In the fall of 2019, a new Virtual Reality (VR) facility came to India much to the delight of fans of the new technology in the country. This VR artwork was especially important for book lovers. It was Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis in VR. Visitors wearing headphones virtually entered the bedroom of Kafka’s character, Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning as a giant insect, only to lay their eyes on a litany of objects such as a desk, a bookshelf, an alarm clock and even a snow globe. The VR installation was called VRwandlung (wandlung means “transformation” in German, the language in which Kafka wrote).
Three years later, the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi, the location of VRwandlung, hosted another VR installation, not based on a book this time, but on an entire library.
The Infinite Library, a traveling VR installation mounted at the Goethe-Institut from March 23-27, adopts “transformation” – the name of The Metamorphosis in VR – as a calling card for visualizing the future of libraries. The virtual library brings together a whole range of new technologies such as holograms, 3D printed objects and QR codes to reinvent 21st century libraries. “Libraries can be myths and also characters. They can keep being redesigned,” says Mika Johnson, creative director of The Infinite Library.
Helmets and holograms
Incidentally, it was Johnson, a Finnish-American multimedia artist based in Prague, who was also behind Vrwandlung. “The idea for The Infinite Library was born here in Delhi during the installation of The Metamorphosis VR,” he says of the “transformation” of a book into VR that inspired the changing face artwork libraries. While VRwandlung had its world premiere in Kafka’s hometown Prague, The Infinite Library premiered in Delhi, with a stopover in the Czech Republic’s capital at the end of April before an extensive world tour.
Johnson’s VR Library is also inspired by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel. “Borges created a myth about an infinite library,” Johnson says of the 1941 short story that viewed the library as a universe. In The Infinite Library, the universe tells its own story. Space dust tells about the origins of the earth and asteroids tell about human evolution. “Our goal is to house different kinds of knowledge systems that can’t fit into books,” says Johnson.
The Infinite Library is a traveling exhibition that will take place in Prague (April-May) and Dublin (July) after Delhi and Bangalore (March 31-April 4). In September-October this year, he will tour South Asia to cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Kolkata, Dhaka and Karachi.
Knowledge systems are encased in a virtual cave that houses the Infinite Library. Wearing a VR headset, a visitor is invited to enter the cave and begin tapping into its vast resources by pointing a virtual lightsaber. There is a beach to reach and a canoe to navigate while the shells parade in total abandonment. “Caves are where we find the earliest forms of symbolic expression, around 70,000 years ago,” says Johnson. “They were our first libraries, spaces where our culture incubated,” he adds.
The facility has a main virtual library that a visitor can experience by wearing a headset and standing in a sandbox holding hand controllers. There are three separate mini-libraries, called Library of Shadows containing leather puppets from Karnataka, Library of Elements with medieval European alchemy, and Library of Navigation showing the accumulation of knowledge using oral tradition by Polynesian navigators before the arrival of compasses and sextants. There are also jars with QR codes containing 3D printed objects like fish bones, mushrooms and skulls that a visitor can scan to hear stories about human evolution.
Reminders and Warnings
“Each library is an infinite experience. Knowledge is a breakthrough of all limits,” says Berthold Franke, Director of the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan. “Virtual reality is a new space, a new way to describe the world and a new way for artists to express themselves. It’s just a new technology and can help new ways of creating things,” he says, adding, “But it’s not a technology per se that creates. We are the ones who use tools.
Virtual reality as a tool is being embraced not only by libraries, but also by museums and film festivals keen to broaden the viewer experience. While museums like the Louvre in Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the Smithsonian in Washington have held exhibitions with elements of virtual reality, at least five major international film festivals (Venice Festival, Tribeca Festival in New York, South by Southwest festival in Austin and Sundance festival in the United States and Red Sea festival in Saudi Arabia) have made VR artwork an integral part of their programming.
Faizal Khan is an independent.