Live concert albums are formal documents of a given night. At their best they represent a platonic ideal of the evening in question, not presenting the experience of any single individual, but providing an optimal representation. Sometimes they don’t even reproduce a specific evening, but instead draw from multiple nights along a tour, and in any case may be tweaked and clarified in post-production.
But what of virtual reality, the long-fledgling medium in which the matter of the individual’s perspective is even more central than at a concert? VR is closer to a video game, theoretically with an even greater implicit emphasis on the user’s co-authorship of the experience. Forget for a moment how the full run of a VR environment might be documented in fixed media — how about just its score? The question surfaces during a listen to Machinefabriek’s music for FIGHT a VR artwork by Memo Akten. As Machinefabriek explains in a brief accompanying liner note:
Wearing an Oculus Rift headset, the viewer experiences an exceedingly psychedelic, 3D trip. The video shows different patterns and colours to each eye, causing ‘binocular rivalry’, an effect in which the brain makes its own fluctuating mix of the images.
In the virtual reality version, the music was spatialized, reactive to the movements of the viewer. This soundtrack EP presents the music as a mixed stereo version.
The soundtrack to FIGHT is track one (“FIGHT score”) of this two-track EP. Track two (“FIGHT ambient”) is “the soundscape that played in the room in which the installation was exhibited.” One listen to the VR’s music, with its rich, spacious display of stereoscopic noises and episodic environmental scenes, and the original context is clear. Even if we can’t nudge the score this way and that through our own digitally induced wayfinding, the sense of a non-linear narrative is self-evident. There are textured drones and dank industrial flourishes, suffocating synthesized white noise and lovely aquatic set pieces. It’s sound to get lost in.
FIGHT is, in fact, an experience not only to get lost in, but to lose your sense of self in. It’s an intense work of op-art, in which different images are fed to your two individual eyes, leaving your brain to make sense of it all. FIGHT had its premiere at STRP Biënnale, which commissioned it, in the Netherlands, where Machinefabriek lives, and was also presented at Sónar in Barcelona. The second track on the EP, the installation score, is a womb embrace of long ambient tones. Chances are, after you take off that VR headset it’s exactly what the body needs.