• Colin Sterling

We Live in an Ocean of Air by Marshmallow Laser Feast

As an outsider to the world of VR, I am often struck by the limited scope that such experiences seem to offer in terms of transporting me to another dimension, which it seems should be one of the main factors driving the use of such technologies. The immersion is never quite successful enough; there is always a gap between the embodied encounter and the visual-sonic world my brain is asked to inhabit (usually through sub-standard graphics).

This made the experience offered by Marshamallow Laser Feast in their VR installation We Live in an Ocean of Air all the more surprising. The sense of enchantment, dislocation and sheer radical difference meant that, if only for a moment, I did feel somehow transported: taken out of the frantic world of human affairs and introduced to another dimension, another way of being in the world.

The reasons for this are both practical and poetic. On one level, the experience encompasses all the senses by tapping into the body itself. You are not simply cut off from the world visually, but fully immersed, with a backpack, headphones, and monitoring devices attached to your fingers to measure your pulse. This last point is particularly important, as your avatar in the digital environment is seemingly created through a visual abstraction of your own blood flowing through your body (this might sound creepy, but the visuals are just the right side of uncanny). Crucially, you are also able to 'see' the avatars of other people experiencing the simulation at the same time. This overcomes the sense of isolation that often prohibits communal virtual experiences.

While the process of strapping oneself into all of this kit may seem like a barrier to being fully immersed in the virtual environment MLF have created, it is I think a necessary step in developing the sense of dislocation that works so well in this experience. It also means that body and mind seem to inhabit the same space of alterity, mediated here through your very breath. And this is where the poetry of the piece comes in. As the visitor breathes in and out small particles seem to emerge from your digital avatar. These coalesce with other particles to fill the virtual space, together building a vast new realm of trees and plant life that you soon become part of. In the words of MLF:

"Follow the journey of your own breath from body, to plant, to planet in an intricate 3D world, where the deeper systems and connections that intimately tie together all life on Earth are made visible ... The human cardiovascular system interacts with the mirrored natural networks that unite the forest: capillaries, arteries and mitochondria flow into leaf, phloem and mycelium, placing your every inhale and exhale within a larger reciprocal system."

It is difficult to capture this experience in word or image, which is surely a major selling point of the show. This short video gives some idea of the strange world you are transported to, but it cannot do the hallucinatory experience justice. To my mind, We Live in an Ocean of Air offers one of the most compelling examples yet of the potential for new technologies to bridge the ontological gap between humans and non-humans - a gap that many writers, artists, philosophers, activists and scientists have recently sought to overcome. As Richard Powers writes in his magnificent book The Overstory:

"That's the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.

A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we'd drown you in meaning."

Drowned in meaning is a good summary of how I felt after this experience...

Read about the project here.

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