PRINT November 2017

Jordan Wolfson

JORDAN WOLFSON’s art is an assault. His VR work Real Violence, 2017, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial earlier this year, stages a literal attack on both vision and ethics: It presents an all-encompassing scene in which a man, who closely resembles the artist, beats another man senseless. The result is not interactivity but isolation: For all the realism of the VR, viewers cannot intervene. No stills of the video itself have been released, so the piece cannot be seen in reproduction, as if it is a traumatic blind spot. The work pushes the hermeticism of the VR experience into a terrifying obliteration of both self and other—and yet, in doing so, creates an aesthetic experience that challenges technological control. Here, as he prepares to work on future VR projects, Wolfson talks to Artforum editor Michelle Kuo about illusion, experience, violence, and art.

Museum visitors watching Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence, 2017, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 20, 2017. Photo: Dan Bradica.

MICHELLE KUO: Real Violence is the first piece you’ve made in VR—which, right now, is generally still a high-tech and highly elaborate process. You work with a production team, and specialized equipment and software, and you ultimately create something for a headset that so far isn’t a mass-consumer device—it isn’t in everyone’s hands, like a phone. How did you approach the making of the piece and the immersive experience—the “realism”—of the technology itself?

JORDAN WOLFSON: I think that if you look at VR for what it is, it’s uninteresting as art. I don’t actually think VR is a compelling art medium.

So in Real Violence, I tried to negate all the given qualities of VR. The original idea for the work was that you were in a nondescript parking lot, and you walked into a scenario where a group of people began assaulting you, and the longer they assaulted you, the more interactivity you would lose through the headset. So you were actually the victim. The more you were beaten up, the less you could hypothetically react and, by VR definition, “look around.”

Then I looked at a lot of point-of-view material and realized that the concept just wasn’t good enough; it didn’t work. I was talking about it with Patrick Milling Smith, the head of the production company I was working with, and we started thinking about the idea of witnessing violence as a third party: It seems like we are always in that position anyway. We’re exposed to so much violence; if not firsthand, in real life, then through the internet or the television or movie screen.

Starting at that position, as a passive witness, was interesting to me, especially since VR is almost the opposite: It gives you an opportunity to be active in an environment and to have an “experience” where you can look around and interact with things.

MK: It’s totalizing, it demands your entire attention.

JW: Yes, but that’s the problem. . . . I believe in Marshall McLuhan’s distinction of “hot,” or interactive, media versus “cold,” or non-interactive, media—and that VR is hot. So I wondered, How do I take this hot medium and then cool it down? The interactivity of VR, for me, hindered what you would call the art experience. So the challenge was how to drain the interactivity, or concentrically remove it from the piece.

That’s why, when you put on the headset, there’s a countdown without head tracking, followed by an initial rotation of perspective, giving viewers a very short—if not too short—span of time to reorient themselves before the violence occurs. It’s like half a beat, and then violence. You experience this physical distortion that places you at a remove, puts you in a passive role.

You’re also witnessing the violence without any context. There’s no audio contextualization, and the violence occurs immediately, denying the chance for any narrative to develop.

MK: What is the significance of the soundtrack—a Hebrew prayer being sung over and over, in an almost drone-like way?

JW: The Hanukkah prayer was something warm and deeply familiar to me from my childhood. But since I’m not religious—and find religion absurd, actually— the song felt like a novel element. Combining it with the violence was actually a purely intuitive decision, but it ended up creating an intense charge of pure difference. The content of the prayer is evacuated; it becomes odd, almost absurd, and misplaced. And, like the imagery, the chant cuts out early—which suggests to the viewer that the prayer itself, its subject matter, any references to Judaism, are in fact completely unimportant. Instead, the work’s meaning comes from form: the cut, the cadence, the rotation, the silence. I wanted to drain all reference. It becomes a kind of body sculpture: You put on the headset and your body is the vessel that activates and carries the work—because of the fact that VR is a completely internalized experience.

Separately, there’s also the situation of observing other people experiencing the work—being there, putting on a headset when someone else is putting on a headset, taking off a headset while someone else is taking off a headset, or about to start the piece or in it, or seeing people standing at the table and waiting in line, etc.

MK: And the museum provides another environment within which the work is nested.

JW: What was so great about the Whitney [installation of Real Violence] was that it was so crowded, and then suddenly you were alone, on the virtual street, so the work is basically transferring the person between these phases.

And then . . . the piece ends abruptly. It’s not a loop, it’s not intended to be watched again and again. Here, it just goes black, accompanied by static noise, and then you remove the headset and suddenly you’re in this museum and there’s people around and you’re in a city and there’s natural light and a view and artwork. It’s like Roland Barthes’s idea of when the movie ends and you exit the theater.

