Somerset House’s (London) latest exhibition Thresholds takes visitors back to 1839 via a fully immersive portal to an early photography exhibit. British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, but most original images have since faded almost beyond recognition with several of the surviving photographs existing only in light-proof vaults.
Created by artist Mat Collishaw, Thresholds uses VR to allow the images to be ‘on display’ once again. Visitors walk freely throughout a digitally reconstructed room, and touch the bespoke vitrines, fixtures and mouldings; even the heat from a coal fire will be recreated. A soundscape for Thresholds includes the sound of demonstrations of the Chartist protesters who rioted in 1839 on the streets of Birmingham, and who can be glimpsed through the digital windows.
VR’s ability to enable visitors to revisit the birth of photography – a medium that has come to saturate our lives – is uncanny and compelling.
Virtual Reality has seen many attempts to use it’s storytelling abilities in art and culture, in films at Tribeca Film Festival and in journalism in the NY Times VR app. Both examples have put the technology to excellent use.
But what makes Thresholds stand out from other VR experiences is its holistic use of sound, sight and touch. The latter being absent from many VR experiences. More impressive is it’s thoughtful storyline of asking visitors to attend a gallery in order to visit the ‘exhibition’. The virtual world doesn’t take you too far from your real surrounds – you are already at an exhibition. Albeit, an empty room.
Achieved by it’s nature of requiring visitors to be on-location, the effect of ‘stepping back in time’ is achieved by having visitors enter a blank canvas of a room, but which still reference the cabinets visitors will see once they fit their VR equipment. The cabinets and the room transform to an 19thC grand hall, with wooden panels and ornaments lit by candlelight. From here, visitors walk around the room experiencing the photography exhibit as it may have looked in 1839.
Mat Collishaw explains: “I have been looking to work with virtual reality for a number of years and I’m delighted that it has now become a feasible medium for me to use in an artwork. VR’s ability to enable visitors to revisit the birth of photography – a medium that has come to saturate our lives – is uncanny and compelling. It’s also quite appropriate as VR is the total 360 degree immersion of the viewer within an image, and is itself one of the many innovations spawned by the invention of photography.”
Thresholds will launch as part of Photo London, the annual photography fair at Somerset House and will continue as a standalone show at Somerset House until 11 June. The exhibition will then tour to Birmingham, the city where the original exhibition took place. From the Waterhall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, it then travels to National Trust property Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, Fox Talbot’s former home and The National Media Museum, Bradford, which holds original photographs and objects from Fox Talbot’s career.
More info at the Somerset House website.