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The Magik Gallery Debut was a Landmark Event for Immersive Art

The Magik Gallery exhibition on May 20 marked a turning point in how the general public and the art establishment will engage with immersive art.

Since the launch of Tilt Brush last year, we’ve witnessed a surge in creative expression in immersive technologies, amplified by the presence of other applications popping onto the scene, such as MasterpieceVR, Oculus Medium, Quill, Kingspray, ANIMVR, and Sketchfab. In that time, immersive art and art creation tools have found their way into many unexpected pockets of modern life, including late night talk shows.

Yet, the “new toy” treatment has also contributed to a lack of meaningful attention from the art community. With the exception of a few artists who’ve gained individual recognition for their work in VR, immersive art hasn’t been able to make the jump to “high art,” the kind of work that would appear as a standalone gallery exhibition.

That is, until May 20 at Terra Gallery in San Francisco.

Terra Gallery via http://terrasf.com

The Magik Gallery debut exhibition promised “painted worlds, invisible sculptures, and immersive illustrations,” but it delivered something much bigger: a message that immersive art is something, well, magical—and it should be treated with the same kind of awe that audiences give more classical forms.

“The goal of the first exhibition was to spark a change in the conversation around immersive technology—getting people to talk about the artists and their work first and the hardware second,” said Magik Founder and CEO Ochoa. “The conversation around VR and AR right now is focused mostly on the industry in general, which is currently centered around gaming applications and the minutia of the hardware.”

A perfectionist by nature, Ochoa meticulously chose the location (Terra Gallery), planned out the spread of hardware, and limited the number of attendees (the event ran all day in three “batches”)—all in service of building an environment where the art would be given the reverence he believes it deserves.

Ten artists’ work were featured in the show: Abraham Aguero, Wesley Allsbrook, Danny Bittman, Stuart Campbell (“Sutu”)Sougwen Chung, Isaac Cohen (“Cabbibo”), Liz Edwards, Edward Eyth, Mike Jelinek, and Steve Teeps. Each was selected for their unique style and contribution to the burgeoning form (for more information about each, refer to the thread at the bottom).

But part of the magic of VR is giving others the chance to try it out for themselves. In fact, it was during his experience at Kaleidoscope VR and UploadVR that he first realized how powerful this experience can be, and what he cites as the initial inspiration for what would materialize into this show.

“The inspiration for Magik came from many places, but I’d say the initial spark came about in observing people while giving them their first VR demo,” said Ochoa. “Since early 2014 I’ve personally given way too many VR demos to count—at this point nearly 1,000—to people all over the world. While traveling to different countries hosting Art + Film events with Kaleidoscope VR, and even before that in the early days of Upload, I recognized that creation tools (at the time Tilt Brush) was, without a doubt, the best way to introduce somebody to virtual reality.”

At first, he chalked the response up to Tilt Brush’s intuitive interface—but showcasing it all over the world yielded an insight that would change the course of his life.

“Initially I thought this was just because Tilt Brush was so intuitive to use even for a newbie, and a ton of fun to play with,” said Ochoa. “It wasn’t until demoing to people of different cultures all around the world that a lightbulb went off. The moment people reached out and painted that first line, they understood the full potential of VR. I’d demo to architects and they’d light up with ideas about designing spaces, the surgeon would imagine all the ways it could help in training and the artist would cry for joy at the idea of being able to move through the canvas.”

3D print of sculpture created in Oculus Medium.

The massive potential of VR lies in its ability to change the divide between “artist” and “viewer.” The shared kinetic (and kinesthetic) experience of VR is where the real magic resides.

“360 video and game demos didn’t even come close to arousing the same level of wonder and excitement as the drawing of that first line in Tilt Brush,” said Ochoa. “Reaching out and drawing that first line was an incredibly romantic experience for people. Being able to see VR as a medium for creation as opposed to consumption, and realizing that creating is as easy as reaching out and waving your hand is a magical moment. From that point forward I knew I had to focus all of my efforts around these tools and the artists using them to express themselves.”

That’s why he dedicated a whole section of his show to letting attendees try their hand at art creation, using tools like Oculus Medium and Tilt Brush.

His hope was that, through experiencing the masterworks of immersive art’s early auteurs, audiences would realize that VR art isn’t a niche interest. It’s a totally novel avenue to unlock imagination, something capable of changing how you see the world around you.

“As an art show, Magik is different because of that focus,” said Ochoa. “It’s not about ‘VR’—in fact, I hate the word. When it comes to the art world and events like Magik I like to think of virtual reality not as the message, but as a metaphor for what’s possible when we begin immersing our imaginations. Magik isn’t a celebration of VR as so much as it’s a celebration of the individual works of artists who are expressing themselves through this technology. We want to open peoples eyes to a new realm of possible, let them reach out and contribute to it for the sake of art, not VR.”

The current VR industry is a small fraction of what it will grow into—and the insider interests of right now don’t necessarily reflect the interests and engagement habits of the broader community as it grows.

“I like to think that 99% of the market for VR and AR don’t even know what VR or AR even is yet, and the industry as it stands is only a fraction of 1%,” said Ochoa. “Taking the ‘tech’ out of the conference setting and placing it in a gallery setting where the focus is on the artist and their work is our way of speaking to that larger 99% of people who have yet to realize that VR is a tool for creation, not just consumption.”

Clearly, Ochoa doesn’t view immersive technologies as flashy new toys, but rather tools for expanding our minds.

“VR is this vast, seemingly limitless space that acts as a playground for our imaginations,” said Ochoa. “Right now the playground is mostly empty, we’ve barely even laid down the tanbark. As more tools are developed—as we start building the jungle gyms, the slides, swings, seesaws and monkey bars—more people will come to play, and that seemingly limitless space will grow even larger.”

As part of an effort to help construct that playground, and grow the number of people involving themselves, the exhibition offered attendees the chance to purchase limited-edition prints and posters from artists featured in the exhibition.

Also available for purchase was Prosthetic Reality, Sutu’s augmented reality book (brought to life via the EyeJack app).

The excited “oohs and ahs” of attendees throughout the show proved that Ochoa’s hopes for Magik were taking shape. The overwhelming positive response also indicated that the community has been in need of a signpost—a place to reorient the conversation around the nature of immersive art. Magik had become that place.

And he knows it’s just the beginning of a much grander shift that’s taking place.

“The thing that’s different about VR from other mediums is the media that comes of it,” said Ochoa. “Those slides don’t need to be just slides. They can be rainbow highways filled with twists and turns through star portals. We can jump off swing sets into zero gravity and do triple backflips into pools of sprinkles and space puppies.”

So, why pipe all that energy into something like Magik?

“When it comes to VR art right now, I find the rainbow highway’s more interesting than the slides,” said Ochoa.

For more information on the artists featured in the exhibition, here’s a thread that shines a bit of light on each of them:

VRScout is proud to be a media partner of Magik Gallery.

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Editor-at-Large of VRScout and the CEO of Galatea, a writing and project management tool for immersive storytelling. He's also Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #loliloquy (BlazeVOX, 2017). Other writing can be found on IndieWire and The Huffington Post.

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