It’s another way of making the viewer passive and disoriented, as if they were in a vehicle that suddenly stops. I always wanted the moment when you’re returned to the real world to be the third act of the piece.

MK: It’s like the opposite of the VR gaming experience, which is all about forward momentum or narrative propulsion.

JW: Yes. The production team I was working with was definitely into movies, narrative. They would say, “Oh, maybe someone should walk through the scene, that would make an interesting narrative,” things like that. But we wound up removing any narrative, so there’s no one interrupting, there’s no one else witnessing the violence. There’s nothing. It’s just devoid, devoid, devoid, devoid.

During the production process, there was some concern or confusion from the people I was working with, because they didn’t think I was taking full advantage, quote unquote, of the VR experience. But I think that when you look at a technology, especially a new technology, and you’re going to use it in art, you have to make a distinction. The experience of art is different from the experience of gaming, or someone using VR to look at a layout of an apartment or a doctor performing surgery, or looking at pornography. The way you look at art is different from the way you look at the rest of the world. It resets.

MK: Do you think aesthetic experience is always bracketed or framed somehow?

JW: When you see a work that rises above eye level, whether it’s a Bernini on its elevated pedestal or Brancusi’s Endless Column, it forces you to look up—and that also neutralizes the potential for interactivity and compels you to just witness the work from below and afar. It’s a body distortion that reorients the way the viewer consciously looks. By simply forcing viewers to cock their heads upward, you take them out of their regular orientation, and the experience of looking magnifies, sound goes mute, the body stops, the mind quiets, and the viewer is in a state of witnessing.

In fact, I had the programmer who built the player for the VR file create an option so that a certain frame in the video could be selected to mark a point where the head tracking turns off, so you couldn’t look away from the violence, even if you wanted. This wasn’t about freezing the violence; it was the last step of removing interactivity. But I didn’t use it—not because I thought it would be too sadistic to the viewer, but because formally it just didn’t work. It became sticky and appended this other kind of sensation to looking that I felt was subtractive, rather than adding to the experience. It’s hard to explain, but when you’re using VR, and the head tracking stops, it suddenly feels artificial—in a thin, almost tinny way.

Instead, what was effective was a panning camera movement, so when you start watching the violence, there’s a point where the camera starts panning down, and then the sound cuts and everything becomes silent, and the scene turns upside down. And then it flips right-side up and cuts to black, then pauses—and suddenly you go from the virtual world back to the real world.

MK: And how does the work itself “exist” as an entity out there in the world? As a file, or a thing, or a sculpture?

JW: I like the idea of something being an edition, an art object—as opposed to making this stuff to distribute, like it’s Spotify.

When people are using VR as VR, and not going against the grain of the technology, I think it’s contrived and just doesn’t work. Artists pick up new technologies and mediums all the time and they think, Oh well, this is it and this is what it does and that’s it, and that’s why it’s good and blah-blah-blah. They aren’t looking for ways around it, they aren’t trying to get behind the medium and push through it.

But I like how Bruce Nauman experimented with the video camera—he was turning the camera on its side, at different angles, and then walking at an angle in the room . . . or his corridor pieces. Or think of Vito Acconci, using closed-circuit cameras and then hiding himself and talking through the feed. These are great examples of video becoming sculpture.

Both artists remove interactivity: If Nauman didn’t have a delay on the video when you walked into the corridor, you would just see yourself in real time, on a monitor, walking down it; but since he added the delay, he basically negated the interactivity.

MK: Does that effect become desensitizing?

JW: When the piece debuted, I expected there would be pushback, and there was—people said, “This is just more white male violence,” or “You don’t have permission to do this, because you’re white and privileged,” or “How can this be art? It’s disgusting.” But violence is ancient and it’s everywhere, and no one can ignore it. It’s horrific, but this is what happens in the world, and it is inside each one of us. The work is a simulation, but it’s a realistic simulation. It’s one more negation—a negation of cinematic violence, which is still so often sanitized, even when it’s supposedly hard-core.I spoke to a filmmaker when I was working on this piece, and he said, “You’ve got to watch [David] Cronenberg’s A History of Violence [2005] and Tony Kaye’s American History X [1998], because they’ll have someone punch someone and then cut away, or they’ll show somebody stomping on someone, but they’ll be behind a piece of furniture and slightly obscured.”

I looked at this stuff, and I wasn’t interested in any of it—I wasn’t interested in the suspense or illusion or illustration of violence through editing or telescoping. I was interested in exploring violence—and our primal response to it—as a raw material. But it’s not because I like violence. Personally, I am repulsed by violence, and making the piece didn’t change that. It didn’t desensitize me. I still cannot handle it.

This is an artwork, though, not real life. It’s fiction for your body.

Jordan Wolfson is an artist based in New York.