A collaboration between digital workshops Universal Everything and Human Studio, the Centre for Impossible Media (CIM) is a new exhibition platform for moving image artworks that charts a more ambitious course for virtual exhibition design. Universal Everything's founder Matt Pyke talks turning hands into video displays, the power of induced vertigo and making material choices in an immaterial world. 

In what way is CIM a reaction to the events of 2020? 

MATT PYKE: It been interesting watching art galleries and fairs each create their own versions of the ‘online viewing room’, but they’re all so obviously an attempt at keeping collectors interested. The most ambitious are often much like a Google Street View-type experience, which isn't saying much. If you're just trying to make the work accessible, I think you're better off simply looking at a high-resolution flat image on a typical website, rather than  attempting to emulate reality at normal scale.

That’s why we focused on VR: it allowed us to create structures which combine audio and video and lighting and interaction within a structural architecture. We’ve built lots of exhibitions and installation for museums or events like Milan Design Week, so it’s obviously exciting to work in a medium that isn’t limited by budget, or health and safety. If you’re not constrained by reality, why not push that? So CIM was us taking our current situation as an opportunity to do something that was impossible to achieve in real life, rather than just trying to replicate what we were all missing while physical art experiences were off-limits. 

VR is a technology that has been around for some time – why embrace it now? 

As a studio, what we're always most passionate about is exploring new ways to use emerging technologies, especially emerging display technologies, as new canvases to display our interactive artworks. With this project, we figured out a way of being able to map video onto any surface. Rather than the typical rectangle – your screen or a media façade on the side of a building –  in VR we are able to wrap video artworks onto the surface of your hands, for example, or the side of a mountain.

If any surface could become a screen, then what might that surface display?

The hands were a lovely eureka moment for us. Newer VR headsets allow you to do hand-tracking without the need for controllers. That's a heightened level of freedom. To see my hands magically covered in a video surface felt like a significant moment for the way you’re able to be embodied in VR. There's something really interesting about the question: if any surface, from clothing up to architecture, could become a screen, then what might that surface display?

What were your guiding principles when creating the exhibition environments? 

When we were designing the first exhibition, we were really interested in playing with ideas of vertigo and scale. There’s one piece we did called Chameleon which is set in a very, very tall chimney-type space with the viewer floating halfway up. It’s fascinating to present people with these quite overwhelmingly impactful perspectives. 

In terms of the material choices we've made with the architecture, that was all very much to do with framing the work so that it felt like it was holistically meant to be in that space. That might translate into the curvaceous surfaces of a ceiling that reflects the movement of the figures passing through the space below, or the coldness of the surrounding concrete echoing the textures of the moving image it contains. In that sense, this evolution of interior design is less about material or manufacturing expertise and more a process of working through the environmental metaphors that can amplify the artwork and expand it beyond the edges of the screen.

We’ve also been thinking through some of the interface design elements we’ve worked on in the apps we’ve made for companies like Apple. In a VR exhibition you don’t have to have a typically linear route. For CIM, we’ve created a user interface based around six or seven different beams of light that you can step into to teleport between different experiences. Again, it’s a question of not simply emulating real life. Why walk through a front door and down a corridor if you don’t have to?

What’s the future for CIM? 

It’s a partnership between ourselves and Human Studio, the founder of which is doing a PhD at the The University of Sheffield’s English department, so there’s this twin approach of the academic and the artistic. CIM may even become a research department within the university. We’re now looking at collaborating with some other artists that we know in our field to bring their shows to life with bespoke virtual interiors. We’re also interested in looking at  this whole phenomenon of crypto art, where digital art pieces have their provenance and authenticity linked to the blockchain. There’s a lot of opportunity there to look at how buyers might want to display their collections in tailored digital environments.

As soon as you add even just the impression of other audience members, then you tend to focus on that presence rather than the work

One thing we want to think more carefully about is how we might make CIM more of a shared experience. Part of the reason why we didn't initially put other people in the space is because, as soon as you add even just the impression of other audience members, then you tend to focus on that presence rather than the work. It's just human instinct. But I believe there's definitely potential in the space between social VR and the virtual museum. After experiencing an app like Clubhouse, I'd like to explore the concept of integrating an audio-based tour guide, for example, with a disembodied audience listening in and asking questions.