Bay Area VR Artists Going Behind the Oculus

Gray Area Incubator artists and Incubator program highlighted in San Francisco Magazine

Written by: Graham Hacia

A white ring dilates through a plane of pixels against a black backdrop, sending us tumbling like Alice through the rabbit’s hole. Is it a peyote trip? Nope, just Can Büyükberber’s virtual reality opus Morphogenesis (2016), a leading example of one of San Francisco’s most exciting new artistic trends. Bolstered by incubators like Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, virtual reality appears to be the next frontier in artistic media—one that’s found a willing audience in tech patrons like Google and Facebook, if not yet in fine arts circles. “It’s a very niche market. There aren’t that many people with headsets,” says Lindsay Saunders of the curatorial group Dream Logic. But that may be changing. We spoke to a few of the artists at the vanguard of the movement.

Ray McClure
Two faceless avatars sit across from each other, responding to voice commands with disembodied growls. Says McClure of the work, VVVR (Visual Voice Virtual Reality) (2016), which premiered last year at the Gray Area Festival, “It’s about abstract communication—about finding not meaning but intention.” McClure, head of the VR design firm Dreamboat, is also the mind behind Shadow Theatre (2016), a 35-minute audiovisual piece created for composer Fluorescent Grey

Jeremiah Allen Welch
Welch—CEO of the art and design collective Massiflux—was first lured into the immersive world of VR when he visited selfproclaimed “virtual reality evangelist” Shannon Norrell’s inaugural VR Camp at Burning Man in 2015. Since then, he’s become a digital paint convert. “It has perfect geometry, perfect dimensions, and you don’t see brushstrokes,” he says. Now his favorite artistic challenges are requests from friends and fellow artists.

Chelley Sherman
“I wasn’t sold on VR until I put a headset on,” Sherman says. “You can really explore something other than your own body, your own mind.” These “mind expansive” properties are perfect for Sherman’s surreal meditations on space and mortality, like 2016’s Das Is, in which players are transported to a multiverse through a VR headset.

Can Büyükberber
There’s an almost religious bent to the way Büyükberber describes Morphogenesis, his VR collaboration with sound artist Yagmur Uyanik. In biology, its title refers to how an organism takes shape through embryonic processes, but in Büyükberber’s domeprojected audiovisual mind trip, “it’s about striving to find a core pattern throughout our whole existence,” he says. “Not just in physical planes, but in mental and spiritual planes.” Though these geometric designs are clearly artificial, they feel somehow organic.

Mateusz Marpi Marcinowski
The next step in VR is going social, says Marpi, as he’s known. A new-media artist at Obscura Digital and author of Mass Migrations (2016), in which players can paint fractal sculptures in an imagined sky, Marpi assigns viewers virtual, nonhuman avatars to explore how appearances shape behavior. “When I’m in VR, I want to do something I can’t do in real life,” he says. “I’ve already been a human. Can I be something else?”


Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco Magazine