Extended reality is going mainstream by embracing art

Clovis McEvoy
April 11, 2023
“Artists have paved the way for critical conversations around new technologies” — George Vitale, Founder and Director, Synthesis Gallery

As Justin Melillo, co-founder of world-building platform Mona, puts it, “There are really big numbers spending more and more time inside headsets.” If society has ever been ready to explore art through the lens of technology, it’s now. Clovis McEvoy talks with the builders who are uniting creative communities and exploring the artistic metaverse.

Artists have always been in the avant-garde when it comes to embracing new technologies, and extended reality (XR) is no different. Whether you like your reality augmented, virtual, or mixed, creators are using the tools of the metaverse to pioneer a stunning range of new artistic practices.

However, the future of this nascent medium demands accessibility. From the tools that artists use to create work, to the spaces where viewers can experience it, there is an ever-present need to lower the barrier of entry and increase general awareness of what artistic XR makes possible. A bedrock of accessibility are XR exhibition spaces, and since opening their doors in 2017, Berlin-based Synthesis Gallery has offered just that. Having curated over 20 boundary-pushing exhibitions over a handful of years, they’ve become an essential destination for audiences looking to experience cutting-edge digital artwork.

“Artists have paved the way for critical conversations around new technologies and showed us the possibilities,” says gallery Founder and Director, George Vitale. “Their role is vital, irreplaceable, unique, and very much needed.”

Aura Garden by Chris Golden, from The Flowers I Have Never Seen In My Garden exhibition at Synthesis Gallery.

Synthesis Gallery’s most recent exhibition, I KNOW, brings together an intergenerational collection of artists, including Cibelle Cavalli Bastos, Yehwan Song, and aaajiao — whose NFT works were recently acquired by The Centre Pompidou in Paris — to explore the aesthetics of truth in an era of disinformation. The result is an examination of what George describes as ‘imaginative truth’, a collection of works that is by turns cerebral, playful, and challenging in its application of disparate artistic approaches.

Over the past six years, George says he has seen a marked rise in interest when it comes to XR artworks, and reports that many visitors to his gallery come having seen multiple virtual reality experiences or exhibitions in the past. Increasing engagement from both the public and from creators may be partly explained by technical advances that have made the medium more accessible, but George believes that the recent embrace of extended reality art is also an indication that the technology now has fundamentally broader acceptance from consumers.

 “Artists have paved the way for critical conversations around new technologies.”

— George Vitale, Founder and Director, Synthesis Gallery

“VR offers a magnified parallel, visual, alienating world precisely in line with our current times,” George says. “One important consideration to make is that the first VR artwork dates back some thirty years, but VR as an artistic medium never truly gained traction until a few years ago. Why? Because society was not ready and sociologically subjugated to technology like it is right now.”

Society’s new appreciation for reality-bending artworks not only presents creative possibilities, but also lays the foundations for a burgeoning new art market. “Seeing VR art exhibited more often definitely helps consolidate VR as one of the more relevant mediums for artists of our generation and for the general public,” George suggests. “The expectation is that it will soon open up new market possibilities as more and more collectors get familiar with the medium.”

Can Büyükberber’s The Statue of Post-Liberty, Synthesis Gallery.

Extended reality art platform, Mona, not only provides a space where art lovers can connect with new work, but blends both exhibition space and artist studios, offering a suite of tools with which artists can build immersive, architectural works that Co-Founder Justin Melillo likens to virtual installations.

Built on the principles of accessibility and creative freedom, Justin says that Mona was a direct response to the more commercialised online spaces he and Co-Founder Matt Hoerl saw proliferating in the digital sphere. “We founded Mona because a lot of metaverse platforms were really geared towards gaming or to selling land for tens or even thousands of dollars,” he reflects. “For 3D artists, it’s a huge barrier if you have to buy a piece of land before you can start building.”

