What would it be like to experience an immersive exhibition outside of a museum space? With canceled or postponed exhibitions affecting many museums this year, the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum at Alfred University created a Full Capacity, a new, virtual reality exhibition on the Museum’s website. The exhibition features the work of Diedrick Brackens, Lisa Marie Barber, Coco Klockner, and Jeanne Quinn who were invited to imagine a virtual space based on their studio practice and created artworks that are completely original and can only be experienced in virtual space.
Why Virtual Reality?
“As a member of the older generation, I found myself caught inside an inescapable digital frame without a map,” said Wayne Higby, The Wayne Higby Director and Chief Curator at the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum. “I began to wonder more about reality and virtual reality.”
The Museum closed on March 16 and Higby along with the University community began working from home. For Higby, electronic media became a lifeline. “One thing seemed clear: communication will never be the same.”
The pandemic also affected artists, leaving them without studio spaces and without resources. The Alfred Ceramic Art Museum recognized this time of uncertainty and offered support to artists. An idea kept bouncing in Higby’s head. “I said to myself the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum should mount a virtual reality exhibition–an exhibition that would not be a video posting of in-reality art works, a gallery tour or a performance,” said Higby. “Therefore, the art works presented in Full Capacity are totally original and can only be experienced in virtual space.”
The Museum invited Guest Curator, Kelcy Chase Folsom to facilitate the virtual exhibition. He writes, “I am interested in the two-dimensional experience as it is the fabric of digital communication, one of the few vital links to each other and to new, image-based ideas. When I think of exploration in a digital space, I want to see it all, and Full Capacity invites this notion that space and time are perpetually saturated.”
Higby met Folsom in 2015 when Folsom joined the faculty of the Division of Ceramic Art, School of Art and Design at Alfred University as the Robert Chapman Turner Teaching Fellow. “Folsom is a significant player in the conceptualization of the exhibition,” said Higby. “He is an accomplished ceramic and mixed media artist. He is also a very articulate and informed observer of contemporary art and ceramic art.” Higby called Folsom about creating a virtual reality exhibition and asked him to be the Guest Curator for the project. “It was Folsom who introduced me to other virtual reality exhibitions.” While thinking about Full Capacity and at the Folsom’s suggestion, Higby browsed several digital projects by the New Museum and their collaboration with Rhizome. “Full Capacity differs from much of this work, because it is by artists totally unfamiliar with VR process and technology,” said Higby. Full Capacity provided a new perspective for both the artists and designer facilitator-collaborator. “The results are surreal, dreamlike, beautiful and haunting,” said Higby. “They move slowly and are unlike the clamor and pumped up energy of the typical video game. The technology tricks are not especially obvious or overtly exploited.”
The VR Experience
How visitors to the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum website enter Full Capacity
Full Capacity can only be viewed with the use of a tablet, computer, or iPhone. Visitors can experience the exhibition through a portal on the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum’s main website. “I enjoyed seeing it on a large screen, desktop computer, like a widescreen movie,” said Higby. The virtual panoramic installations are interactive. Viewers can click on and maneuver through the image to change their viewing perspective. Using an iPhone, users can experience this by moving their phone through real space. “The viewing processes are engaging and new discoveries are available at each viewing. Like the experience of looking at all works of art, rewards are dependent on how much time one is willing to spend with an individual work,” said Higby. Some of the VR experiences feature ambient music, and Diedrick Brackens’ exhibition is based on a poem where you can hear him recite it in the context of his VR piece. The poem commemorates the lives of three black teenagers, Steven Booker, Carl Baker, and Anthony Freeman, who drowned after being picked up by the police and put into a boat that capsized on Lake Mexia during the Mexia, Texas Juneteenth celebration in 1981.
The four artists were chosen by Folsom with Higby. “Folsom’s point of view included the idea of inviting artists with no prior experience with virtual reality work who utilized materials such as ceramic, fiber, and mixed media from entirely different artist viewpoints,” said Higby. After each artist was chosen, Folsom invited them to collaborate with designers at Primal Screen, an award winning multi-platform design agency specializing in animation. Each artist was asked to provide written descriptions or preliminary drawings based on each artist's studio practice in response to a painting by Ryan Mrozowski, the painting of the daisies that is the image used to enter the exhibition. “The thought here was often we look at the two-dimensional image of a painting we visually enter the space of the painting and may, in fact, imagine a world beyond,” said Higby. “This is an experience particular and unique to each individual viewer.” Folsom writes, “Ryan Mrozowski’s painting, Shifted Flowers, is the entrance into this virtual world. I understand Mrozowski’s work as a framed version of what I think I witness rather than what I actually see the assumed image of movement in a moment.” Folsom checked in with the artists every couple of weeks to help facilitate their work with their individual designer-collaborators at Primal Screen. In total, the VR exhibition took six months to complete.
Ryan Mrozowski’s “Shifted Flowers” serves as the background for the main entrance to “Full Capacity” on the Museum’s website
Is this the future?
Full Capacity is an experimental exhibition. “The first goal was to offer something to our membership and visitors locally, regionally, and worldwide at a time when the Museum was closed or only open to the on campus community...for the Museum, Full Capacity was an excellent way to learn and explore a creative opportunity handed to us by a severe limitation,” said Higby. Moving forward, Higby imagines that this VR approach could be incorporated into future exhibitions either as a stand-alone or in conjunction with other themed exhibitions. At this point in time, there are no immediate plans to host another virtual reality exhibition. “As director and chief curator of the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum, I enjoy very much working with living artists and collaborating with them on a variety of ideas. This is, at least in part, because I am a producing living artist myself and also a Professor of Ceramic Art with a deeply invested interest in artists’ ways of thinking and doing. I do envision for the Museum more collaboration with artists and guest curators.”
Learn more and experience Full Capacity: https://ceramicsmuseum.alfred.edu/