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Stepping through a blacked-out revolving door in Manhattan’s Financial District and into Evolver, a virtual reality exhibit about human breath, the audience is confronted by a dark concrete room. There’s an eerie, amplified natural soundscape of babbling brooks and passing storms and enormous backlit pictures that feel familiar, but with closer scrutiny prove ineffable. An indistinct image could be a Hubble telescope capture of the stars or maybe a tree’s underground roots, or even a network of human capillaries, magnified to a scale that renders the mundane fact of circulation alarming. This is, of course, the point.
Created by the London-based art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast, luxuriously narrated by Cate Blanchett, and co-executive produced by Terrence Malick, Evolver drops its audience inside the human body on the journey of an inhale. Here we follow the flow of oxygen from the outside world, through our lungs, and eventually to our distant cells. But the impression of the exhibit – which had its world premiere last week at the Tribeca Film Festival – is far less sterile than its brief. Though based on biologically accurate renderings, the result is closer to painterly mimesis than precise simulation. There’s no way the inside of my body looks this spectral and astonishing.
Virtual reality art exhibits of this scope are audacious gambles of time and money. How do you make a person feel cocooned inside a human body and, if you could do it, how might that fleeting glimpse be meaningful? Before I walked through the exhibit, I asked one of Evolver’s creators what I should think or feel by the end of the hour. Barnaby Churchill Steel, who directed music videos for U2 before turning to experiential art, was philosophically noncommittal. The point was simply to wake up to the reality of “interbeing”, which he efficiently explained to me as a Buddhist concept. All phenomena are interdependent, including the human body and the natural world. “Are your cells breathing the air?” he asked me. “Or is the world breathing you?” I nodded, equally noncommittal.
The exhibit acknowledges that’s a trippy question to ask, and so our first ten minutes are spent in deliciously enveloping zero gravity chair sacs, functioning like a palate cleanser. Instead of bulky VR headsets, attendees are outfitted with pillowy headphones and invited to close their eyes. Cate Blanchett then huskily murmurs in your ear about the relationship between your body and the world beyond it.
Transitions are always messy in big, interactive exhibits, but being roused from Cate Blanchett’s seductive whisper to be tightly fitted with futuristic goggles was particularly unwelcome but quickly forgotten. In the main presentation, Blanchett’s voice is replaced by a moody, natured-inflected soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, avant-garde artist Meredith Monk, late Icelandic composer JoÌhann JoÌhannsson and experimentalist Howard Skempton. It starts aloof and electronic and grows triumphantly grandiose. Visually, human breath streams and swirls around you like the Milky Way; blood vents as explosively as lava. The path of the molecules that appear to surround you can be modestly altered by swooping your hand across your body.
Virtual reality on this scale is disorienting; a watchful exhibition assistant had to save me from walking into a wall and later, another participant. It’s also stupefying – I struggled for words in the minutes immediately after and I’m told some visitors even cried. But Steel’s impossible question occasionally revisited me. Are you breathing the air, or is the wild world remaking itself in miniature inside you? Is circulation anything less beautiful than a brook that babbles within us?
Evolver won’t improve your anatomical understanding. Instead, it elevates the simple and involuntary fact of human respiration into something as extraordinary to look at as the world outside us. It accomplished something more startling than making me think about my own breath. It made me gasp.
Evolver runs through 19 June at 120 Broadway in New York City. Tickets cost $30.
Evolver is set to tour, details to be announced.