Virtual Reality Tools as Spatial Documentation

Jack McConchie
The Electronic Media Review, Volume Five: 2017-2018


As a time-based media conservator at Tate, recent experience installing complex multi-channel sound pieces led me to think more deeply about how we install and document these types of artworks.

Our aim as conservators is to understand the display param­eters of a work, defining whether visual and technical properties of equipment or space are conceptual or incidental. This influences our options for the preservation of an artwork. Acoustic aspects of a work have mostly related to specific equipment, or appropriate spaces for installation, but we do not currently capture informa­tion regarding the acoustic properties of a space, leading us to consider the questions we want to ask regarding the environment in which an artwork is installed.

In looking at the relationship between the aesthetics and the acoustics of space holistically, we can easily see how the design of a space becomes an intervention into a work: lessening the acoustic reflection of a space becomes a treatment. In comparison to video and visual works, where, as a community we have a rich and nuanced vocabulary to describe the work within a space and the treatments we might apply, the corresponding vocabulary and shared understanding of audio treatment feels frozen in a more primitive state. This is reflected by our documentation, which historically has been limited to text and pictorial representation. What if our documentation closer resembled the artwork medium?

In this presentation I would like to share our experimentation in practically applying current recording technologies to docu­mentation, our exploration of their uses, limitations, and dissemina­tion. Starting with the technique of binaural recording, we are able to accurately capture the spatiality of sound within a space and provide greater context by a point of view video recording, for viewing on a monitor or a VR headset for a more immersive experience. This can expand into spherical photos and videos, in which the wearer of a headset is able to freely look around a space. Once virtual reality is introduced as a tool, it raises many questions about where accurate documentation ends and synthetic reconstruction begins, and for what purposes the resulting documentation should be used. Given how easy it is to embed 360 files in a web browser to be viewed on a phone, should we be rethinking the idea of the viewing copy, or the thumbnail image? In sharing this, I hope to raise questions around a potential new documentation framework, and also highlight a new and exciting area of ethics.

Jack McConchie
Time-Based Media Conservator
London, UK