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Future Care: Curating the Virtual

A man wearing a Virtual Reality headset
A man wearing a Virtual Reality headset
VRchway, Dominic Biddulph (photo: John Sturrock)
Written by
Judy Willcocks
Published date
26 March 2019

Judy Willcocks, Head of the Museum & Study Collection at Central Saint Martins, explains how one student’s work began a vital conversation with Tate, Victoria & Albert Museum, BFI and others on the preservation of virtual reality.

The Museum at Central Saint Martins has been collecting work by graduating students for the last 30 years. We make most of our purchases at the summer degree shows; each year the works start to arrive and each year we are faced with new curatorial conundrums. There was the year of the life-sized body made of hot pink duct tape the year of the 3D-printed polymer crown, and the year of the two-piece suit cast in latex. The students keep us on our toes and we are used to being confronted with physical material for which we have no conservation roadmap.

Over the past years we’ve also seen increasing numbers of students working in new media. We’ve collected a number of moving image works and had several discussions around websites and apps. Then, in the summer of 2017, the inevitable happened; the College collected a virtual reality artwork by a BA Graphic Design graduate called Dom Biddulph.

Virtual Reality image of machinery
VRrchway, Dom Biddulph

When Dom came in to deliver his piece it was with horror that I watched some 3,118 files being copied across to my desktop. Over 3,000 files which are interconnected via a piece of proprietorial software, viewable via a headset which had already been superseded. Realising that we didn’t have the skills in house to deal with this I approached Tate and made contact with Conservation Manager Louise Lawson and Time-based Media Conservator Jack McConchie. They explained that they hadn’t yet acquired a VR piece and offered to work with us on a preservation workflow – an extraordinarily generous offer and one we quickly accepted.

I started to do some digging around. I wanted to know who was making what, who was funding the work, who was teaching it. I also wanted to know who was collecting and curating it, and who (if anyone) was thinking about strategic approaches in terms of preservation. The Vanishing Point symposium was the start of that conversation ­– a day bringing together makers, curators, teachers, subject specialists and digital media connoisseurs.

Sol Rogers, Founder and CEO of Rewind, Chairman of the BAFTA Immersive Entertainment Advisory Group and Chairman of Immerse UK, gave the keynote address. He showed how we’re moving away from what he refers to as “real reality” towards an everyday life of mixed realities. He talked about what’s coming next and it’s so real. In a decade’s time, people won’t buy televisions because they will just be able to put some specs on and have a television of any size whenever they want. Virtual reality is not going away.

Over the past seven years there’s been a new headset released onto the market every two months. But curatorial practice is predicated on everything being the same ­– you have workflows that allow you to digitise a hundred things and you know your formats so you can look after them. Everything produced with mixed reality, virtual reality and augmented reality uses a different headset, different proprietorial software and different gaming engines. Currently, we’re in this wild west in terms of software and hardware. Every piece of work has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. No doubt that will settle down; think about the early days of video with Betamax, VHS and pneumatic tape before we standardised to VHS.

A man wearing a Virtual Reality headset
VRchway, Dominic Biddulph (photo: John Sturrock)

What Central Saint Martins is really good at is horizon-gazing and starting difficult conversations. We are at the forefront, our students are creating the work of the future and challenging our professional practices. Larger institutions such as Tate collect work by established artists, so it takes a while for them to be in a position where they’re collecting virtual reality pieces. The smaller collections are more agile with rapid response collecting.

At one of the tea breaks, Paul Backhouse, the Head of Archives and Digital Assets at Historic England said: “Thanks very much. I came here today thinking that this conference was going to help me with my problems and now I know that those problems are bigger than I ever imagined!” I think we all felt like that at some point in the day.

We knew that we weren’t going to solve everything, but we have to start somewhere. We have to collect something, somehow or there will be nothing to show for this period. It will be represented by blankness.

The day highlighted how disciplines no longer exist in the same way: new media crosses borders so easily from theatre, curating, gaming, film and making. Where we used to curate in silos, we’re all linked now. We need to go beyond these boundaries and build a roadmap, perhaps one that you can still get lost with, but a map nonetheless. I’m a great believer that if you get the right people together in the room, you can make something happen. Everything starts with a conversation.