar fate. Despite its now dated-feeling interface, reminiscent of games played on desktop computers, its theme feels all too contemporary to the current political moment.