Simple experiences such as walking to the store or sitting down at a lunch table don’t sound like the stuff of art. But what if you are a black woman alone? Or a gay man? Or a new parent with a small child? How would you choose to navigate public spaces given those identities?
Those are the virtual reality experiences that Los Angeles-based media artist and game developer A.M. Darke has created in her latest work, “In Passing.” Her virtual reality exhibit opens Saturday with an artist’s reception from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Community Building at 35 W. Main Ave. in downtown Spokane.
Darke’s “In Passing” takes place on the virtual street corners of the real Spokane, specifically the block around the Ridpath Hotel. Viewers who don Laboratory’s vitural reality headsets can see what it’s like to navigate those downtown public spaces, based on one’s intersecting identities, including gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexuality. Darke created a series of vignettes that viewers can choose to experience and hear. All the stories she gathered are from real people.
“I asked folks to record themselves describing their experience moving through the world,” Darke said. “Users can walk around the environment, which is based on the Ridpath block in Spokane, listening to personal accounts and watching interactions unfold in the background.”
Darke has spent the past three months living and working as an artist-in-residence at the local nonprofit Laboratory, which provides space and support for interactive art in Spokane. Laboratory’s focus on “interactive” art translates into exhibits that go beyond art on walls or on stages. Instead, the final works are experiences, often virtual, where the viewer/user can touch, manipulate, and interact with what they are seeing.
At the beginning of “In Passing,” Darke’s work feels much like a video game, with various characters she digitally created walking the streets. The agency that viewers can exercise includes where they go and to whom they listen.
Darke has long been affiliated with the UCLA Game Lab, where she has conducted experimental research and development in the gaming field. Her recent work includes a grocery-based VR game, a first person experience about life with lobster claws for hands, and Objectif, a card game about race and beauty. She also co-founded the feminist art and tech collective Voidlab.
Whether Darke is a game developer or media artist is up to interpretation.
“I exist in the in-between space – I’m both a developer and a VR artist – or neither – no one wants me!” Darke said, laughing.
“All of my practice is about persuading people and creating agencies for marginalized bodies,” Darke said. “The best way to persuade people in that context is not to tell them what to think or what to feel, but to present them with information and allow them to act. Entering games and picking up objects are all about making choices.”
“The novelty of virtual reality … can help to get people into a state of mind where they are receptive to listening to a variety of experiences that may differ from their own,” Darke said. “Using this game engine lowers people’s defenses a little bit so they can hear really personal and sometimes difficult material.”
Characters in “In Passing” discuss their intersecting identities, sharing narratives of marginalization, isolation or danger. Others relate more ordinary stories that are less eventful, even banal, but no less hurtful.
For example, no one yells racial slurs at the lone African-American man who attends a tech conference. Instead, no one sits with him at the cafeteria, despite a standing-room-only crowd. He is also the only conference attendee whose credentials are checked before he’s allowed into the VIP area.
Female characters describe how they prepare themselves to leave home and stay safe while navigating the streets. Yet there are some who bridle against these fear-based, self-imposed restrictions.
“One woman says, ‘I pay taxes and I want to be able to move through space like a full citizen,’ ” Darke said. “She doesn’t want to limit her movement based on her gender or her body.”
What struck Darke most about the stories she gathered were the ones from men, specifically straight, white men.
“I was struck by the stories of men walking around and talking about how their sexual orientation is assumed, or their nationality is assumed,” Darke said. “In so many ways they are so sort of passing and hiding in order to not invite any discrimination or hostility from the community that they are in.”
Darke chose to move to Spokane for her three-month residency based on a Google search and the fact that “there are not a lot of VR residencies out there.” She was also attracted to the laid back atmosphere of Laboratory and the sense of humor of its founder Alan Chatham.
“I’m not someone who takes myself super seriously,” Darke said. “It seemed like a good fit.”
Darke’s intuition proved correct. Her Spokane experience for the past three months has been creatively rewarding. From collaborating with the artists at the Richmond Art Collective to create faux family vacation videos during a “family dinner,” to engaging in a virtual reality space-building workshop at Spark Central, Darke frequently encountered a welcoming community of artists.