The 2017 Venice Biennale saw a series of sprawling exhibitions with a big focus on materiality. This was certainly the case in the massive Arsenale exhibition at Venice, where sewing, weaving and threading was the order of the day. I understand that the return to the tactile and the material in contemporary art is a reaction to the omnipresent and ubiquitous ‘immaterial’ digital screen. This attachment, however, to all things material often reduces the digital to nothing more than surface, and views materiality as somehow being more ‘real’ and more ‘truthful.’ However I’ve always had a hard time fully accepting the binary of material/immaterial in contemporary art – isn’t it all material, all matter?
Across the canal at Venice a satellite exhibition was occurring that was also the antitheses in some respects to the biennial’s touchy feely return throwbah to materiality. At the Fondazione Giorgio Cini there was a new work that considered new digital materiality in the form of Virtual Reality. What is significant however is this wasn’t just your regular VR. This was by Paul McCarthy, long known for his explorations of the fault lines of American popular culture. It’s also quite possibly one of the most disturbing and perverse art works I’ve seen in a long time. McCarthy’s ‘immaterial’ digital work had the entirely opposite effect on one’s body – a highly charged and very real visceral experience, physically making the viewer squirm and importantly cancelling out any notion of digital immateriality.
Conceived as a commission from Copenhagen VR company Khora Contemporary the work on display in Venice called C.S.S.C Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment: Mary and Eve. Khora contemporary have worked with a series of artists over the years such as Christian Lemmerz (who also had a striking VR work in the show) to Tony Oursler and Erik Parker. Khora Contemporary are specifically about enabling artists to explore how new explorations of physiological and physical dimensions can overlap with VR technology – what better artist to explore such territory than the wonderfully warped mind of Paul McCarthy.
Part of a long-term project based on John Ford’s Stage Coach, McCarthy has produced 11 VR works, two of which are on display in Venice. C.S.S.C features two characters from Stage Coach Mary and Eve, as different versions of the characters seem to multiply in the VR space, the whole thing quickly escalates into an intense psychosexual exercise in humiliation and debasement (plus some simulated sex) from the two woman. All the while characters screaming things at one another like: “She asked you a simple fucking question! Answer the fucking question!” The intensity ratcheting up at each moment, completely overwhelming and consuming the viewer.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of C.S.S.C is the way in which the whole experience becomes claustrophobic in the extreme. As the audio/visual psycho drama plays out, you feel entirely implicated but helpless to what is unfolding. McCarthy has long explored ways of implicating his audience in what they are viewing (for example: requiring audiences to wear Pinocchio masks in Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma  while viewing a demented performance of Pinocchio characters). However in VR, the viewer is IN the work, not external to it, which takes on a profound twisted psychological dimension. There is no escape.
We are thrown directly into a chaotic and violent scenario of the American west. McCarthy uses the violence of the American western and our fascination with that violence together with our inability to act as a direct critique on American culture that is both perverse and deeply unsettling, as only McCarthy can. There are moments too as a viewer where you are seemingly walking through characters, entering and breaking up their virtual bodies, as the interior/exterior of individual bodies breakdown and as a viewer you become intertwined into the violence happening before you as the real and virtual begin to erode.
Historically VR is a problematic media, like any new media there remains a novel aspect to the technology. The problem in the 1990s’ when artists gravitated to things like VR – or any new media at the time – was those technologies hadn’t been part of a cultural narrative, they hadn’t been enmeshed in pop culture for them to generate meaning. It appeared (like a lot of new media art at the time and still does to a degree) as a demonstration of the technology. This is why McCarthy’s VR work is so critical, it brings with it a particularly fucked up sensibility and approach that isn’t just about the technology and what it can do. McCarthy shows us how technology can be perverted, and used the wrong way, while taking things in a completely new and unsettling direction.
VR is now well and truly enmeshed in pop culture: from VR games, VR porn to VR house renovations, which are now part of mainstream culture. VR was always presented as the holy grail of technology and the 1990s saw a fair share of embarrassing utopian claims (often made by artists) about how wondrous VR was to become in the future. McCarthy completely destroys and short-circuits this utopian narrative of VR, he re-frames VR not as a potential zone of new visual/virtual possibilities but a physiologically troubling and confusing space. McCarthy’s ongoing obsession around interiors/exteriors, inside/outside, upside down/right side up, broken and damaged bodies are all perfectly realised in new malformed virtual bodies and the dizzy, disorientating and disturbing new kinds of spaces VR can now offer when it’s in the right hands. Just what the technology needs.