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History Shall Repeat Itself

Image by Mat Collishaw

Pondering what the future may look like has been a fascination for many an artist, filmmaker and writer. Stepping into the past, on the other hand, is a fairly unexplored territory. Although museums, lecture theatres, books and TV screens can illuminate the world of yesteryear, the encounter can be somewhat flat. Unlike the future, we can never truly experience history. Or at least we were not able to, until now.

From May until June 2017, Mat Collishaw, the world-renowned British artist, is creating a time warp inside Somerset House. Thresholds will invite visitors to travel back to 1839 and encounter the groundbreaking exhibition of scientist William Henry Fox Talbot’s first photographic prints, as well as other incredible inventions premiered at Birmingham’s King Edward School. Possible only thanks to the incredible advancements in Virtual Reality technology, Collishaw’s recreation won’t just allow the guests to see the space, but to feel it, touch it and hear it. “My experience with Virtual Reality has been that while some fantastical scenery is vaguely entertaining, it's when you experience depictions of very familiar things that it gets truly strange,” the artist says about the importance of creating fully immersive space. He continues, “however, the lack of physical substance to those familiar things slightly undermines this. I wanted to create an environment where your sense of touch confirmed what you were seeing and gave you the strange sensation that the virtual world you were observing was actually there in front of you. I've also added other elements that exploit our various senses, the objective being to confound what you think is real. A simulation that deceives one sense is engaging, but when it deceives more than one it is fiendishly compelling.” 

Juxtaposing and merging together cutting edge technology, which is almost two hundred years apart, is an incredible feat, and a history lesson you won’t find in any textbook. Yet, Thresholds is not an egoistic celebration of modern technology and its sophistication. While awe-inspiring, the exhibition stresses the reliance and impact of the nineteenth-century invention on the encounters of today. Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, or any other digital platform built upon the sharing of images would not exist were it not for the salted paper and calotype techniques pioneered by Talbot. Just imagine!

Still, the exhibition is forward-looking and celebrates the yet unexplored possibilities of Virtual Reality. Collishaw acknowledges this “total immersion in image is something that we've struggled to achieve for thousands of years. Large scale panoramas, religious imagery such the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and even to an extent cave paintings, have attempted to simulate environments that we can lose ourselves in. Virtual Reality is a continuation of this inclination but it's the creation of a world that you can actually move through and interact with, rather than being the projection of environment that you are removed from.”

What are you waiting for? Stop what you’re doing and run to Somerset House. The most exciting exhibition of the summer is commencing its teleportation on May 18 with flights until June 11.

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