Response to: “The Gut-Wrenching VR Work That’s Got the Art World Talking about Violence”, Isaac Kaplan
I really like Jordan Wolfson’s VR piece Real Violence - to the extent that I can claim to without having experienced it myself. I admire the piece because it aims solely to create a concentrated experience by utilizing the experiential aspects of a medium - which is, I believe, something approaching the core of art.
I see Real Violence as working in the Minimalist tradition, and it is the first VR work that I’ve heard of to do so. Minimalist work simplifies its concept in order to distill a purified, stark encounter with a singular object. It gives emphasis to the concrete, sensory aspects of its medium. It refuses to accept an overlay of narrative or interpretation that would distract the viewer from the artwork’s concrete presence.
The singular object Wolfson brings the viewer face-to-face with is, obviously, violence. His decision to remove all interactivity brings out the most central sensory aspect of virtual reality - its immersiveness - in order to distill the experience of witnessing violence. His Minimalist approach is also present in the piece’s lack of narrative or context for violence, as well as in the anonymity of his characters. Wolfson ascribes passivity as a specific quality of witnessing violence that he intended to reproduce, but it is additionally relevant that, had he given his victim character even basic reactions to attack - flinching, fleeing, or resisting - the character would be developed in a way that distracts from the violence itself. Strangely, the violence is thus made more viscerally palpable precisely by a sort of dehumanization of the victim - removing all animate human reactions to pain.
Real Violence may be a product of our time, in that Wolfson’s artistic process was set in motion by the violent videos that are now all too easy to find on YouTube. But to make it out as a statement about current politics - e.g. about the energy of Trump rallies - misses the point. The piece simply is an experiential exploration of violence alone. Likewise, criticism that the piece “has no meaning beyond shock” also misses the point. Shock or edginess are not the point - they are interpretations imposed onto the artwork by us. As a Minimalist work, Real Violence has no social meaning, not even shock. It simply is an immersive experience of witnessing violence.
I also disagree with critics who take the use of a hebrew prayer as a reference to anti-Semitism, and with the author’s characterization of it as a “formal slight-of-hand.” It primes the viewer to expect something ritualistic and sacred because violence is ritualistic and sacred. Spirituality and religion have always been spaces for encountering the brutal, the horrifying, and the primal as much as the beautiful, the ecstatic, or the holy. The sacred is not the realm of the highest, best things - it is the realm of that which is unfathomable, of those things both good and ill which overpower the intellect’s analysis but which are fundamental components of human reality.