African Digital Art Meets Virtual Reality

The walls of the gallery were bare, save for a couple of discrete labels presenting the artists and the background to their work. Towards the back of the room stood two suspended panels covered in colourful notes from previous visitors.

At first sight, the Shifteye Gallery hardly bore any trace of the ongoing exhibition “Spaces: a digital art festival” (#DAF2016) put together in collaboration with the Goethe Institut and curated by Mbithi Masya and Sandra Chege. That’s because the experience chiefly happens under a virtual reality headset, with headphones firmly fastened on your ears.

The festival proposed a decidedly multimodal exploration of our digital lives through installations, performances, screenings, round tables and talks with artists, all of which highlighted the vigour of the contemporary Kenyan artistic scene. Adding VR to the mix made for an incredibly exciting moment.

Goggles on, everyone!

Until a few days ago, I had only read about and imagined the narrative potential of virtual reality. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve been itching to try it out as soon as you heard of VR’s existence. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by the idea of reliving a man’s path to blindness (Notes on Blindness) or uncovering the mysteries of the human brain (the Fifth Sleep)?

More than a new medium, VR provides extra dimensions of engagement and expands the artist’s expressive landscape. With the first commercial VR headsets hitting the shelves a few months ago in Kenya and the opening of a 'VR-cade' in Cape Town, the promise of intensely immersive art is now within reach.

The set up at Shifteye Gallery consisted of a headset with a pair of goggles that keep your eyes trained on a smartphone screen. Your vision is locked inside the device so that you are completely surrounded by images and sounds of a virtual world. You never quite forget where you are since you're bound to bump into the walls and the furniture as you move about, but even so, the experience grabs you at a visceral level.

Meditation on digital spaces

Though the gear felt heavy on my face, I quickly forgot that I was wearing it when 'What The Fuss' started playing. I wanted to walk through the doors and lose myself in the fountains of zeros and ones that sprang from the ground. The physical space around me disappeared, to be replaced by a deep dive into the dark belly of the Internet, as envisioned by Melisa Allela and Lenny Njagih.

A voice read what sounded like a hyperactive Twitter feed directly into my ears, complete with hashtags and muddled messages that overlapped into a grueling mash of auditory stimuli. Towards the end, I recoiled from the dense net that was closing in on me as the voice kept pounding to a now slower rhythm.

The piece was an engrossing meditation on "meaning making in the seemingly absurd universe of social media" where the data stream is gorged with bright images and emotional flare ups while also providing avenues for new self-projections.

In the multimedia triptych 'The Walk' (Musa Omusi), we follow a fictional character called Gunia Guru, as he explores processes of transformation in nature as a metaphor for human beings' inner lives. He traverses the city collecting discarded materials to create new objects and this act of creation speaks to the emergence of a connected conscience. What is our place in the natural world? How do the objects we make and use define us?

'The Walk' blurs the line between the virtual and physical worlds. Gunia Guru exists only through video representations until you see his recycled carrier bags displayed on a rack and the character starts feeling less like a fiction and more like a forgotten fragment of yourself. 

Interactivity: the new frontier?

The rise of art projects such as 'The Walk' and 'What The Fuss?' opens up a space for more interactive and immersive work through the inclusion of VR elements. It may also mark the dawn of new tech-enhanced genres that broaden our experience of the world.

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