The virtual reality art that lets you step inside another world, literally

As I begin our zoom meeting and the face of Brightonian artist, Maf’j Alvarez, blurs into focus, her background looks familiar. It’s not just that I’ve been there before – although I have visited the park she’s sitting in. Then it clicks. St Ann’s Well Garden is not only the setting to our interview but to her virtual reality (VR) installation called ‘Eva Quantica’, which will be displayed as part of the Brighton Festival from the 20th-22nd May.

Alvarez turns her phone to show me the Café and rose garden, which also both form part of the surreal landscape of her art piece –  she explains ‘I’ve kind of taken Brighton and shrunk it’. By donning a VR headset viewers can enter her ‘mindscape’ – what she calls ‘my imagination in a bubble’. Those who visit the exhibition, which will be featured in four Brighton Festival venues across the weekend, can also take in a cupcake pavilion, dream-like architecture and, perhaps most strikingly, the hypnotic dancing of multiple figures.

Beginning in 5am darkness and changing as the sun rises and falls, the world of ‘Eva Quantica’ is a mysterious one. The name is a reference to quantum theory, which suggests that particles can exist in multiple places as once. Alvarez highlights how these ideas mirror the different versions of ourselves we experience – ‘we are many people in many different moments in time’. ‘It’s about versions’, she continues, ‘versions of women, versions of myself, versions of my ancestors’.

Alvarez references the immigration in her family history to explore the differences and similarities between these versions. Immigration can leave you ‘loaded with baggage, traumas and ideas that don’t work in a new place. You end up dealing with the memory and death of those old ideas’. As the piece shifts and changes depending on when you virtually ‘enter’ it, and where you go ‘within’ it, ‘you can go back several times and every time the things you see are different, and you’re a different person yourself’. This theme of shifting identity and perspective was, and remains, a pertinent one since ‘Eva Quantica’ was first conceived in the height of lockdown.

Eva Quantica VR art

It’s not hard to see parallels between the virtual bubble that Alvarez’s art is locked within and the trapping environments that many experienced during the pandemic. ‘Brighton is a bubble anyway’ she jokes. ‘I think it’s the first time in my life the government’s told me what to do so directly’ she continues, describing the repetitive lockdown feeling that ‘everything was looping’. ‘That’s why all the dancers are on a 15 minute, or even a 3 or 4 minute, loop. The sun goes up the sun goes down but they’re still doing the same dances’.

Alvarez’s inspirations are numerous, to say the least. ‘Eva Quantica’ was commissioned by the National Gallery as part of National Gallery X and Audience Labs at the Royal Opera House. It uses motion capture data from ‘Eve’, an original ballet piece choreographed by Kristen McNally and sent in chunks to Alvarez.

‘I just got the name ‘Eve’ and the files. I asked [McNally], did you want to tell me the story that you’re trying to say here? And she said, well, do you want me to?’. Alvarez decided to take the fragments of dance as they were, and build on them herself.

The piece also takes inspiration from Paula Rego’s ‘Crevelli’s Garden’ and Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, the latter of which can be seen if you take a birds-eye view of her world. Both are triptychs – three images which are simultaneously whole and  fragmented from each other. Combined with a haunting soundtrack by local musicians Bunty and Hannah Moule and The Moulettes, the piece feels like being in a dream, with your psyche throwing up moments of your day and forcing you to confront them.

‘I’m very interested to see what people take from it’ Alvarez concludes. ‘People react really, really differently. If you came down with three friends, and came up one by one, guaranteed, by the end, you wouldn’t have seen the same things at all’.

You can visit the piece over the weekend (the 20th-22nd May) by booking slots on the Eva Quantica website.

You can also keep up to date with photos and videos on Instagram.

Words by Kate Bowie

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