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Reaching Enlightenment Through Virtual Reality

Tune in and drop out.

The Eight Phases of Enlightenment, a virtual-reality installation by the artist Aramique, starts off as if you’re in the eye of a storm of fireflies. In a video, the glowing spots set against a black background swirl faster and start to congeal into a glowing orb before exploding in a flash of light. A static-y soundtrack punctuated with droning tones accompanies the visuals. It’s an eerie experience—a total sensory overload of sound and vision. This video is called Genesis is a metaphor for the Big Bang and is the first of eight that guide viewers on a journey to enlightenment.

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“I wasn’t interested in the idea of spirituality and meditation so much as how you could take someone from a physical environment to a transcendent space,” says Aramique, who is an interactive director at Tool, an integrated production company with offices in California, France, and New York. “Meditation tries to do that, but it takes years to learn and accomplish. A virtual-reality headset that you put on makes it easier. It’s commodified spirituality and commodified meditation in an age where there’s an app for everything.”

The the eight videos—called Genesis, Abyss, Allegory, Glitch, Threshold, Atonement, Exodus, and Internet—are all 45-second-long loops that viewers can watch for as long as they’d like. They start off as a wave of visual and aural cacophony before steadily becoming calmer before culminating in a white room. “We go from sensory overload in the beginning to sensory deprivation in the end,” Aramique says. “The motion and sound is working in that progression so we’re really overwhelming people in the beginning.”

phase 2 abyss by mau morgo

The VR videos that Aramique and his team at Tool produced for the installation are only half of the piece. The other is the physical space outfitted with glowing lucite chairs illuminated by black lights and the performative aspect that they bring about. As viewers cycle through each of the videos, they’re invited to sit in a very specific (and often uncomfortable) position. For example the Abyss visuals mimic the view of falling down a tunnel so the structure accompanying it forces you to bend over so your head is facing the ground. “I wanted to play with tension between two realities,” Aramique says. “I’m calling it a ‘mixed reality’ experience.”

Only eight people could be part of the installation at a single time—one person for each step in the enlightenment process—and the evocative visuals—people wearing headsets posed on Shiro Kuramata-esque chairs—adds another layer for the people waiting for their turn. “I think VR is an awkward experience and it’s weird when you see people do it,” Aramique says. “As participants go into virtual reality, they’re also performers.”

While the installation was only up for 24 hours at the Palais de Tokyo and has already concluded, you can spy video clips and snapshots in the slide show above.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Tool’s France location. It’s in Lyon, not Paris.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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