Virtual Realities, Part One

Early in 2020, Irish National Opera (INO) began work on an unusual community project—a new VR opera, co-created with people from three different parts of Ireland: teenagers living in rural areas, adults from Tallaght, on the edge of Dublin, and Irish-speakers and other residents of Inis Meáin, an island off the coast of Galway. Geographical and cultural differences always made this an ambitious project: the pandemic made it almost impossible. With lockdowns and travel restrictions, the first face to face meeting between the creative team and the community participants did not happen until August 2021. 

All that is a sadly familiar story. Across Ireland, across Europe, thousands of community arts projects were faced with similar difficulties. They took stock, adapted, and learned new ways of working, online, remote and physically distanced. They ran hybrid activities, kept in touch, supported each other through anxiety, loneliness and grief, and eventually produced exhibitions, performances, recordings and other art that shows the creativity and resilience gained during decades on the underfunded margins of cultural life. That part of INO’s community opera story is no different: like everyone else, the artists and producers found ways round the obstacles that kept falling in their way. It wasn’t easy, for anyone, but it was done and done well. 

Now, with the project close to completion, I realise that the pandemic hid the project’s real challenge—co-creation in Virtual Reality. Because that is what was important about ‘Out of the Ordinary’ as the community opera came to be titled. It is, as far as we know, the first time anyone has tried to co-create opera in Virtual Reality. What does that mean? That’s the heart of the problem. If you invite people to be part of a community opera, they’ll have an idea what’s involved: singing a story on stage, more or less. They may imagine that differently, depending on their experience, but there’s enough common ground to start work together. 

If you invite people to co-create a Virtual Reality opera no one has the first idea what you have in mind. 

Islands with VR headsets, waiting for audiences at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, August 2022

Virtual reality is intangible. It is in your head, what you experience through physical interaction with sound and vision. You can’t photograph it or record it. The images of VR headsets that INO used in publicity for the project are no help either: like showing the front of a cinema to someone who’s never seen a film, or the wrapper on a bar of chocolate to someone who’s never tasted it. A sign doesn’t mean anything if you’ve no experience of what it signifies. 

Once it was possible to meet face to face, people could try on a VR headset and get an idea of that experience. I did it myself, a couple of times, and found it intriguing, disorienting and unforgettable. But I still didn’t know what to do with or in this VR world. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to enter it again. The VR experiences I had were so different from each other that they suggested no way of imagining an opera in that form. 

That was the real challenge of INO’s project. It was worth doing precisely because we didn’t know how to do it and we couldn’t even be sure that we’d be able to get somewhere good. There is a possibility that VR is a dead end, at least for opera. But until you’ve gone down that path, you cannot know, and it could be a way to bring extraordinary opera experiences to parts of Ireland where there are no facilities to stage opera (which is most of the country).

The problem with the pandemic is that it prevented me, and I suspect most of the people working on the project, from seeing that how we imagined VR was the project’s real challenge. We were so preoccupied with trying to solve the immense practical, human and artistic problems of working under lockdown conditions that there was neither time nor headspace for thinking or talking about what a VR opera might be, what it might feel like to experience, or how established co-creation methods might be adapted to empower non-professionals in this new medium. 

And yet, somehow, we have got there—nearly. On Sunday, the opera was presented for the first time to some of the people who have been living with it for two and a half years: professional and non-professional artists, other community members, friends, relatives and supporters. In a specially designed space, with each person on a soft island where their bare feet tell them if they’ve strayed too far in their headset, people got to experience ‘Out of the Ordinary’ for the first time. I’ll write about the artwork in the next post, but for now what interests me is the different responses people have had to it. 

First, though, it’s important to say that what is being presented is the first half of the opera, ‘Episode One’ as it’s been called. The code for the second half is still being worked on, but it was important to share this work in progress now so that people’s responses can be taken into account as the work is completed. This week, audiences at the Kilkenny Arts Festival will have a first chance to discover it, and the final version should be at the Dublin Fringe Festival next month.  

Stills from the worlds of ‘Out of the Ordinary’ (INO 2022)

At the moment, there’s a big difference in how ‘Out of the Ordinary’ is seen by the creative team involved and by other audiences. The professional artists see the glitches and errors, and are frustrated by how far short the work still is from their vision. Everyone else, with a few exceptions so far, has been enthused and delighted by a musical and visual experience unlike any opera they have known. It’s not unusual for the creators to focus on problems that audiences do not notice, but I think there’s something more here. 

It is rare, at least in adulthood, to experience something completely new, something for which you have no comparators or benchmarks, something whose language and syntax is still being invented. New technologies confront artists with such radically new possibilities that they do not even know what their language is nor what it might be used to say. In the 1850s, when photography burst into the painter’s studio, some reacted by producing photographs of the classical scenes they had been painting: that quickly turned out to be a dead end. Both painting and photography were transformed by their encounter, but it took decades: even today, there is debate about what each is for. 

‘Out of the Ordinary’ is work in progress, and we don’t need to settle on its meaning or worth now, or perhaps for years. On the contrary, the different interpretations brought to their experience by different people are essential to how we will eventually work out what VR means to art.

It’s also a good sign that this is good art—a virtual reality, always open to interpretation. 

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