Last week, at the Gray Area Theater in San Francisco, people were lining up to witness something incredible. At the front of the line, participants in VR gear were sitting on meditation pillows in front of a microphone. To their surprise, when they hummed into the mike, their voices were somehow changed and even transformed. Whenever they uttered a sound, little pieces of geometry shot out of their mouths and drifted off.
Short for Visual Voice Virtual Reality, VVVR is a virtual chanting chamber and—in the eyes of its creators—a new, abstract form of communication. Casey McGonagle and Ray McClure, who developed VVVR an artist’s residency funded by the Canadian government, were hesitant to say if any drugs were consumed in the creation of the project, but the influences of psychedelic culture and way of life cannot be missed.
McGonagle is a former raver who rigorously practices Buddhist mindfulness techniques. And in similar fashion, McClure is a self-confessed deadhead and student of lucid dreaming. But while their little niche of cyberspace may seem like an elaborate trip toy for art school techies, they believe that VR can help facilitate deep and meaningful connections to the universe for everyone, even the drug-free.
a bridge between dream-like highs and sober reality
“A lot of times [with ‘psychedelic’ media], it’s kind of these acid visuals, or trippy things, but we’re trying to create something that is directly tied to altered states,” McClure said. In order to avoid getting hung up on the trivial aspects of psychedelia, the team designed their experience around various pieces of counterculture literature, from the healing rituals of shamanism to the writings of the psilocybin-savant Terence McKenna.
“I studied so much Terence McKenna. He always talks about this goal of being able to bring something back from the psychedelic realm, and if that could happen, the journey would be complete,” McGonagle said. And so it happened that when McGonagle laid eyes on McClure’s Sound Room experiments, he was convinced that this kind of technology could be a bridge between dream-like highs and sober reality. “This is the next step in McKenna’s prophecy,” he told me.
The way the installation is set up is peculiar. Two people enter the virtual space simultaneously, each inhabiting the form of a stoic and statuesque avatar. “When you’re in there, you’re wearing this robe… and the robe flutters in the wind, and you see your hands, but there is a veil between you and your perceived body,” said McGonagle. The two people are encouraged to correspond with each other while in VR, but not with language.
Instead, the players communicate by using the shapes that are formed with the noises the make. “If you sing from soft to loud, you will see the bubblegum shapes turn into crystals,” said McGonagle, who was trying his best to explain what the human voice looks like within the simulation.
“We start with basic polygons, do some Archimedean solids and more elaborate crystalline structures, and then we morph them,” he said. The result is that the moment the player goes inside, she is effortlessly singing in symbols.
During one session, for example, a 10 year-old kid was matched up with a much older woman. “This woman was maybe a 60 or 70 year-old woman. She’s looking at me like: ‘I don’t know what this is.’ And I was like: ‘no, try it!’” McClure said. “She started out kind of quietly, in little peeps: Peep. Peep. Peep. By the end she’s like: Whoa! whoa!” He pointed out how the kid and the older woman had an identical experience of losing their inhibitions, despite being separated by decades.
If nothing else, VVVR presents an expressive place where two people can explore the sounds of their singing voices without getting self-conscious about it. Users can sing in color, pattern, structure, and shape. In that sense, the project makes good on Terence McKenna’s promise about how humanity is “going from a linguistic mode that is heard to a linguistic mode that is beheld,” a quotation the team took to heart, so much as to read it to me. But still, the question remains: what the hell does VVVR communicate?
Judging from our conversation, I got the feeling that McGonagle and McClure are trying to share the psychedelic experience with those of us who have never had the opportunity to participate. In some ways, it’s a success. It offers a new way to experience your senses. To feel. To express emotion. To step outside the body and come back. To think and contemplate like a stoner. “What lives behind our ego is universal. And any good psychedelic experience will expose you to that. What connects us all. What connects us to a tree. Or a rock, you know?” said McGonagle.