Prehistories of VR. Cinema, literature, art


Matylda Szewczyk on her lecture:

Similarly to practically any state-of-the-art medium, Virtual Reality has its own prehistory, rooted in a past recent or distant, depending on the person attempting to reconstruct it. The most radical researchers, such as German art historian Oliver Grau, have placed early virtual space projects in antiquity. Yet the “VR prehistory” I would like to ponder mainly concerns the 1980s and 1990s. While various appliances allowing Virtual Reality to be experienced had already existed in those days and intense works were in progress to develop others, their availability was disproportionately limited in comparison with the interest triggered by VR in the community of literature and cinema authors, artists and culture scholars.

Why had VR proven to be so significant in terms of philosophy and cultural sciences, even before we genuinely began using it? What kind of fears and hopes had Virtual Reality triggered in times of its actual prehistory? Which of these forecasts may prove essential in an era of actual VR realisations becoming relatively broadly accessible to regular media users – and which will remain nothing but a sign of their times, not that distant yet completely different to the age we call our own?

In my lecture, I will discuss imaginings and propositions of problematising VR through novels, films, and art and theoretical works created in times when Virtual Reality had been no more than a visionary perspective. Analysed works will include i.a. William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels; and films from the “summer of digital paranoia”, to reference a phrase coined by cinema researcher D.N. Rodowick for the 1999 season, when “Matrix” by the Wachowski siblings, David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” and Josef Rusnak’s “The Thirteenth Floor” opened in cinemas. We will also reflect on why – as Jaron Lanier claimed in 1993 – the phrase “Virtual Reality” carries a type of “magical power” within, and what that “power” could then (and still can) involve.