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I Had an Out-of-Body Experience at an Oculus Rift Art Show

Inside the candy-colored vistas and creepy creatures of Jeremy Couillard's 'Out of Body Experience Clinic,' which opens today at Louis B. James Gallery.

Artist Jeremy Couillard has tried everything to have an out-of-body experience—meditation, psychedelics, even listening to hypnotic cassette tapes from Bob Monroe, the father of altered consciousness who coined the term in the early 70s. However, when Oculus Rift started popping up in developmental stages, Couillard saw it as the perfect medium to explore and manipulate another state of being. “Maybe I’m just not sensitive enough for a real ‘out-of-body experience,” Couillard tells The Creators Project at his studio in Sunset Park, a heap of wires engulfing the large computer system running the virtual reality program he’s created. “But with VR you just open your eyes and you’re in another place!” 

Couillard’s newest multi-dimensional project, the Out of Body Experience Clinic opening today at Louis B. James Gallery, uses computer generated paintings, 3D-printed sculptures, and Oculus Rift to take the viewer on an immersive art experience beyond the walls of a gallery. Through appointments or walk-ins, Couillard gives you the freedom to explore a seamless virtual world in a personal way; a choose-your-own-adventure of metaphysical proportions made possible through cutting-edge technology.

It took Couillard over a year to design the 8-minute-long virtual simulation, and an upgrade to his entire computer system to be able to run its software correctly. “You have to get it perfectly simple,” says the artist, a self taught programmer who also teaches computers at Laguardia Community College. “You get sick if the frame rate isn’t perfect, and no one wants people puking all over a gallery.” Those long hours in front of the computer, creating a world that is rendered in realtime as the viewer moves their head, were Couillard’s closest feeling to having an out-of-body experience.

“Computers are the most psychedelic things,” he says, and the images and themes of his work reflect this feeling of personal transcendence, coming alive in both the VR experience and other elements of the exhibition. The characters and landscape that Couillard created are surreal yet oddly familiar, a representation of his subconscious as well as artistic process. “I just gave into the technology and let the characters come out of an unconscious state.“ The sages, as he calls them, mimic a childish 90s claymation aesthetic with a touch of adult psychosis: a Gumby body with an empty TV head, a colorful fish-humanoid, and a character that is basically just abstract art wearing a dress.

Inside the Out of Body Experience Clinic installation at Louis B. James gallery

Though the main event of the exhibition is Couillard’s virtual simulation, the experience actually starts, whether you realize it or not, as soon as you walk into the Lower East Side gallery. “I wanted to make it like a real clinic, to blend into the neighborhood like any other business or psychic or restaurant,” says the artist, showing me a rendering of the gallery-turned-waiting room, complete with bad furniture, a TV and free coffee. At first glance, it looks like a pediatrician's office from another era, with animated artwork of colorful virtual world, some small toy dioramas with 3D printed alien characters, and a cartoon playing softly on the television. But as you look closer there is something slightly off. The program on the TV, streaming the words "24/7 Bob Monroe News Network" across the bottom, show those sages from Couillard’s unconscious looking anxious and a little evil, reporting surrealist news in gibberish.

On a closer look at waiting room, you start realizing those characters from the TV are also in the pictures on the walls and hiding inside the small dioramas at your feet. They are hints of things you will see during your appointment once the docent leads you downstairs and straps on the googles; the gun above the mantle at the beginning of the play that you only remember after it goes off in the third act. “We are in front of a screen more than we’re not now,” says Couillard, “this is an experience that you get out of and you forget what was digital and what was physical.”

Inside the Out of Body Experience Clinic installation at Louis B. James gallery

The Out of Body Experience Clinic begins the same for everyone. You are sitting in a mostly empty white-walled room with nothing but a plant in the corner, a virtual rendition of the room you are sitting in for your appointment. But suddenly, you start to drift up, the visual sensation causing the psychosomatic physical sensation of floating, prompting you to look down and realize you are leaving your body—well, it’s not your body exactly, more of a digital version of yourself reimagined as one of Couillard's characters, getting smaller and smaller as your mind leaves the room. From here, each person’s experience is their own, dictated by where they look and allow themselves to go. Maybe you’ll drift through a psychedelic purple desert and meet its huge sand creature, or visit a dinner party of giants (hey, there’s the empty TV head guy!), or hang out inside a whale before looking around an art gallery in the sky, before returning back to your body at the end of the 8-minute simulation.

Screen shot from Couillard’s Oculus Rift VR simulation

“It’s so different for each person,“ says Couillard, who hopes all types of people will let themselves be open to the journey. “Some people are sweating, some people just think it’s cool, some nerdy people get super into it,” he explains, “and some people can’t finish it because they get too scared.” I don’t scare easy and, like Couillard, find it hard to allow myself into a state of altered consciousness. But during my experience in the virtual world, I surprisingly got a sudden rush of fear, gasped, and started to sweat. I felt the urge to pull my floating virtual body down to solid ground and reached out for the virtual tree in front of me. But as soon as the fear came, it turned into embarrassed laughter. There was no danger! My real body was on solid ground, just sitting in a gallery basement swiveling around and grabbing at nothing. Yes, the visuals had tricked me into feeling weightless, and my out-of-body experience was real.

Screen shot from Couillard’s Oculus Rift VR simulation

Using this new technology, Couillard has created a seamless multi-dimensional world, from the waiting room to the artwork to the virtual experience. To be able to leave a place without ever actually moving, to experience a world of that is both an artist’s subconscious and a viewer's own experience, must be similar to how an audience felt seeing one of the first moving pictures. “It’s a brand new thing that might go anywhere,” he says of Oculus Rift technology, and its potential for artistic uses are just as exciting. However, Couillard hopes that Out of Body Experience Clinic will feel like more than just an art show “I want this to not so much be an art experience as just as experience,” he says. “I want people to feel like they went somewhere other than a gallery.” One thing is sure, no matter your experience, it’s not going to be a normal day seeing art.

Make an appointment online or walk into Louis B. James gallery April 3rd-May 10th, Wednesday through Saturda 11-6, and Sunday 12-6. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Follow Kate Messinger on Twitter: @methemessinger

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