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Interview with George Vitale: How Berlin's synthesis Gallery Brings VR to Contemporary Art

Michael Takeo Magruder, "A New Jerusalem" (September 2019). (All images © synthesis gallery) 

synthesis gallery
Kopernikusstraße 14
10245 Berlin

By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, April 2020

There's something intrinsically utopian about Virtual Reality. As a piece of technology, it’s only recently that VR headsets have become readily accessible to the general public. VR works aren’t tactile exactly, although many artists working with VR have come to it through more traditional media. Incorporating art as much as design, VR enables them to accomplish what formerly had to be mediated by architecture: immerse the viewer in a total environment.

In Berlin, synthesis gallery, founded by George Vitale in 2018, has the mission of fostering the culture that exists around VR. The gallery has already exhibited emerging luminaries like Sandrine Deumier, whose show, in the pre-quarantine world of last February, prompted this interview. Situated in the gallery's modest brick-and-mortar space, Deumier's Realness - Intimate Garden looked out onto a large-scale sculptural organism, a palace of detritus and limbs, which surrounded the viewer like a forest against a spectral white backdrop.

Viewing Deumier's work, the infeasibility of realizing such a structure in the pragmatic space of everyday life immediately strikes the viewer. VR works can anticipate new realities; they can also transcend conventional concepts of space, time, and, quite possibly, ethics as well as political economy. I talked with Vitale about all this: his personal take on VR, its role in contemporary art, and its significance for the future.

Jeffrey Grunthaner: What motivated you to start a gallery primarily devoted to Virtual Reality?

George Vitale: I have a background in art and tech and just started connecting the dots. I began on the assumption that nowadays visual communication is the most important thing. This has changed our social behavior: the way we interact with one another, the way artists convey their artistic message, and, ultimately how art is made. 

VR offers a magnified, parallel, visually alienating world precisely in line with our current times. The first VR artwork dates to thirty years ago or so. But VR as an artistic medium never truly gained traction and momentum until now. Why? Because society was not subjugated to technology like it is today. The impact of tech and the digital on society through the lens of art and the eyes of the artist fascinates me. Thus, synthesis.

Evelyn Bencicova & Armin Keplinger, "It's Dark Inside" (December 2019). 

JG: Given that VR is often an isolated experience, are you, as a gallerist, doing anything to make the experience more collective?

GV: I don't necessarily think the isolated experience in VR is something negative. There are things we do in complete isolation, yet it does not seem too strange to us. Reading isolates, TV excludes, cinema makes us passive. Yet we enjoy these activities. And often in a public setting. synthesis is conceived as a salon-style gallery space: a place where people from different niche fields play with perception and reality. The gallery has a strong multidisciplinary approach: we have exhibited VR art along with other mediums precisely to enhance the collective experience. 

Sandrine Deumier, "Realness - Intimate Garden" (February 2020).

JG: Do you think the sale and distribution of VR works opens up new market possibilities? 

GV: VR has become much more democratic than before: the fixed barriers due to expensive technology have visibly dropped. In the end, I am expecting the whole process of showing VR work to be largely simplified soon, while the conservation side still has some major challenges. So yes, the expectation is that it would soon open up new market possibilities as more and more collectors — on average risk-adverse, even more so in this case for issues relating to the conservation of a piece and the obsolescence of technology — get more familiar with the new medium. 

Sandrine Deumier, "Realness - Intimate Garden" (February 2020).

JG: At least at your last show — Sandrine Deumier’s Realness - Intimate Garden — you exhibited a print to accompany the VR headset. Does this change how VR works are typically presented? Do you think VR works pose a unique curatorial challenge?  

GV: Absolutely. All I am searching for when I enter an art gallery is beauty. I am on a hunt for beauty. Of any kind. Think if visitors had to walk in an art gallery and all they see is a headset on a table. That would look kind of sloppy. And I would be heading out right away. But that’s how VR art has been frequently presented and exhibited in prestigious art fairs and exhibitions. I argue the extent of your experience inside the VR headset begins as the experience outside ends. Visitors need to be introduced to the VR piece by the means of the outside experience.

Sandrine Deumier, "Realness - Intimate Garden" (February 2020).

JG: How do you feel about the context of art fairs for showing VR works? At a time when it seems so much work is seen (and purchased) based on online images, wouldn’t a strictly digital setting be more appropriate for showing VR works?

GV: In all honesty, I'm kind of torn. I don't think art fairs provide the best possible format for exhibiting VR art. On the other hand, art fairs provide a great deal of opportunities for visibility. So now, considering what I just said regarding art and its context, I think a strictly digital approach to showcasing VR art can only be complementary to the proper set up of the work and its context in its proper place. That’s why I opened synthesis, and am not running a gallery from my computer. 

Marc Lee, "Same But Different" (April 2018)

JG: Do you see any reason to distinguish between art, technology, and design? 

GV: The problems you are solving in technology are problems of use and utility. Same applies to design with a stronger accent on the aesthetic. The problems that need solving in art are something completely different. Therefore, a necessary practical distinction is needed. But things get very interesting when you merge the three. In synthesis’s case, the three are melted together and gracefully interdependent, with the accent naturally placed on art. WM

Jeffrey Grunthaner

Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist-writer-musician-curator currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet NewsThe Brooklyn RailArchinectHyperallergic, Heavy Feather Review, Folder, Drag City Books, and other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth Publishers (NY).  

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