It's easy to forget the tranquility of nature in a bustling city like London, though its conurbation is privy to a number of lush, green spaces. Like most visitors, I'd never been inside a Sequoia tree – quoted as the biggest living organism in the world by Marshmallow Laser Feast, the creators behind virtual reality experience We Live in an Ocean of Air. With its ethereal title and sleek promotional material, I'm curious to find out whether the experience truly “illuminates the invisible – but fundamental – connections between human and natural worlds,” as described by the exhibition blurb.
Upon entering Saatchi's lower floor, it is hard to connect with nature in such a man-made environment. The space is split into two arenas; each one projecting a digitally-rendered image of a Sequoia tree – tranquil and poised, ready for interaction. We're called up, group by group, to enter the experience, first instructed to abide by a series of restrictions in what is deemed to be a 'limitless' world, then guided to one of ten 'docking' stations ready to be kitted-out with the latest tech-attire. It feels a little like a science-experiment, where you're the human subject being hooked-up to a machine.
We strap ourselves into the HP PC backpacks, as guides tend to each visitor individually, placing heart sensors on the left ear and around both wrists. The headset is fitted over our faces and we are blinded to the realities that carry on around us. A white interface tells us that the experience is loading, before a calm, female voice asks us to relax – in a meditative way – and to simply breathe slowly, in and out. As we strengthen and lengthen our breath, pictorial particles disperse outwards into a black abyss. A swirl of cool blue petals, turning rosy red, visualise the air we breathe out.
From the get-go, We Live in an Ocean of Air establishes a sense of the viewer's own agency – and their ability to shape this digital experience. It's thrilling and contenting to observe the influence we have over our own visual experience – but is this 'agency,' like the Sequoia tree, an illusion? The programme tracks and relays to us the blood-red rhythms that pulse through our bodies – both our own arterial system, and that of fellow participants, are represented in the experience.
Gradually, the scene in front of us lightens and we're placed inside a forest: we stand in the company of a large Sequoia tree. As we continue to breathe and make patterns in the air, I remember the initial briefing – to interact with elements in the programme. I step forwards, hands in front of me like a roaming zombie, towards the Sequoia tree. The three-dimensional nature of the scene tricks our brain into halting our body at the tree bark's borders. In reaching out, our prior knowledge of trees – as solid entities – suggests to us that we cannot traverse its boundaries. Here, our sensibilities become disorientated as we become able to enter the Sequoia's trunk.
Inside, we can look up and down, to reach around us from the ground-up, and to choose when to walk in and out of its borders. As the experience progresses, the Sequoia's xylem and phloem are represented by luminous strips of blue and white light. They bind and twist together, until eventually, they begin to disperse, seemingly at the touch of our human hands. It feels like a fantasy world, like I've been transported into James Cameron's Avatar. It shows how, in a short space of time, VR technology has developed: in this scenario, VR provides an imaginative, playful and entertaining experience. But how close does it bring us to nature?
Its extended showing at Saatchi appears to fit well with the Extinction Rebellion protests staged at Marble Arch. But while We Live in an Ocean of Air illuminates the grandness of a Sequoia tree and hints at the life-cycles occurring inside of it, it couldn't be further from reality. This wondrous technology sets an unobtainable precedence of the experiences that nature can offer us. When we enter a forest, we cannot transport ourselves into the interior of a tree and – though I'm no scientist – I'm convinced that its inner tissues do not light up. There's also the argument that VR technology can negatively affect our perceptions of reality in that we can become disappointed when the 'real world' does not match up to a virtual world. Notably, We Live in an Ocean of Air advertises a 'no under 10s' age restriction as some research shows that early interaction with VR technology can alter eye development.
Regardless of these arguments, We Live in an Ocean of Air does provide a respite from the humdrum of city life. It leaves us wondering, what it would be like to see a real Sequoia tree, and to ask questions about where it grows and its role on planet Earth: it's up to the viewer to decide upon which notions are most relevant to them. Ultimately, humans remain at the centre of this experience. Perhaps, for those who are so inclined, the project's message leans towards our individual ability to promote environmental change. Although We Live in an Ocean of Air is now touring, it remains accessible only to a select audience – its £20 (£15 concessions) fee for a 20-minute experience limits who can participate and suggests that VR technology needs to become more affordable if it wishes to be more inclusive.
We Live in an Ocean of Air created by Marshmallow Laser Feast in collaboration with Natan Sinigaglia and Mileece I'Anson, showed at SALON 009 at Saatchi Gallery, London, 7 December 2018 - 5 May 2019. We Live in an Ocean of Air will tour internationally to China in 2019.
(Original version, self-published text).