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Can Virtual Reality Help Us Better Understand Dying?

'The Art of Death' group exhibition explores the eventual end at New Collective in San Francisco.

Harnessing the empathic potential of virtual reality as a medium, The Art of Dying assembles the work of over two dozen artists to probe the most inscrutable of human conditions.

The group show is the inaugural project of VR and AR-focused curators Lindsay Saunders and Kelly Vicars’ newly formed Dream Logic. All 6,000 square feet of San Francisco’s The Laundry are a jungle of VR and AR stations, projections, sculpture, colorful lights, interactive, installation, and mixed-reality works, organized in conjunction with a global effort spearheaded by OpenIdeo to facilitate conversation and remove taboos surrounding death.

“We’re really interested in how people can go into a new experience and think differently about death and reimagine how their death would be,” Saunders tells The Creators Project.

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Screen capture from the VR piece Bardo Thogul by John Benton. Image courtesy the artist

According to John Benton, his piece Bardo Thogul (known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead), which explains the in-between stages separating life and death, is perfectly suited for VR because Tibetan Buddhism involves visceral, experiential understanding. The current prototyped version, not yet interactive, propels the viewer in a slow free-fall through stripped-down rooms and open spaces as a modulated voice narrates. Benton plans to develop it further with the continued guidance of Buddhist practitioners like Khandro Rinpoche.

“A lot of the Tibetan Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama, are actually very open to using technology,” says Benton, who teaches design, digital art and film at NYU. “It’s a very interesting way to be able to learn from them and be a conduit for them.”

As people engage with the works, the newness is palpable. Many people don’t know what to do with their hands, sometimes groping into the open air or needlessly clamping their hands over the VR headsets.

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Still shot of Chelley Sherman's piece Das Is. Image courtesy the artist

“It’s so fun to watch people,” says Chelley Sherman whose VR piece uses subtle binaural audio of whispers animating around the user to physically guide them through the experience. “You’re immediately pushed into this very crazy, creepy space. I want people to feel uncomfortable when they’re playing though it. There aren’t a whole lot of very scary or creepy experiences [in VR].”

Sherman’s disjointed, monochromatic landscape is populated by irregularly orbiting stones, heads, hands, and harsh polygonal shapes shuttling in and out of the blackness surrounding the user. “Rather than putting flowers on the tombstone, we put rocks because they’re more permanent,” Sherman explains of the Jewish mourning practice that contributed to the concept.

The experience terminates unsettlingly at a tombstone engraved with the words “Das Is,” also the title of the piece. The same words, translating from German to “That’s it,” are on her grandfather’s tombstone.

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Attendees sit in wheelchairs to experience Imago, a first-person perspective VR piece about experiencing a stroke, by artists: Chuck Tsung-Han Lee, Joel Ogden, Amy Stewart, Jaehee Cho, Jack Tsung-Yu Tsai, Eric Junwen Chen (Construct Studio Presents). Image courtesy Dream Logic

Artists use a myriad of immersive approaches which bring the exhibition goers closer to death, exploring a near-death experienceentropy, and terminal illness. After the suicides of his wife and father-in-law, VR podcaster and artist Kent Bye was left feeling that closure was out of reach. “Our culture doesn’t really have a lot of good rituals around death and grieving,” Bye tells The Creators Project. “I was looking for a grief ritual. So I created the grief ritual that I wanted to have, which was trying to say all those things that were left unsaid.”

Bye’s grief ritual takes the form of a VR piece entitled Crossover and through it, he says he’s found catharsis.

“There’s a certain thing that happens with embodiment, when you’re actually immersed within the experience. It actually triggers mirror neurons in a way that you’re able to connect at a heart level,” he says. “You’re able to start to explore some of those difficult topics that we haven’t really been able to explore before. I think death is one of those.”

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Attendee experiencing the virtual reality piece Death is Only the Beginning by Bec Abdy and Jose Montemayor. Image by the author. 

The Art of Dying ran at The Laundry through October 31. Dream Logic plans to exhibit a modified version of this show in New York. Click here to stay abreast of their work. 

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