Arts & Culture

Beckett brought to life in virtual reality art piece

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Friday, October 2, 2009

At times, in the multimedia installation “To Begin,” there is just darkness. But sometimes the ever-present voice reading Samuel Beckett becomes a thunderous roar, and typeset words jump from the walls, swiveling through the air. Sometimes they burn.

An entry in this year’s Pixilerations Festival, “To Begin” was conceived by Ben Nicholson ’11 as a response to Beckett’s novel “How It Is.” The 50-minute piece was created specifically for the CAVE, an interactive virtual reality environment housed in the Center for Computation and Visualization at 180 George St.

“How It Is” is narrated by a character crawling through endless mud, in some sort of purgatory, as he reminisces about his life.

“What the texts suggested, this is a simplified explanation, is an argument for solipsism — that everyone is alone and isolated to their own mind,” Nicholson said. Instead of accepting the depressing implications of the work, Nicholson felt the need to respond. “To Begin” is structured around excerpts from Beckett’s novel and Nicholson’s rebuttal to the book’s dark, egoistic side.

Though the CAVE was originally intended for displaying scientific diagrams and models, Nicholson said, the space has also become a tool for students in literary arts.

Novelist Robert Coover, visiting professor of literary arts and one of the founders of the Electronic Literature Organization, had been a “major proponent” of writing students’ using the CAVE, Nicholson said.

“When thinking about writing, pretty much our entire lives involve seeing it in a two-dimensional plane,” he explained.

To the naked eye, the CAVE actually does appear to be a series of two-dimensional planes. There are three white screens and a white floor. In order to protect the floor surface, visitors to the CAVE — cave people, as it were — are not allowed to wear shoes.
When the space is activated, projected images appear on the screens. Viewers wear specially designed glasses that render the images in three dimensions, but only one pair of glasses contains the magnetic indicator used to calculate the proper perspective. As a result, the images are distorted and not illusionistic for all but the viewer with the controller glasses.

To Nicholson, this made the CAVE the perfect site for his piece.

“The CAVE is a self-contained space meant for one person to have an experience. Anyone who’s looking on is really experiencing a distorted version of something that’s really meant to be seen by somebody else,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson was humble about offering his own rebuttal to Beckett.

“The piece doesn’t try to refuse what’s suggested in ‘How It Is,’ but it asks whether or not it could be something else,” Nicholson said. “I suppose I believe that there is, and I think most people do.”