Catalogue essay for Aaron Christopher Rees, First Draft, Sydney, 2017
Re-published in The Article, Melbourne, 2017
In 1995, Nintendo released a failed virtual reality console called The Virtual Boy. This doomed apparatus was meant to be experienced through a Virtual Reality (VR) Headset and operated via a manual controller. However, the display was designed with an infernal red monochrome that induced motion sickness on its users. This self-destructive layout quickly cursed the console, as its hellish graphics formed an ocular hole that swallowed its users into a netherworld of growing pain. In this pit of optic sadism, the apparition of familiar characters such as Mario Bros gained a disturbing sense of agony – their manifestation resembling a torturer penetrating a black chamber of horrors. Like a maddened copy of their original self, popular characters became corrupted. As these piercing visions provoked an eye strain that if exceeded could decay into nausea, vomit and headaches. In this way, The Virtual Boy’s reddish realm existed as a source of torment rather than pleasure, a feeling that was exacerbated by the imminent threat of a seizure.
On the other hand, this haunted technology opened the gates of a spinning altered state: a hallucinogenic zone of optical disturbance. One can picture the decadent thrill of pushing mind and vision to the edge by purposely playing this videogame for extended hours. Visiting new hazardous territories of perception in the engulfing contractions of a spasm. Unfortunately, these regions of pain and pleasure were quickly restricted, as The Virtual Boy was discontinued and vaulted in Nintendo’s cellar. Becoming a monster exiled to oblivion.
While this console is a malformed precedent, its relatively obscure case stands as a reminder of the faultiness of contemporary VR Headsets: they tend to create a hyper embodied experience rather than facilitating a disembodied one. Indeed, it is an uncomfortable fact that a screen strapped onto one’s head is not easily ignored. As its weight seemingly pokes one’s head to makes its presence immediately known. Some may disagree, but these detractors are probably the type of individuals that watch The IT Crowd in their VR while patting a hamster in the hollowness of their man cave. Hard-core media artists are probably frowning upon that sentence, quoting the emotional benefits of owning a hamster and arguing for technological progress. However, witnessing artworks that smear Samsung’s marketing diarrhea all over the gallery walls by aligning themselves with similar utopian delusions remains a foul and uncomfortable encounter. Perhaps a more sensible approach is to focus on the slippages of this technology to articulate how we mediate the world through pictures and electronic media.
Aaron Christopher Rees’ Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand takes advantage of VR technology’s tendency to draw attention back to the body. This participatory work reconstitutes perception by splitting vision with two security cameras meant to be held on the user’s hands. Indeed, the artist co-opted commonplace monitoring technology designed for domestic spaces to operate like eyeballs. These reproduce sight in the VR headset, creating a disjointed sensorial effect where vision is misplaced. In other words, the project enables one to experience what it would be like to hold one’s eyes like a techno-ghoul. This model is based on the Japanese creature Tenome, an aged monster that appears to be blind yet is seen holding its eyes on the palm of its hands. Like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, Rees’ headset envelops the iris in a spinning vortex of haunted vision. However, unlike the former, the latter successfully manipulates this effect to re-experience the gallery’s white void and engage in a heightened act of self-surveillance. This is because Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand allows its users to witness themselves wearing the apparatus by pointing the security cameras at their own body.
This participatory work is complemented by two video works collectively titled Traps. Mounted in two screens, these works were recorded in the gallery space with a camera performing a 360-degree rotation while one user is seen wearing Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand. These whirling videos indeed form a sensorial trap that catches visitors in a cell of optic overload. Since the viewer is invited to encounter this rotating footage while wearing Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand (which already shatters one’s vision), the experience becomes acutely disorienting. Like the diabolical pit of The Virtual Boy’s epileptic games, the body certainly registers the experience of gazing at these moving images.
However, if The Virtual Boy’s infernal screen turned popular characters into spectral apparitions that threatened its gamers, Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand momentarily turns its users into aberrations that terrorize their surroundings. Allowing them to map the gallery space with a re-engineered vision that forms an uncanny sight for those who witness the artwork being used, as users tend to navigate the space with uncoordinated movements that resemble the motion of lost spirits. Virtual Boy’s hellish realm is an insular catacomb (restricted to its apparatus) while Rees’ is expansive – as it wraps perceived reality through optic means. This is a component that differentiates it from the failed cinematic principle of VR, which seeks to stupidly absorb the voyeur into a virtual arena. Thus, Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand fractures the user’s vision instead of subjecting it to the novel sphere of unbounded imagination that typifies commercial VR (most likely designed by a “creative” intern at Sony). Aaron Christopher Rees, in short, is more concerned with mediation and affect rather than oneiric effects.
Indeed, Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand provides an intense and embodied insight into the tragedy of the monster and the reality of its damnation. As users are forced to balance the left and right security camera to sustain a synchronized vision. This is achieved by pointing the security cameras to an X marked on the wall: once the X is legible, the “eyeballs” have been successfully synchronized. One of the most revealing aspects of this artwork is how burdensome it is to maintain this balance and how this condition affects the way one navigates space while wearing the headset. For a moment, one becomes deformed and potentially appalling. Perhaps drawing attention to the way in which technology turns us into corrupted versions of our previous selves.
The X symbol is a recurrent motif in the artist’s practice that expands upon this notion. For the artist, the X normally symbolizes the nullification of the image – as a picture is rendered null once this cross has been applied to its surface. In Tenome: Eyes Of The Hand this symbol gains a more knotted signification, as it simultaneously connotes the validation of vision (since the user synchronizes the security cameras by staring at an X on the wall) and the annulment of organic eyeballs (as one sees the X through the security cameras). In a similar way, one could say that technology paradoxically negates a natural human state while simultaneously legitimising the humanness of technology. Rather than turning us into monsters, it simply draws attention to our inherent ugliness and how we manipulate matter to create objects of entertainment, surveillance and consumption. Indeed, this sign of negation may also disarm the idealism that surrounds VR and its techno-bukkaki perversions, which shines with the same glimmer of kitsch that characterizes stereotypical porn.