“I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.”
– Robert Burton
This is part two of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries. For the previous post, click here:
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow” – Kurt Vonnegut
The Raindance Film Festival is, like basketball and Doctor Who, one of many cool things to have been created by a Canadian. Raindance (something you can now be arrested for in Ireland, probably) was the brainchild of Elliot Grove, Ontario’s most remarkably tech savvy Anabaptist.
During my first trip to the Jing, one of my colleagues had studied Fine Arts in the U.K. Just like every millennial who chose this course of action, she was unemployable in her home country and was traveling on a shoestring, slowly stoking her dream of becoming a gallery curator.
This young lady was interested in my coffee shop meditations, and she suggested documenting each coffee I drank with a photograph or a notebook entry, describing the coffee and the universe that I saw inside of it. While this is not necessarily a bad idea for an art project, the fact is I couldn’t be bothered. I’m almost always drinking coffee because I’m knackered and lazy, and rarely if ever because I want to create art-wank.
I was thinking about none of these things when I walked into a shabby old factory in 798 Art Zone for the Raindance China VR Film Festival.
I grew up in the nineties, the cyberpunk age of The Lawnmower Man, The Thirteenth Floor, ExistenZ* and of course The Matrix. Virtual Reality is, for me at least, a childhood dream come true.
Living in China is like living in Futurama: Just as you’re marveling at the Star Trek-level technology, the futuristic door malfunctions and smacks you in the back of the head. It was no surprise, therefore, that the first opening credit to the Introduction to Virtual Reality film was ‘No Internet Connection’.
But then it began, I was sucked into a 360 degree world of awesome, albeit one where I did not speak the language and was therefore unable to translate the phrase “It’s a little fuzzy, mate!” Even this was soon forgotten when I was floating in a junk boat, sitting in a Mongolian yurt and doing other seemingly exotic things that, ironically, I could have been doing in real life if I’d left the factory and gone to the fucking train station instead.
But then: Bam! A herd of elephants. A spinning planet whooshing overhead. A freaking dinosaur sniffing at my crotch. I was genuinely thrilled. This is, as I suspected, much of what I love about films, games, art, storytelling and real life rolled into one slightly odd-looking thing that fits on your face. This was a cavernous universe that filled a couple of square meters. I was only slightly disturbed by the threat of conjunctivitis and the thought that “if my brain thinks I’ve seen elephants in the wild, will that make seeing real elephants in the wild less impressive?”
To say that I watched five short films for ¥80 (roughly a tenner in old money) is not entirely accurate. Suffice it to say that I experienced five pieces of interactive art, using sound cues to look in vaguely the right direction, standing in just the right place to avoid the blue bars that indicated the end of my new little world. Halfway through one story, narrated by nineties somebody Ethan Hawke, I glanced at my feet and realized I’d been a bunny rabbit the whole time. This is weird, wonderful, Alice in Wonderland stuff. The most unbelievable thing about it was that I couldn’t convince the gf, someone who keeps the cellular data people in business 22 hours a day, to come along with me.
I used to laugh at the slogan of a coffee shop around the corner of the very gallery I was standing in: a slogan that stated “the future is NOW!”** But, on behalf of my nerdy ten-year-old self, who wondered how far-fetched the ‘holodeck’ actually was, I think that those Latte-making bastards might be onto something.
I have to admit, I’m slightly unsettled by the idea of some creature in the post-human future strapping on their equivalent of a headset and saying “Ah, so that’s what an elephant was” or “Ah, so that’s what the 1930s was like” or “Ah, so that’s what Post-Trump Nuclear Neo-Primitivism is!”
But, speaking as someone who spent his morning gleefully prancing around The Art Warehouse chasing creatures from Persian mythology, “the future is now”…
*Made at a time when video games as art and game designers as celebrities were still the stuff of science fiction!
**(and not, slightly more accurately, “really, really soon”)