ACMI announces multi-sensory VR project exploring the sentience of plants

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ACMI announces multi-sensory VR project exploring the sentience of plants

ACMI Tully Arnot

ACMI's latest exhibition will be Tully Arnot’s latest work 'Epiphytes', a multi-sensory virtual reality (VR) project exploring the sentience of plants.

Set within an abstract representation of Tully’s childhood backyard, Epiphytes consists of an environment featuring a diffuse, shifting, magenta palette. Reliance on sight is de-escalated in favour of sound and scent to influence the user’s bodily responses within the virtual space. The work honours alternative forms of plant communication and consciousness, inviting the user to question their own perception.

Developed during the Australian bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic in response to the ongoing climate crisis, Epiphytes uses implied forms of nature such as shadows from an unseen canopy and mobile, amorphous shapes to elicit feelings of solastalgia – emotional distress over a loss of natural environments.

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Simultaneously the work encourages a more symbiotic and interconnected way of being in the world, drawing on the premise of the artwork’s botanical namesake: the epiphyte – an organism that feeds on the air, water and natural refuse of its environment to give back to its ecosystem.

Epiphytes features interviews with evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano, acoustic archaeologist Umashankar Manthravadi and echolocation teacher/blind researcher and activist Thomas Tajo. Arranging these sonic elements within the VR environment, Tully aims to invoke curiosity and exploration in his audience, while generating a conversational dialogue between these three diverse theorists.

Field recordings of local birds and other ecological sounds complement the recorded conversations of the theorists, along with sounds representing water and nutrients flowing through trees, suggesting a natural environment that is either fabricated or fading. The audio is spatially controlled, using virtual reality as a powerful acoustic tool to represent sounds that cannot be created in reality.

“With the support of ACMI and the Mordant Family VR Commission,” Arnot says. “I’ve had the opportunity to use VR to imagine the perception of plants and explore multi-sensory ways of being in the world. Through de-centring the human experience, I hope the project encourages audiences to reflect on more caring and interconnected relationships that we can have with each other and our ecosystems.”

Visitors to ACMI can experience Epiphytes using the cordless Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset, allowing them to freely explore the virtual environment. This headset is recommended for users over 12 years of age, but the content is approachable by all ages with parental supervision.

Tully Arnot: Epiphytes runs 4-27 November 2022 in Gallery 3 at ACMI, Fed Square, Melbourne. Entry is free and bookings are recommended. Visit the ACMI website for more info.