Styles and Customs of the 2020s, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, uses virtual reality (VR) to send a warning about the future. It consists of four scenes experienced through a headset, each portraying a different artist’s dystopia. The experience is randomized — one viewer sees a different scene than does the next — and you must complete the experience four times to see each artist’s work. The project was commissioned by the Hillman Photography Initiative for LIGHTIME, a year-long series exploring modern photography. The VR scenes touch on climate issues, brutality, technology and isolation. All contain an undercurrent of danger.
Alan Warburton’s “Her Thief Calculator” shows a smoothly rendered version of the museum’s Hall of Architecture, where the VR experience is stationed, filled with anonymous figures who turn their backs on you as soon as you turn toward them. Piles of picket signs surround you. Armed guards, almost too small to notice, loom above, stationed at each corner of the room. Before leaving the scene, make sure to look down.
Kim Laughton’s “Clod” transports you to a secluded outer-space island, equipped with the skeleton of a house and a swinging front door. Through narration, the scene self-consciously comments on the fragmentation of our society, and its VR allows you to feel a consuming physical sense of desolation in the beautifully empty future world.
Multi-purpose drones, and our culture of ready-made objects, inspire Rachel Rossin’s “Football.” It’s the scariest scene, because it includes a sharply edged drone that lunges toward you each time you move. Nearby, commercial junk constructs and deconstructs itself into a chair, flying at you as if the products themselves had become weapons.
Finally, Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s “Dome of Gated Ecologies” presents a barren California, complete with a torn state flag flapping loudly in the wind and a subtle, yet looming, barbed-wire fence surrounding a makeshift desert campsite.
There is an element of postmodern pretense to the project: Before each scene, you are placed in a virtual cave, and fed a series of hyper-theoretical words (“acoustical excrement,” “hegemonic”) delivered so flatly it is difficult not to tune them out. However, the scenes themselves offer their messages accessibly, and the immersive VR presents the works in a novel and powerful way that functions both as a warning and a call to action.