Encompassing a wide range of different media, the project includes a new film, inspired by John Ford’s western of the same title from 1939, starring John Wayne. Taking the form of a spinoff, a phenomenon associated with the entertainment industry, the virtual reality work builds on a scene from the film of the artist, involving the two characters, Mary (played by Rachel Alig) and Eve (played by Jennifer Daley). Caught in the claustrophobia of constant surveillance by the two women and their doubles, the viewer becomes part of the vicious hallucination of a psychological mind game. Through the VR medium, McCarthy displays a perversion of the real—a reality, which already exists as extreme visuality of violence, is imbedded in mass culture and contemporary imagery. Alexis Kerin: To my knowledge, this is the first Virtual Reality project to be exhibited at Art Basel and certainly the first to be presented at Unlimited. It isn't surprising that you would be among the early adopters of this new technology, since you continually experiment with unconventional media and materials. Your work often challenges what has been deemed acceptable by the art world in more ways than one, including the hierarchy of media. I know that you were initially not very excited about this technology—and had, in fact, been approached on several occasions to create VR works—but always declined. What made you decide to make this series of 11 ‘experiments’ as you call them? Paul McCarthy: I was always interested in VR, but never had time. When asked before, I was always involved in something else, primarily video projects. I thought, ‘Others will enter that world.’ I think that VR is an amazing medium—with a future. When I got the opportunity this time, I thought I would connect it to the video piece I was working on, C.S.S.C. (Coach Stage Stage Coach). I could do a related scene as VR. Now I want to do another series related to the video project I’m doing now.
‘...this is reminiscent of being in a dream: in a box, in a room, or in a skull.’
AK: Your VR experiments remind me of an important theme in your practice, the object as the skull. For example, you see your film sets as minimalist sculptures or skulls where the action is contained within. In this instance, it feels to me as though we’re inside of your skull: immersed in—and confronted by—the action. Was this your intention? PM: With several of the C.S.S.C. VR experiments, I put the image of the carpeted floor as the walls and ceiling: you’re in the VR, you’re in a carpeted box. The box walls, floor, and ceiling surfaces are moving; the ceiling moves to the floor, the floor to the ceiling, the four walls are moving, exchanging positions constantly, and outside of these surfaces are four more walls and a ceiling and floor that are also gliding past each other. In this moving space, are the two characters, Mary and Eve, which exist multiple times in multiple scales? They act out a scene and interact with the viewer. I think this is reminiscent of being in a dream: in a box, in a room, or in a skull. The box, the room, being a skull. Some of the minimal cube sculptures I did in the late 60s and early 70s were referred to as a ‘skull,’ as well as the film sets I have done in the past 20 years.
AK: For years you have created immersive installations made up of film sets and multichannel projections—all-consuming environments for the viewer. Do you see VR as a progression of this idea, and a new way in which to create a similar experience? PM: There are similarities. The position of being in-side of a world, or surrounded by one. But in the installation, you have a physical body. You can perceive it, you perceive others in this environment; there are physical objects as well as video projections. In VR you are a point view; you have no perception of your body and you can move through the constructed object, the world you’re in. In these experiments, the environment you’re in is not physical. AK: Where do you see this technology going and will you continue to experiment with it? PM: Technological improvements just keep happening. Animation programs and headsets improve, but the real changes could be virtual reality and social media together, connected, which could crest social narratives and also augmented virtual reality.
– Art Basel Unlimited will include McCarthy’s virtual reality experiment, produced in collaboration with Khora Contemporary, which is based on the artist’s on the long-term project, Coach State State Coach, or C.S.S.C. for short.