The artist Shezad Dawood’s exhibition Kalimpong at Timothy Taylor Gallery in 2016, included ‘an immersive tour’ of the town of the same name on the border of Tibet, a virtual reality work which according to the press release ‘questions the border between the real and the virtual’. Situated in a separate room, the viewer was required to wear head and handsets to visit the five scenes that Dawood created: a hotel, a mountain range, a cave, a monastery and a temple.
The virtual is increasingly becoming the real and as has been pointed out, the concept of ‘the virtual’ can be unpacked to be understood as a kind of supplement – something almost something other than or similar to itself or which stands in for itself. Something which is ‘virtual’ is as good as the thing which it is supplementary to or close enough to be experienced as the thing itself: an addition, an enhancement or a substitute.
That the experience of space is becoming increasingly secondary, mapped out in advance and mediated by tourism has been widely discussed from the writings of anthropologist Marc Auge to that of the sociologist John Frow. Now, cycling tours of Britain can be done in one’s living room (or perhaps in the future in specialized centres) on an exercise bike wearing a virtual reality headset connected to Google Street View. It’s possible to select particular areas (the Lake District or the Pennines for example) without bothering with the train journey or the weather. Aaron Puzey who developed the software is cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats and documenting his 1,500km journey (CycleVR). He aims to ‘cycle around’ Japan next.
Virtual tourism is a rapidly expanding industry where the race is on to offer ‘iconic’ locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Barrier Reef, the pyramids or the Great Wall of China. ‘Everest VR’ is a virtual reality experience which was demonstrated at the Royal Geographical Society last year at an expedition planning conference. It is based on 300,000 photographs taken by land and air of Mount Everest by a visual effects studio based in Iceland, and then turned into a 3D model using a process called photogrammetry. The experience is being constantly improved by incorporating images from the Royal Geographical Society’s archives including several detailed scenes such as the Khumbu crevasse or ‘the notorious’ Hillary Step. Virtual climbers can choose from different routes which vary in difficulty.
‘Google Earth urbanism’ – how we interact with the urban environment via satellite communication or how planners and architects insert buildings or infrastructure proposals into digitally mapped and imaged streets – is a phenomenon of our changing perception of space. Detachment from our environment through the use of smartphones, headphones and GPS has an uncanny paradox with a compensatory impulse to ‘share’ or mediatize the most mundane experiences via social media. In recent publications on the city, it has been argued that the ever-expanding urban environment is impacting on our perception. Plate glass, reflected surfaces, skyscrapers, treeless developments spanning huge tracks of space and urban sprawl where the parameters of cities are blurred are all having effects on the way we experience space and our place in it. Whilst this may be the alienating view from the ground, the culturisation of ‘the city’ via Hollywood film and popular culture invariably focuses on the omnipotent view from above (made from helicopters or drones) and constitutes a variation of one point perspective, long critiqued by cultural theorists as a relationship of power.
The city’s continual evolution and impact are reflected in recent titles such as The Endless City (Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds. Phaidon, 2007), an outcome of a series of conferences on urbanization held at the London School of Economics, hosted by the Urban Age Project. The book’s cover declares a range of alarming statistics including that 25% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1950 compared to 50% of us who live in cities today to a projected 75% in 2050. Key thinkers on urban space such as Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen consider the implications of this expansion. In Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (Verso, 2016), Stephen Graham proposes that the world must now be understood as a series of vertical strata which is reflected in the geography of inequality, politics and identity. From the ‘helicopterisation’ by the police to the design of pavements he asks why the super-rich live either in penthouses high above the city (São Paulo) or drill down to build vast subterranean basements (London).
In the 2014 series ‘Twenty First Century Mythologies’ for Radio 4, literary theorist Peter Conrad borrows from Roland Barthes’ techniques of cultural analysis from his 1957 book, Mythologies – a collection of essays which examines how social value is reflected in cultural phenomena. From detergents and soap powder, to wine and milk, to steak and chips, Barthes draws on semiology, proposing myth as a sign whose roots are in language but to which something has been added. Mythologies are formed, he argued to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media.
In an episode about the Shard, Conrad proposes that the Old Testament banned skyscrapers. The audacity of The Tower of Babel rose too high and God, resenting the intrusion on His domain took revenge by multiplying the languages of the workers causing confusion, so that the Tower was left unfinished. The Shard is currently the tallest building in Europe but ‘the British pour scorn on overachievement and give names to skyscrapers that bring them down to earth and into the kitchen cupboard’, like the ‘Salt Cellar’ the ‘Cheesegrater’ or the ‘Gherkin’. A shard is a fragment and Conrad compares it to Barthes’ analysis of the Eiffel Tower as ‘an empty sign’ whose iron girdles allow us to look straight through it and architecturally is totally useless. Similarly, for Conrad, the Shard’s physical location between such useful things as a hospital, a food market and a railway station emphasizes its gratuitousness.
From its viewing platform high above the ground, London appears ‘smudged by haze, jumble and chaos’ but one may be able to see from Heathrow to the Thames Barrier which reminds us that ‘London is camped on a flood plain … and is at best, a runway and at worst, a crowded life raft’. On ground level, the Shard ‘lies within the context of pleasure’ (between the Globe Theatre, the Millennium Wheel and numerous galleries and restaurants), replacing London as a place of work with a playground or a theme park. The top floors ‘are given over to the Shangri-La Hotel whose name is a transliteration of Shambala, the paradise of Tibetan Buddists from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon – a Himalayan utopia where wise lamas preside over a meditative existence, suspended above the turmoil of the lower world.’