At last! Virtual reality becomes virtually real

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virtual reality for decades now. Back in 1965, the pioneering professor Ivan Sutherland wrote a seminal essay on the subject called “The Ultimate Display” and went on to co-create what’s believed to be the first VR headset, which he called The Sword of Damocles. The street artist who calls herself Zenka has been captivated by them all–and can’t wait to dive into the parallel universe they promise.

“I want to walk the streets of Paris. I want to Skydive. You can skydive without risking your life. I want to know what it’s like to be in outer space. This is like taking your body and putting it in another place. Physically,” she told me as we stood in the studio where she works, the Clayhouse on Santa Monica Boulevard. “I lived in Argentina for 10 years. I would have loved to have dinner with my parents. With augmented reality, I could be in their kitchen with them.”

Zenka and her goggles (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Or, at least, that’s the promise. Until now, most VR headsets have incited nausea more than they have mind-blowing, transporting experiences. That didn’t stop Zenka from being inspired. She’s collected some 30 instances of VR goggles, and allowed her obsession to permeate her art. She’s paid tongue-in-cheek homage to them by casting them in an ancient form of ceramics called raku. The crackly, iridescent texture achieved by firing the clay at 1800 degrees and then dumping the piece into a metal can filled with paper (at a different studio, in Ontario) is almost futuristic, she said.

“Raku seemed the perfect form to immortalize these beginnings,” she said, “because it gives the work the feeling it has been dug out of an architectural dig from the past.” (Not to mention that the American form of this Japanese art was created right here in California around the same time Professor Sutherland wrote his prophetic words.)

On Saturday, Zenka will display her artistic interpretations of the goggles, along with an actual VR demo of the current darling of that world, the Oculus Rift. She’ll also give away a few of the View-master-style contraptions called Google cardboard, which allow you to turn your smart phone into a rudimentary VR set. She believes this is the year for the technology to finally make its mark. “Everyone’s talking about how we’re never present, we’re always on our cellphone,” she said. “Well, with virtual reality, you’re going to have that problem times 10, but it’s going to be a good thing.”As for Zenka, she’s happy to be actually, but not virtually, here in LA right at this moment: “It’s a hotbed of artistic activity right now.”

Presence: A Humorous Collection of Virtual Reality Goggles in Clay 1965-2015: opens Saturday, March 7th District Gallery 740 E. 3rd Street Downtown LA 7-10pm (gallery open Tuesday-Sunday noon to 6pm)