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Review: We Live In An Ocean of Air at Saatchi Gallery

24 December 2018 | Billie Manning

‘We Live in an Ocean of Air’ is a trippy environmental VR installation from Marshmallow Laser Feast collective, a London based experiential collective that create immersive experiences (and winner of best-named collective ever), in collaboration with Natan Sinigaglia and Mileage I'Anson.

“People don’t realise or don’t accept how interconnected we are with nature. We thought, if people could literally see their breath, how they our our breath and they breathe ours, then we might realise how important they are.” These were the words of Sinigaglia just before I experienced the groundbreaking new art installation at the Saatchi Gallery. He speaks of the tragedy of Yosemite, of the 95% of trees cut down there to be used to build, only for the humans there to realise the wood couldn’t be used. This project has been in the works for a long time, but previously, VR technology wasn't advanced enough to pull off these kinds of projects. “Technology is just now catching up to where we want to be.”

When you are preparing to enter the installation, you are kitted out with a small computer on your back that powers the VR headset, the headset itself, a heart monitor on each wrist and one ear and headphones. There is also ‘breath technology’. This is what allows you to see your real-time breath in the simulation. You watch as it leaves your body, a cluster of small red dots which become blue as the tree ‘converts’ it into oxygen.


 
The VR environment begins as a pastoral scene around a giant sequoia; suddenly you begin to rise up into the air and the tree becomes an abstract version of itself. Bright, red, brown, green lines twist, form, dissolve and reform. I'm told people have been leaving in tears.

The experience also incorporates other sensory aspects for a fully immersive experience: the temperature changes as you ‘rise’ into the air, and . Interestingly, Sinigaglia notes that in testing, people noticed the temperature change more when certain colours were displayed on the VR at the same time. Certain smells are also puffed out into the experience zone at certain times; fir, wood. Every moment of this experience has been painstakingly planned. The data is even being collected (with participants’ consent only) to analyse how people are emotionally affected by the experience with scientists.


 
However, actually being inside the VR world is only one part of this installation. As you wait for your turn, or take in your experience immediately afterward, you will watch another batch of people swim-walk around the space, blind to anything outside the world they have been transported to, blind to their audience. It’s an artwork within an artwork, watching the way people behave in another world. This is where the title comes to seem most appropriate, too. The kit that you carry around looks just like scuba diving packs, and people almost seem to make swim-like movements as they explore the space. The whole thing is awe-inspiring. It produces wonder, and shows us our connection to nature in a way art has never previously been able to do.
 
Ticket booking is via www.oceanofair.com or via Saatchi Gallery.
 
Until 5 May.

Images: Barnaby Steel & Marshmallow Laser Feast.
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