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A new vision: how a critical tech lab is pushing the limits of VR

Josh Harle on his collaborative reimagining of VR

As part of our evolving Digital Culture Strategy, we are sharing a series of case studies profiling how leading practitioners are embracing digital platforms and mindsets to make innovative new work and build connections with audiences.

a man with a VR headset

Image credit: Nic Cassey and Josh Harle / Tactical Space Lab

In 2016 the tech world was abuzz with its next big thing – virtual reality (VR).

At the time, Australian new media artist and academic Josh Harle had just returned from a residency in Austria, and decided to head along to the local VR and augmented reality (AR) meet-ups in Sydney. But for Harle, although the meeting was well attended, something felt a bit off.

“There was just this manic energy, but they weren’t critical at all,” he said.

“Everyone was talking about it as this brand new thing! As an academic, if you think something has no connection to what’s come before, it’s because you haven’t done your research. No one was talking about how these technologies could be understood through art history or new media theory. And no one was having any conversations about some of the problematic uses of these technologies.

“Everyone just wanted to create the next business that they could sell to Microsoft or Facebook for however many million. They were all just chasing the venture capital and angel investors who were kicking around those groups as well. It wasn’t a very nourishing or productive set of conversations.”

Image credit: Jason Phu and Josh Harle / Tactical Space Lab

Harle had also noticed that media reporting and general response to any art projects using VR had a similar tone – breathlessly celebratory of the idea of using VR at all, as if it were some incomprehensible alchemy.

“They would just say, ‘This artist has done this work in VR. Amazing! What wizards!’,” Harle said. “They wouldn’t talk at all about what the VR experience was. The mere fact that you’d done VR was supposed to be mind blowing.”

So he decided to do something about it. Drawing on his background in computer science and cybernetics which he studied in the UK, and fine arts and humanities, Harle started an experimental research space called Tactical Space Lab. The aim was to “demystify” VR by hosting a collaborative studio program of two-week intensive labs or ‘collaborative studies’, for artists; exploring VR and AR through a critical and artistic lens.

“Artists are uniquely placed to do this kind of enquiry as they tend to have a deep sense of the history of representation, and are acutely aware – either intuitively or intellectually –  of the consequences of different representational choices,” he said.

Image credit: Louise Zhang and Josh Harle / Tactical Space Lab

The first Virtual Reality Studio took place between January and April 2018 with the support of the Australia Council of the Arts and Create NSW’s 360 Vision. Since then, Harle held another in 2020, and is preparing another for 2022.

The first participating artists, Alex Seton, Bianca Willoughby, Jason Wing and Joan Ross, weren’t expected to produce a final artwork, nor were they required to have any particular technical skills or a digital practice of any kind. Together they explored key works within the VR and new media fields, before beginning to develop ideas and build prototypes. The results were studio outcomes that were demonstrated in openings as simply interesting (though often well-developed and realised) experiments.

“The lab is about experimentation,” Harle said. “We’re happy even when an experiment fails, the documentation of how and why things don’t work is just as important, and something to learn from. This is all about the critical discussion. Generally when new technologies come out, the conversation is very self-selecting or self-censoring, in only talking about the positive things.”

As Harle’s labs remind us, no emerging technology is entirely new.

“Art has a long history of investigating the body in space and its relationship to the world, and scale is a big part of that,” he said.

“Those first collaborating artists were; someone who subverts landscape painting tradition, a street artist, performance artist who uses grand cinematic scenes, and a sculptor – all these have really particular relationships to space and representation of space and these are some of the same things the artists are still exploring just through the new mediums of AR or VR.”

Image credit: Joan Ross and Josh Harle / Tactical Space Lab

 “With no previous experience working with VR, the lab inspired new directions for artist Joan Ross’ practice, for example. Exploring what a nuanced and thoughtful engagement with VR for Joan’s practice would look like, and in particular, responding to the expectations and behaviour of audiences in the medium, led to a VR commission at ACMI in Melbourne, as part of the ACMI/Mordant VR commission program, the biggest so far in Australia.”

Two years later, the studio returned featuring artists Tarik Ahlip, Cigdem Aydemir, Kylie Banyard, Nic Cassey, John Gillies, Grace Kingston, Claudia Nicholson, Jason Phu, and Louise Zhang, and led to some similar lines of enquiry.

Image credit: Cigdem Aydemir and Josh Harle / Tactical Space Lab

“The development of VR experiences and technologies at the moment is driven by commercial projects from two sides – the games and film/screen industries,” he said. “These are just taking their established set of practices/orthodoxy and aren’t really pushing the envelope at all.”

“Artists often balk at imposed conventions considered ‘common sense’ when entering a medium – going to a commercial VR studio, they would likely compose new experiences using their stock approach and ready-made 3D assets. If you can make something that is engaging and works but isn’t beholden to those, then you’re generating new ways that medium can be used. And those are often informed by work in non-digital or non-screen mediums. Experimenting with sensibilities from the non-digital realm in VR is really quite interesting.”

The collaborative project with artist Jason Wing reimagined how a VR work is presented within a gallery space.

“Normally a VR work is presented with a headset and a screen or projection, which mirrors what the viewer is seeing. The experience or artwork is thought to start at the headset.” Harle said. “But Jason’s work gave us a chance to use the waiting audience’s view as part of the artwork. The screen offered a different perspective of what his character was doing as seen through the headset, showing a silhouettes of the scene as light from the virtual fire, projected onto the wall behind the participant  It turned the physical space into a sort of 3rd space that implied what was going on but didn’t give the game away. The framing can become part of what the experience is.”

Image: Projected silhouette from Jason Wing’s VR studio, credit Jason Wing & Josh Harle / Tactical Space Lab

Harle has recently been journeying through a neurodivergent diagnosis. He says that will inform some of his approach to his next lab. For 2022, Harle’s third Virtual Reality Studio features artists Abdul Abdullah, Matt Chun and Katy Plummer. He says its focus is in response to the virtual experiences that became obligatory during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, e.g. through online video meetings.

“Zoom is nothing new. Skype and the VRML language for example, these things have been around for 20 years. So even since the pandemic, we’ve not been surrounded by wildly exciting new virtual experiences. In responding to that, I think the 2022 lab will explore connection and warmth, intimacy, conversation, subtle interaction, all the things that Zoom isn’t, those things we’ve been missing.”

Read more about Harle’s Tactical Space Lab here.

In response to our Digital Culture Strategy, we have launched a four-year Digital Culture Program to develop practice, share knowledge and invest in innovation. Applications are now open for a range of professional development opportunities and we will be announcing new programs and opportunities regularly over the next twelve months.