On 27 April (2022) I visited MEET Digital Centre in Milan for a double bill of Virtual Reality. I first experienced Fabio Gianpietro’s installation The Lift in the centre’s Immersive Room, before attending Matteo Lonardi’s presentation of his Interactive VR story Il Dubbio (Doubt). Both artists were present and the following personal impressions are based upon how I experienced their work and presentations and our informal conversations.
A Note on MEET
MEET is an Italian organization that supports digital culture and creative technology, with the stated aims of reducing the Italian digital cultural divide and increasing active participation through their approach centred on meeting and inclusion. It grew out of Meet the Media Guru founded by Maria Grazia Mattei, both well-known names to regular Foundation readers.
Matteo Lonardi is Creative Director of Reframe VR, described on its website as an immersive creative studio, crafting interactive CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) experiences. During the presentation of his work Doubt, he described his path into working in what he calls ‘VR as an expressive language’, from photography to 3D and on to CGI, offering the possibility for the creation of an entire world. He describes the VR experience as immersive as the individual moves within the world presented to them, although in a way without free choice of where to focus. The world remains an illusion, as the action has to take place in front of the person experiencing the world (this is how the narrative can be built, there are not infinite choices but a path).
The work recounts Leonardo da Vinci’s doubts as he finds himself alone in his studio in Rome. The sensory experience is largely based on the use of light, as the user holds a virtual magic lantern and then a candle with which they can illuminate the different parts of the virtual room. The darkness envelops all around as the experience is volumetric.
During an interactive Q&A, the artist described his current working practices and expectations for the future. Lonardi works predominantly on projects that are funded and shown in Asia, where several of the biggest communication technology operators provide subsidies for artistic production (META, TIC TOC and OPUS were all mentioned). Much of his work is translated into Chinese. He described how current investments lean towards building a group experience, driving development of an interactive world that lies somewhere between cinema and gaming.
Developments include the push towards more stand-alone mediums with headsets that are not attached to individual computers (a restriction on the development of use today because of cost), allowing more sales and participation but at the expense of a loss of definition.
The speaker concluded with an overview of the Italian scene and its lack of centralized funding (as opposed to France where the state has dedicated CGI designated funding) and touched upon several other issues that affect the medium’s popularity and diffusion such as wearability (at the moment the experiences are all short due to comfort issues) and the high costs of producing such works without using video.
The discussion closed touching on a central theme for the other VR experience of the evening; the relationship between the virtual and the space within which it is experienced:
The Lift is a large-scale installation that occupies three rooms. The experience begins with a gallery of projected paintings, mainly skyscraper cityscapes, with narration and music. The gallery walls are then transformed into a single city panorama, with film movement transforming the room into a lift that rises to the top of one of the towers and beyond into space. Several objects drift around space, the Earth lying in the distance, until the lift starts to fall back until eventually reaching the ground (via a rather apocalyptic scene of ruined buildings) and coming to rest next to a cardboard box.
The second room hosts a video screen upon which the artist describes the creative process, from painting on canvas through the digital aspects at play and the choice and influence of the space chosen for the exhibition. There is also a table with the cardboard box that appears in the Lift experience, a mock-up of the gallery with people and the projected paintings in place. The photos linked below show several of the production techniques, the Lift and the box.
The third room is another gallery of paintings and is where I fitted the VR headset. Once I had the headset and headphones in place I was guided towards the largest painting. I could then step inside to find myself standing on a steel girder at the top of one of the buildings in the painted city. Snow was falling and the sounds (and feeling?) of wind transformed the experience from one of merely viewing to a full sensory experience of the city from within. Turning round I could see the back of the painting I had walked through, look under the structure I was stood on and experience the sensation of volume on an imense scale.
After this experience I was able to speak to the artist Fabio Giampietro. He explained how the installation represented his feelings and experience during the COVID pandemic, the gradual return to something resembling pre COVID life, to real space and its relation to the virtual world. We discussed my initial (and related) interpretation of experiencing what we might think of as traditional artistic techniques such as painting interacting with the new, technology and techniques that do not contain or show the works but are part of an artistic co-construction. The items drifting round in space (a mammoth skeleton, car and TV set) representing the known and concrete, real, in a virtual space. The cardboard model found in the lift and also in the room itself, in some ways felt like a tie between two concepts (virtual and real) that find themselves in interaction with each other in a form of co-creation. Two artistic presentation forms of actual space.
In some ways the use of volume with narrative during two experiences were very similar, while in others very different. Doubt plays with darkness, enveloping a visitor who has to discover the virtual room with candlelight. The lift is all in black and white, bright and envelops the visitor with space. One closes in around you while the other makes you feel tiny. Doubt used hand-held tools, enabling the visitor to light the candles and the artist to guide the narrative, whereas The lift used the openness of space to offer a narrative.
This was my second VR artistic experience and the first in which volume played the leading role. Both installations were technically and artistically fascinating and I would certainly recommend a trip to MEET to anyone passing through Milan. Find the Agenda here.