Launch of Surround VR by Judi Alston, One to One Development Trust

We set up during the afternoon in the Terrace Gallery at the Art House – projector out, laptop ready and VR headset prepared for action. It was September Art Walk night and there was a definite buzz in the air. So much great stuff on all over the City – we weren’t sure who would turn up.

We built the gallery environment 15,000 ft above Wakefield: a psychedelic, beautiful, surreal, sensory space, not confined to logic or convention. We wove in six artworks created by ‘new to VR’ artists, each having their own area along with their ‘Artists Statement’. Our inspiration for the project was make a piece of digital interactive art that flies the banner high for the cultural offer of Wakefield district.

We want to celebrate creativity, digital innovation and experimentation. Funding from Wakefield Arts Partnership gave us the support to push our own creative boundaries whilst training up other artists.

We set up a ‘private view’ for our participating artists before the Art Walk opened. Five of the six artists who took part came; each explored all the other artists’ work first and flew around the aerial gallery high above Wakefield city centre – before finding their own exhibit. It showed a curiosity of their peers work and perhaps some nerves as each artist explored the curated pieces and the environment we’d developed. What was noticeable was how much more confident the artists were using VR, navigating through a virtual space.

According to the Art House figures, over 350 people visited to see some great exhibitions on show in the building, and it felt like a lot of them made their way into our exhibition.

I love watching people using VR – experiencing something we’ve created. It is almost like a performance where the person ‘having a go’ becomes a part of an installation; their responses and movements corresponding with a projection of what they are seeing becomes a ‘living artwork’.

It is important that people feel supported and safe as they enter a head set, particularly when they launch from the bespoke holding area we built as a set of huge doors open and suddenly you are in a flying in a gallery in the sky.

I’m always mindful of the impact of VR on people at public gatherings like Art Walk where you are facilitating and supporting an experience that maybe new, exhilarating or daunting, perhaps even disorientating. There isn’t time to do a run through on peoples physical or mental states so it’s important that you remain very present and in-the-moment with them throughout the experience. Its exhausting and fun facilitating a constant stream of people wanting a go.

The Art Walk brought young and old into Surround and plenty of in-between ages. My two favourite moments were with people at each end of the spectrum: a young girl aged 11 waited ages to have a go. I asked her if she liked art and ever went to galleries. She said yes “but I’ve NEVER been to a gallery in the sky”. After she came out of Surround she said, “I would never get bored in that gallery” and scribbled ‘AWESOME!!!’ on our feedback board.

Towards the end of the night, an elderly man with a white stick came in. He told me he was in his eighties and only had partial sight. After I ran through with him what was about to happen he was still very keen to have a go. I must admit I was nervous. He embraced the experience with grace and curiosity in a way that is often seen in that generation. When he took the head set off he was so pleased he’d seen this; he said he saw better in VR than in normal life. He wanted everyone to experience it.

We hope to expand Surround to include further artwork created for VR and enhance its reach -Wakefield’s Virtual Reality Art Gallery. We hope to be sharing good news on future developments soon.

To follow the project on social media, use #SurroundVR.
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