“We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” – Ru Paul, Lettin’ It All Hang Out, 1995
Australian digital media artist Alison Bennett says that Virtual Drag came to her “like a bright flash.” It may not seem obvious at first, the connection between drag performance and virtual reality, but once the two concepts merge in your head your thoughts can start to accelerate down a rabbit hole of vast questions and possibilities.
Before getting to the larger implications you must first know what Virtual Drag is all about. It’s an exhibition that will see 3D scans of drag queens and kings displayed on virtual reality headsets from February 1st through February 7th in the Studio at Testing Grounds, located in Southbank, Melbourne. It’ll also be realized as a gigantic projection on the side of an adjacent building during a free after-dark event on February 5th.
Bennett teamed up with choreographer and 3D animator Megan Beckwith, and award-winning designer and photogrammetry artist Mark Payne for the technical side of Virtual Drag, all with the funding and support of the Australia Council for the Arts and Deakin Motion.Lab. Posed on the other side of the project’s lens are drag queens Philmah Bocks, Art Simone, Jackie Hammer, as well as the Transylvanian Gypsy Kings.
Visually, Virtual Drag is a feast of images. The main promo art implies the multiplicity of a drag queen’s face through an almost horrific 3D display; multiple skins and blotches of make-up layered in such a way that they appear to smear into each other, pink hair and digital shrapnel almost like a glittery representation of gore. Alone, it’s striking, but it is even more so if you see all the discourse it meshes together.
Virtual reality and drag performance intersect in how they challenge the concepts at their core. We can say that virtual reality destabilizes our notion of reality by recreating it in such a way that it can be difficult to discern the original from the copy. In this way, the question at the heart of virtual reality is: “What happens when we can’t get out?” Suppose that the simulation of reality gets so far that, one day, it’s possible to feel like we’ve removed the VR helmet and presumed to have returned to reality, not knowing that actually the helmet still shrouds our eyes. This confusion of reality and the non-real is arguably what drives our curiosity in advancing virtual reality—when the verisimilitude becomes indistinguishable. What’s important here is the idea that what we consider to be the ‘original’ reality might be proven to be faked, or at least questionable. This has been considered in philosophical thought for millennia, as far back the 5th century BC, when Plato contemplated the separate states of dreaming and non-dreaming, but the rise of virtual reality has accelerated this “what is real?” question in the public consciousness in recent years.
To explain how this theory of virtual reality relates to drag performance, Bennet calls upon gender theorist Judith Butler. In her 1990 essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Butler explicates what drag performance achieves through its deconstruction of genders and how they are represented and identified. In short, she concludes that drag implies that there is no original expression of gender, that it is informed by our social realities: “compulsory heterosexual identities, those ontologically consolidated phantasm of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ are theatrically produced effects that posture as grounds, origins, the normative measure of the real.”
In both, the notion of ‘realness’ is brought into question—quite simply, what we accept to be real, shown to be a construction of human making. And so, by bringing drag queens and kings into virtual reality, Virtual Drag doubles their implications, letting their deconstructions overlap in an astonishing synergy. It brings into question the mainline pursuits of many other virtual reality projects as of late, too. “So much of the early work in virtual reality has been driven by naked girls presented for a male gaze,” Bennett says. And she’s right, with pornography being big in virtual reality right now, squeezable breast peripherals and penis-controlled masturbation controllers were among the first devices developed for the Oculus Rift. What Bennett hopes to do with Virtual Drag is to contribute to the ‘queering’ of virtual reality.
Queering virtual reality is also a layered concept. Not only does it mean bringing queer bodies into virtuality, it can also refer to a more direct disruption of the medium of virtual reality. You can see this might be done in the 30-second trailer for Virtual Drag (as seen above). Notice how it incorporates the visual effects associated with a corrupt VHS tape such as banding, scratches, and noise. This brings attention the hyperreal surface of the video—the distance between the virtual space and the one we occupy—deliberately preventing us from fully engrossing ourselves in its verisimilitude. This barrier is exactly what most virtual reality projects so readily attempt to make disappear. And so by queering virtual reality, Bennett not only challenges the performances we enact in our perceived reality (such as gender), and that we then bring to virtual reality, she also challenges the primary use of virtual reality as a simulated performance of the real.