Mat Collishaw: Thresholds / Reviewed by Caroline Molloy / 04.06.17
Mat Collishaw’s much anticipated Thresholds opened in Somerset House on May 18 as part of Photo London and will be on display until June 11. Working with a team of specialists, including photo-historian Pete James, Nottingham University’s mixed reality lab and the VMI studios at the Whitehall Company, Collishaw created a virtual reality experience which aims to transport the audience to one of the earliest photographic exhibitions, originally staged in 1839, in which William Henry Fox-Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public, at King Edward’s School, in Birmingham.
If a threshold is understood to be a boundary through which a radically different state of affairs exists, Collishaw’s titling of the work hints that the audience will be metaphorically transported elsewhere. Inside of Thresholds the virtual space expands beyond the physical, as the audience travels to the nineteenth-century version of King Edwards school. As an observer, I was able to watch intrepid participants navigate their way through a seemingly empty monotone room, in which the VR experience was located. As an active participant, stimulated by vision, touch, and sound, I was able to virtually explore the gothic interior of King Edwards school and the careful reconstructions of Fox-Talbot’s early photographs. Photographs that have long since faded, yet in their virtual re-enactment held the imperfections of the original photographs. Attention to detail, such as heat coming from the fire and the coolness of the display vitrines, enabled my mind to embrace the immersive experience. However, whilst my brain was able to process and accept the low-res version of my hands and that of other participants in the room, looking down and not seeing my legs, at the same time as standing on them, remained a cognitive challenge.
It may have a been a pragmatic decision to limit the audience to a six-minute visit, but as a participant with no prior experience of VR, this gave little time to adjust to the intersection between the virtual and the real world. Only on the second visit, when the novelty of concurrently navigating the two realities had subsided, was I able to investigate the body of work conceptually. As with all new technology, critical points of reference are in flux and often viewed with distrust. Collishaw draws attention to this by linking together two ground-breaking developments in technology, both of which disrupted ways of seeing the world. A primary public showing of photography in 1839 is encountered through a cutting edge virtual reality immersive experience. In addition, Collishaw also intimates political parallels between 1839 and 2017. Outside of the window in virtual 1839, chartist protesters can be seen and heard; this can be interpreted as a symbolic allegory for the recent 2016/17 Brexit protests.
Thresholds is a fascinating body of work that compels the audience to physically and mentally engage with a multi-sensory virtual reality experience. However, it is ambitious in its aims and would benefit from allowing participants more time to dwell on the experience.
– reviewed by Caroline Molloy
After being displayed at Somerset House, Thresholds will be reassembled at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, then to Lacock Abbey (The Fox-Talbot Museum), Wiltshire and finally move on to the Media museum in Bradford.
Times: During Photo London: 12-8.30pm: 18 May, 12-7.30pm: 19 May, 12-7:30pm: 20 May, 12-6.30pm: 21 May
Then: (22 May -11 June) 10am-6pm: Saturday – Tuesday & 11am-8pm Wednesday – Friday.
Tickets: from £3.50 concessions (available at www.somersethouse.org.uk)
Address: River Rooms, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA
Transport: Underground: Temple, Embankment / Rail: Charing Cross, Waterloo, Blackfriars