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Reconnecting with Our Roots: How VR Can Bring Us Back to Reality


George P. Johnson's Bethan Harris Brown reflects on the Saatchi Gallery's We Live in an Ocean of Air VR exhibition

Reconnecting with Our Roots: How VR Can Bring Us Back to Reality

I have always deeply revered nature. Growing up in Cornwall surrounded by the ocean on (almost) all sides has meant I’ve always been aware of the scale of the wild world outside. I am keenly aware of the beauty of nature, but never forget the power it holds. I know I can't outswim a riptide or stop a falling tree, and it's this knowledge that commands respect. Each time we try to conquer nature, we are reminded that it's a force to be reckoned with. However, what we also forget is that it was never meant to be a battle, but a partnership.

We Live in an Ocean of Air is the latest experience from Marshmallow Laser Feast. Using virtual reality (VR), the audience is transported to a forest of Sequoia trees to be reminded of humanity’s deep connection them. My creative partner (Stephen Pelling) and I were recently lucky enough to experience it first-hand.

A dark and airy room welcomes us. Colourful visuals dance over the walls, the backdrop for a group of individuals tentatively treading around wearing VR headsets. Our guide tells us: “You can laugh at them, that will be you in a minute.” But the situation is fascinating rather than laughable. We watch people explore an invisible world and get completely lost in it.

        This experience isn’t about being an individual, it’s about stripping us back to the rawest version of ourselves

The forest around us is free to explore, we can even peek inside the tree to watch the patterns of energy that stream up through it. Every sense is played on, drawing us deeper into the world. The smell of pine drifts on the air and the first rumbles of a storm build around us.

As time passes, the streams of energy begin to take over our vision. The physical tree fades from view and inside we see branches of brightly coloured tendrils crawling upwards. I’m still in the forest but seeing it in a completely new way.

Although I know rationally that this tree isn’t real, I can watch as I breathe out and those same particles mix with the environment around me. I can reach out and flex my fingers through the branches and watch as sparks of energy fly in different directions. It may not be real in this moment, but the processes are real. This is an artistic interpretation of the part we play in our world, but don't get to see. It’s a beautiful way to have it revealed and the experience is over too soon.

We’re living in an age of growing awareness. Realising slowly that the relationship between earth and humanity is a rather one-sided dependence. The earth doesn't need us, but we very much need it.

        There is a gentle irony in the fact that technology frequently acts as a barrier between people and nature

Blue Planet, the push against plastic and the recent school strikes for climate change are the first stirrings of progress. A new generation is fighting for the earth’s future to ensure their future. Significant progress is yet to be made, but the panic is beginning to set in.

And although panic is a useful tool in encouraging change, there are other ways to reconnect us with our world. Experiences like We Live in an Ocean of Air is one such way. Standing in front of trees bigger than buildings, regardless of whether they are real, is a humbling way to be reminded of such concepts.

There is a gentle irony in the fact that technology frequently acts as a barrier between people and nature. It is only fitting that now it can be used to help bring us back together.

Photography by Stephen Pelling. Brown and Pelling are a junior creative team at George P. Johnson. We Live in an Ocean of Air is running at the Saatchi Gallery in London until 5th May.

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George P. Johnson, Wed, 24 Apr 2019 16:45:42 GMT