In late August 1839 British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot revealed his first photogenic drawings to audiences at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Mat Collishaw’s ‘Thresholds’, a virtual reality installation, restages this pioneering exhibition. In the context of Photo London, the artist has brought together the vanguard of Victorian visual technology with current developments in virtual reality (VR) programming. Drawing parallels between these visual paradigm shifts is conceptually tight, yet the erratic formal execution and somewhat clunky physical experience of entering the work compromises the sense of transportation.
This is Collishaw’s first work with VR. With the promise of providing a ‘fully immersive portal to the past’, this needed to be a seamless, performative experience. However, beginning the piece waiting in a queue facing the technical set up broke the illusion. As if being thrown into the backstage area, watching the operating system and workers milling around, spoilt the transportation and any antiquated grandeur. Although informative text boards were posted around the room providing context to the experience, the height of their hang coupled with the small text size made them almost illegible. This was frustrating for these were well researched nuggets of information which explained Fox Talbot’s methods including the camera obscura and images made with solar microscopes, as well as the broader political context and concurrent Chartist riots. These deserved to be more engaging - for they placed the work and gave it the depth which the short introductory talk by an assistant and the VR medium could not.
Once equipped with headset and rucksack and led via a ramp into a white room set with solid cabinets, the nineteenth century hall hung with candle lit chandeliers came into vision. Albeit it pixilated and taking time to clarify, the detail was impressive and certainly alluring. The cabinets became rows of table tops and freestanding glass vitrines housing photographs and FoxTalbot’s tools which beckoned and needed inspecting. You could grasp the sides, peer into them and discern images of lace made by Fox Talbot’s experimentation with silver nitrate-coated paper exposed to light. If you crouched down and looked along the floor mice scuttled past, while on one of the walls a spider dangled from the ornate frame of King Edward VI’s portrait. Challenging traditional gallery etiquette, the viewer was able to touch and grab the stately image, which was in fact a transparent viewing window that provided endless entertainment for those in the queue. Those waiting could watch people inside the white room nervously pass by swiping at the portrait or edging their hands towards the fireplace close by emitting heat.
Completing this full sensory experience was the discrete smell of burning and an accompanying soundscape made by Collishaw. This low hum replicated the noise of the Chartist rioters who could be seen through the dramatic stone-framed windows. The historical accuracy of the piece, and the ability to present Fox Talbot’s experiments, which remain in archives and cannot for danger of fading be exhibited, makes the work valuable. There was however something underwhelming about the work. Perhaps as Paul MacArthur and Christian Lemmerz have recently shown, VR is better suited to providing access to excessively surreal, imaginary landscapes rather than historical ones.