agenda by Nadja Oertelt

How we lose touch with our bodies in virtual spaces.

reading time 15 minutes

Over the past few years, Rachel Rossin has established herself as a  pioneer of virtual reality art. Her last show, “Peak Performance” at Signal Gallery in New York, was a reflection on her experiences with the form. The work she created for it is like wreckage salvaged from the virtual world for our earthly study: beautiful paintings and sculptures based on VR renderings, and vivariums preserving slices of it. The larger point to these pieces is the inherent disembodiment of virtual reality — the sensation we get in VR that our physical bodies are irrelevant. Nadja Oertelt (science producer, documentarian, and co-founder of Massive Sci) caught up with Rossin to discuss the show, and together they delved into a deep conversation about art and humans caught between Virtual Reality and the supposedly real world.   

NO: Your latest show “Peak Performance” deals with disembodiment in VR. What got you thinking about your own body in relation to virtual space?
RR: I had been working for a year on a Virtual Reality series [“The Sky is a Gap”]. “Peak Performance” was created in response to the disembodied feeling I got while sculpting in VR. The sketches I made for it felt like body awareness exercises. Instead of looking at a reference image, I was recalling the memory of what having a body was like. In VR, you feel like the memory of a body, the emotional memory of a body. I thought about what parts of my body I remembered. Like, in one instance, I’m just lungs with a keyboard — a disembodied state of consciousness on the Internet, with residue of these extremely primitive and emotional interactions. I just kept coming across that feeling. I missed my body.

Was it nostalgic?
Yes, there was a nostalgia for the body, but through a digital lens. It was almost like I was already a digital entity, a proxy of myself recalling what it was like to have a body. So, the paintings and the virtual reality environments were about that, and in tandem I made plexiglass pieces, which were 3D prints of those environments. I printed out the paintings and then used a blowtorch to form these substrates. I put on a flame-retardant suit and folded the plexiglass around my body, giving it these kind of impossible hugs.  


How did it feel to hug warm plexiglass?
It was soft in this weird way, and then it hardened. I would heat the entire piece of plexi, burn it and then curl it around myself. It’s sort of like a safety response or something. There’s a sadness to those sculptures.

It’s like you have to grieve the process of having lost something in VR because you can’t be embodied. The whole thing is like a big memento mori for reality.
That’s the internet too. It’s all about death! [Laughs.] The medium itself is about death. It’s like a facsimile of reality.

Do you remember the first time that you had a disembodied experience in VR?
It was pretty stupid, actually. I was just saying “Where’s my body?” over and over again. It started off as that, at least: “Oh this is interesting, oh cool weird. Where’s my body? Oh, look at that dog over there! Where’s my body?” But then, if you stay in VR long enough, you eventually get used to it and then you feel sad about it. I was working on the roll-out for a Tilt Brush ad campaign. I spent a 10-hour workday in VR doing a piece for them, and I felt the ghost of my physical body overlaid in virtual reality after working so many hours. It was sad! I took the headset off and like I felt like a piece of metal. I felt so alien. I also ate too much candy that day so maybe it was not a totally normal experience, but I knew I had done a bad thing as soon as I got out onto the street. It was something I hadn’t felt before. It reminded me of when people come out of deprivation tanks. I had had a lot of visual input and a marker for where my hands were in VR, which kept me tethered, but it was like I had lost all sense of my legs. It was hard to walk and I remember thinking, “I need to take a shower and get my body back.” I love computers, of course. I want to be inside the computer. But after that I was like, I want to be outside the computer now.


Do you think VR is uncomfortable enough that it will prevent us from staying in those spaces for too long?
Yes, and I hope that virtual reality doesn’t get better. I think it should stay uncomfortable and ugly and awkward. The fact that it’s uncomfortable is a good thing for now. The risk with VR turning into something easy or something that feels like a part of our body, or even when it’s no longer screen-based—that’s where I start to get a little uncomfortable. Because I think that’s when it will become an experience where people start forgetting how to walk.

How many hours a day do you spend in VR?
When I am developing on a piece, I like go in and check it out for 10 minutes at a time. I take a lot of breaks when I’m doing a lot of developing. Spending 10 hours in virtual reality is definitely not part of my routine!

If VR was more comfortable, would you be happy spending more time in it?
I’m happy being in between the two worlds. Or rather, I’m happy being based here in reality. I think we’re also forgetting that virtual reality will probably seep into this reality more than we will go into it — in the sense that biotech will allow us to change our own bodies. The reasons you would want to transcend this reality would be because of time and space, or the limitations of gravity. If we get to a place where we’re able to grow a new heart for ourselves — that’s when VR seeps into our reality. That’s actually when it’s sneakier and scarier.

How do you think about the relationship between the internet and VR as mediums?
It’s funny, because the internet is like the Id. It’s a place where we can dissociate. We have primitive or reptilian brain reactions on the internet, anger and lust. We are evolutionarily wired to find negative patterns because it’s evolutionary advantageous. It’s fascinating that you have this reservoir — the internet—and it still elicits those responses even though we’re disembodied. VR is a medium. The Internet isn’t a medium because it doesn’t have a single author. VR is more like a video game. So it’s like saying “What is the link between the internet and video games?” They’re in the same aisle at the Best Buy, but they’re not the same thing. I’ve benefited personally from being able to change my identity, in order to feel safe, or in order to make money. The way that I first started making money was as a programmer and a web designer, and because I couldn’t get any jobs with a female name, I had to change my name to Robert or Ray. So, I’ve reaped the benefits of being anonymous. We have this idea that technology is sort of aspirational, like the Internet is a pretty high-tech thing but we can’t figure out empathy on it, and that’s what everybody is calling on VR to solve. It’s like they want it to be the empathy provider.

But how can VR be an empathy machine if it’s replicating a reality where we have trouble empathizing?
Yeah, that’s true. Of course, expecting VR to be an empathy machine when we can’t even figure that out in this world is silly. I think it’s dark, you know: what is the impact of technology on our consciousness and our sense or ethics and how we will be able to relate to each other? Certainly social media does not seem to improve things and I think people are waiting for VR to seep into social media.

We want love from VR. We want it to save us!
Well, we also want to be God. It’s what people talk about in their hopes for the singularity.


For people who are thinking deeply about technology and using it for their art, these questions seem important.
I mean, it’s almost like, why do painters paint? We still don’t think of technology as a medium in the same way that painting or sculpture is. I grew up making paintings on top of Dot Matrix printers. While learning to program, I was learning how to paint, so it does feel like second nature. Using technology is playing with entropy in a metaphorical way. Technology is a metaphor or a lens for the human experience, for the way that we perceive reality. That is at the heart of what’s fascinating and complex and paradoxical about it. It’s the promise of immortality while still being so frail, so errant, and so dumb, you know? And that’s what drives certain artists to use the medium that they use. I love painting for similar reasons. But right now, I’m actually in the process of building hardware and neural networks. I’m teaching it how to make work like me. And that’s super funny because it’s really bad. It’s adorable.

Does the neural net have a name?
No. But it will have a male name probably, if it ever gets a name. [Laughs] I like technology because it’s a mirror of ourselves. You know, my work now is all these sterile autopsies with copper wires. They just feel like bodies! I’m working all day with these electronics and they’re all naked.

Do you cover them up when you leave your studio — you know, for the sake of modesty?
Was that a Rorschach test to see how crazy I am? No, I don’t.

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