Not only were many artists priced out of the metaverse, but those who were able to participate found themselves channelled into a narrow range of visual styles. “There was a limited set of tools for artists to create with,” says Justin, noting how most platforms restricted creators to simpler, more blocky styles that require less computing power. “People were stuck in this low-poly aesthetic. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that visual style, but what we’re trying to do is remove all the barriers and boundaries and just give creators the tools they need to build any type of virtual experience they want.”

In addition to their creative toolkit and exhibition space, Mona are also doing their part to foster a creative economy for XR artists. “Our marketplace is leveraging web3 to help artists turn these experiences into collectible digital assets which they can share. We want to help 3D, VR, and AR artists tap into a new income stream.”

Ares House, created on Mona by Daniel Arsham for The Row, an Art Basel exhibition developed by Everyrealm.

Justin also anticipates large growth in the number of people who are enthusiastic about the creation and collection of XR art. “There’s so much passion around it as a medium,” he says. “For anyone who is still sceptical, I just point them towards these different communities that are forming around virtual reality experiences. There are really big numbers of folks spending more and more time inside these headsets.”

One of the biggest setbacks that XR art has faced in the last year is a media narrative built around what the metaverse looks like. Images of clunky, legless avatars and blocky landscapes straight out of a 90s-era video game have become a common sight, and this, in turn, has led to a perception that every XR experience will suffer from the same visual shortcomings.

“There are really big numbers of folks spending more and more time inside these headsets.”

— Justin Melillo, Co-Founder, Mona 

Justin says the key to pushing back this narrative is to show people just how beautiful and diverse extended reality artworks can be. “It’s so much more than the images that are put out there by the media. There are high-quality, photorealistic, truly gorgeous worlds that are being crafted. Spatialised audio, events that trigger and change as you move through the world; these are powerful artistic experiences,” he effuses.

Nearly sixty years ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote his now infamous phrase, “the medium is the message.” It’s a maxim that seems eternally relevant in a world of exponentially evolving technology. When it comes to XR and the metaverse, artists play a critical role in helping society see the contours of this new medium, and the message it enables them to communicate.

“Society was not ready and sociologically subjugated to technology like it is right now.”

— George Vitale, Founder and Director, Synthesis Gallery

Rebecca Manzoni, George’s colleague and Assistant Curator at Synthesis Gallery, highlights the sense of personal agency, of empowerment within an artistic experience, as one of XR’s defining features. “If there is something inherent in the medium of VR,” she says, “it is a drive of insertion, a commitment of body and mind to be present in another reality. The traditional voyeuristic condition of the spectator is challenged by a desire of movement, a desire to act within the experience.”

Justin echoes that sense of embodiment, and the engagement of multiple senses, as essential to the medium: “Just as you can with a physical Yayoi Kusama installation, you can have a really powerful experience with VR. It puts all these different facilities at your disposal: spatialised audio, movement, visual. Artists have the opportunity to create an immersive, visceral experience that is more akin to an installation.”

 “It’s so much more than the images that are put out there by the media.”

— Justin Melillo, Co-Founder, Mona 

There are some that believe XR and the metaverse will be defined by workplace productivity, social media, and targeted advertising. Perhaps it will be. Yet, there is also a chance that those investing billions to drive forward XR’s hardware and software have made a category mistake. Perhaps the metaverse is more art gallery than shopping centre, more concert hall than Zoom, blank canvas, rather than whiteboard.

The truth will likely be found somewhere in the middle, but one thing is for certain: the complex interplay of human perception and sensory stimulation has always been the domain of artists, and as XR continues its winding path forward, it is essential that creative communities have a hand on the steering wheel. As Rebecca puts it: “The act of worldbuilding and creating new realities is inherent to the VR experience, and the speculative force of our imagination can be used to model the technology that will come. We can experience alternatives to what our society offers, and alternatives to how we are used to engaging with and using technology.”

Temple Garden, created by Memory on Mona.
Temple Garden, created by Memory on Mona.
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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.