The Glitch

A visit to Ryan Heath’s virtual reality installation, The Thinning

Posted on 13th December 2019

Written by Matt Davies

University of Nottingham Digital Transformation Hub's Matt Davies responds to a visit to the opening night of Ryan Heath’s ‘The Thinning’ at Broadway Gallery.

Ryan Heath's The Thinning, an installation and animated short for virtual reality, was exhibited at Broadway Gallery from 7–14 December 2019.

Ryan Heath was awarded a Leonardo Fellowship from the University of Nottingham's Digital Transformations Hub (DTH). Leonardo Fellows benefit from a year-long residency with the DTH, supported by student volunteers and staff. The artist-in-residence is supported with full access to the Hub's resources. Fellows work with student volunteers on digital media based projects and provide specialist assistance to users.

This article was originally posted at blogs.nottingham.ac.uk, written by Matt Davies.


It’s a dark, damp December evening in Nottingham. The bars haven’t got going yet but the shops have closed and the office workers have all gone home so we are in a grey zone, caught between the bustle of the day and the chaos of a Friday night on the town. As we approach the gallery space, the first sign that our reality is about to be interrupted becomes apparent. What looks like a glass fronted boutique shop glows incongruously on this dark, quiet street. Inside people gather around a large obelisk that sits on a low plinth and dominates the centre of the space. Passers-by slow down to peer in and double takes are taken before they hurry on to the safety of their homes, or maybe a bar or restaurant. Somewhere that makes sense. Their own, normal reality.

Not us though — we step in and join the crowd to gaze upon the obelisk.

Once in the Broadway Gallery things become more prosaic and yet somehow even more surreal. The obelisk is in fact a scruffy blue and white building site Portaloo, its plinth a jet-black jagged rock littered with fag nubs, sandwich wrappers and … is that a Peparami? There are also strange glowing spray paint markings on it, the sort you see on pavements every day but never notice as you navigate your urban spaces. Those strange colourful symbols left by builders and roadworkers that communicate in a strange language known only to them; ‘here is where the cables / sewage pipes need to be laid’, ‘a hole of these dimensions needs to be dug here.’

Indeed, there is a builder present tonight; he is guarding the door of the Portaloo. We know he is a builder because he wears a white hard hat, a yellow visibility vest and the obligatory baggy off-grey jogger bottoms that show the waistband of his boxers and are tucked into great muddy boots. He sucks on an electronic cigarette and regards the audience who—let us be honest—have never been on a building site in their lives. But then after all, they are an Arts audience and they are in an art gallery.

Once the builder has corralled his apprehensive charges into a queue, we take it in turns to sit down in the Portaloo and the builder helps us into a VR headset and headphones (performance artist Dean Morris is a lovely fella really); he closes the door and bolts it. Then things get weird.

It’s as dark and deserted in our alternative reality as it is in our real reality. We seem to be suspended a few feet above the ground in some grim warehouse car park, the sort of depressing factory estate that you find on the edge of town where urban sprawl meets wilderness. In the centre of the car park is a huge craggy hole and, to the sound of strange otherworldly ambient sounds, we are slowly conveyed around it as though on an invisible carousel.

Something weird is going on in that hole; it glitches, glows, broils and stirs. A typically crap British attempt has been made to cordon the thing off and red and white barriers lie around uselessly. If we were in the US, there would be a three mile armed exclusion zone and Mulder and Scully would be investigating this strange phenomenon. However, we cannot investigate it; we cannot get any closer at all because we have no control over our bodies; indeed we have no bodies.

We should, by rights, be terrified but there is something womblike and calming about Ryan Heath’s virtual world. It’s nicer in here than out there. We ignore the ominous hole and look down past where our bodies should be – more of those strange fluorescent markings twinkle and pass gently by. Above us, the twilight sky glows a beautiful dark green blue, in the distance, beyond the warehouses tree tops blow gently in the evening breeze.

We are lulled by a combination of the circular virtual movement and the beautiful soundtrack created by Nottingham noise maestro AJA Ireland, but perhaps it is also because we are somehow disconnected from this strange scene. In surrendering our bodies we have also surrendered control, we have no agency here and hence no responsibility. This is not our world after all – we are just visitors. Perhaps we are ghosts or Gods. Maybe we emerged from that ominous glitching portal like one of the evil spirits feared by the pre-historic tribes that made the ‘witch marks’ around cave entrances and inspired Heath’s creation.

In cocooning the viewer, Heath’s installation works on several levels; he presents an artwork in itself but which also works to hide the ugly mechanics of a dangling VR headset. He curtains the Wizard of Oz. We are presented with a mysterious and humorous juxtaposition; is this a builder’s Tardis? Where will it take us? But he also solves a problem faced by artists using VR in public spaces; the vulnerability and embarrassment the user feels once the headset is on and they are blindfolded. This can be used to great effect if vulnerability in the viewer is the desired effect but no one is going to relax and take the time to explore your creation when surrounded by an audience. We are not all performance artists!

Heath’s viewers do relax and enjoy, right up to the point where that builder bangs on the door and shouts;

“Hurry up in there, other people are waiting to use it!”

Author

Matt Davies

comments powered by Disqus