The North Dakota University art gallery features two virtual reality programs each month that coincide with the exhibit on display to immerse visitors into VR and expand their understanding of the complex issues presented in every exhibit, says Gallery Coordinator Anthony Faris.
“(Virtual reality offers) the ability to contextualize an experience before people have it,” Faris says. “Every time somebody comes in, we tell them the story about the exhibition, we tell them a story about the virtual reality, then we tell them how those stories connect.”
Each of the virtual reality stations in the former retail space of the gallery are equipped with an Oculus headset, handheld controllers and a boundary mat. The stations also have sitting areas and television screens that give non-immersed viewers the ability to see what the participant is actively experiencing within the virtual world, which allows visitors to start meaningful conversations with one another, Faris says.
Faris adds that the featured virtual reality programs are as carefully curated for each exhibit as the artwork hanging on the gallery walls and will change with each exhibit.
Currently, the two virtual reality programs offered at the gallery are “I Am a Man” and “Forced to Flee” to correspond with the “Social Justice Revisited” exhibit featuring colorful yet heart-wrenching giclee prints by nationally acclaimed artist Betty LaDuke.
The current exhibit explores issues from 1968-2018 that society is still working to resolve, including the refugee crisis, civil rights, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter and more.
“All of these international, national and regional issues all come to a head in this exhibition as we’re thinking about our past and what we want our future to be,” Faris says.
In “I Am a Man,” viewers step back in time to the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike during the African-American civil rights movement and witness events leading to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Rather than standing on the sidelines, participants are literally placed in the shoes of an African-American sanitation worker as he picks up trash in the streets, goes on strike and stands in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel in King’s final moments before that earth-shattering gunshot on April 4, 1968.
The other virtual reality program, “Forced to Flee,” takes place in the present as viewers are placed in the muddy Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, which is currently home to more than 620,000 Rohingya refugees who fled ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
With one program taking place in 1968 and the other in 2018, the “Social Justice Revisited” exhibition “fills the blanks of other social justice issues that have become vital to certain peoples and our community as a whole,” Faris says.
I participated in each program during my visit to the gallery. I will never forget the fear I felt when a police officer approached me and told me to put my “hands up” as I innocently stood in the street in “I Am a Man” or the profound sadness I felt hearing a 19-year-old Rohingya woman’s story about the brutal violence she experienced in Myanmar before escaping to Bangladesh in “Forced to Flee.”
Experiencing both programs before browsing Betty LaDuke’s artwork in the gallery allowed me to view her work through a completely different lens — and that’s the whole goal of the virtual reality program, Faris says.
“Virtual reality can be used as a passive experience to play and forget,” he says, “but (at the gallery), it’s being used to experience, celebrate and remember.”
If you go
What: Virtual reality art experiences at North Dakota State University
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, with two new programs every month; “Social Justice Revisited” reception will happen 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24
Where: NDSU Memorial Union Gallery, 1401 Administrative Ave., Fargo