In a small apartment above the Bartlett on West Sprague Avenue, I’m hooked up to a sensor that will monitor my breathing patterns. I’m handed a pair of ear buds and an Oculus headset, and when I put it on I’m transported to a nondescript room facing a window.
This is all part of “The Introspection Game,” a new immersive art experience designed by New York-based artists Yang Wang and Zhenzhen Qi that premieres tonight at Laboratory Art Space at 301 W. Main St. It’s a 3-D virtual reality experience that lasts about 10 minutes and adapts to an individual’s physical and emotional responses.
“Depending on the physiological response you have while you’re playing,” Qi said, “some of the video and audio effects that you experience will be manifested by your own body.”
For example, the final stage of the game drops you onto an island, and everything about the place – the intensity of the ocean waves, the color and shape of the light source, the topography of the island itself – all correspond to the signals your body sends out.
As the game unfolds through the Oculus lenses, Qi stands to my left. Through the ambient noises pumping through the ear buds, I can hear her directing me to take a long, deep breath. I do, and the virtual room, designed to resemble the actual Laboratory art space, slowly darkens.
Suddenly I’m somewhere else, in some kind of blank void. Shapes resembling telephone poles and staircases slowly start to tumble past me. I look down and I see grey boxes floating up at me. I’m descending through infinite space, Qi tells me.
“We’ve created this world that represents your body, and we’re encouraging people to think more about the relationship between the mind and the body,” Wang said.
Wang and Qi are both from China, and they married in 2013. This is the third of such installments they have collaborated on, and they’re both concerned with how thoughts and feelings can affect an environment. Qi’s approach to the piece is mostly psychological – she was inspired by studying her own mother’s mental state as she struggled with depression – while Wang’s is more philosophical, which he attributes to the Buddhism and meditation he’s been exposed to since he was a child.
“We wanted to shock people a bit with a slightly shifted alternate reality,” Qi said, “and we hope people walk away asking some questions they haven’t asked about themselves before.”
After trying out “Introspection Game,” I head down a few flights of stairs where Brazilian artist Sabrina Barrios has set up an exhibition she calls “Zero,” which is so titled because navigating it takes you in a complete circle.
Standing in a room bathed in natural light, Barrios holds out a plastic container filled with orange earplugs, which she says are designed to isolate my senses and hone my focus. We walk through a black curtain and into the neighboring room, where a large, complex geometric structure composed of white string and fishing wire glows softly in the darkness.
I walk around the piece, observing it, and through the earplugs I can hear some muffled instructions: I can actually walk through the installation. There are four pathways that light up as you pass through them – they occasionally veer off in unexpected directions or double back on themselves – and Barrios says walking through the piece is meant to imitate the process of navigating life and the choices we’re forced to make along the way.
The next room, which has yet to be set up, will feature a screen that allows you to see yourself walking through the sculpture just moments ago. Barrios calls this part of the installation “the afterlife,” describing it as an “out-of-body experience.” Like Qi and Wang’s piece, “Zero” is all about visualizing our thoughts and feelings and showing us how they can change in real time.
All three artists, who have been in Spokane for a little over a month, are living in the artists’ residency quarters above the Bartlett. These apartments have housed several interactive artists since last year, and Alan Chatham, who oversees the residency program, says Laboratory is one of the only programs of its kind dedicated exclusively to interactive art.
“Interactive is a really interesting discipline because it’s still super young,” he said. “Our mission at Laboratory is to support the development of interactive as a fine art medium, and the best way to do that is by connecting people with engineers and technology and giving them the space and time and money to make cool stuff.”