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Tripping on virtual reality: The artists trying to replicate psychedelic experiences in VR

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The VR experience is called Ayahuasca (Kosmik Journey)and it was created by Jan Kounen, a French filmmaker who has been fascinated by this hallucinogenic shamanic experience for over 15 years. Kounen first attempted a cinematic depiction of an ayahuasca experience in his 2004 western Renegade (aka Blueberry). Since then he has penned several books on the subject, and directed a documentary about shamanism.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Kounen continued his artistic quest in psychedelic depictions by creating an ayahuasca VR experience. But, however visually accurate the VR experience is purported to be, it feels like a fundamentally superficial exploit, turning a profoundly sublime and life-changing psychedelic experience into an empty spectacle of visual effects that quickly becomes remarkably dull.

“Taking ayahuasca is not for everyone,” Kounen recently said in an interview with ArtsHub about his VR experience, “it’s a strong experience that will be good for some and too much for others. So this is a safe way to see how the plant works. Of course, it’s not the real thing – that is much stronger and you can’t escape by taking off the helmet!”

I didn’t like Ayahuasca (Kosmik Journey). It felt lazy, simplistic, but most of all, dull. Kounen’s ayahuasca VR experience did however raise some questions. Can a profound altered state of consciousness be induced by a piece of art? Can the line between depicting a psychedelic experience, and inducing one, actually be crossed by a multimedia experience? Or is it futile to even try?

Visionarium

Visionarium is another VR experience explicitly referencing the journey of an ayahuasca trip. Artist Sander Bos is well aware of the limitations inherent to VR technology but he still believes there is value in offering a simulation of a psychedelic experience. Bos also believes the immersive nature of VR can generate physical effects, even though the medium doesn’t directly influence brain chemistry in the same way as a psychedelic drug.

“If we can make the mind believe it’s really in this other place it can physically effect you,” Bos tells New Atlas. “I’ve had friends who I put into the Visionarium experience who said it’s very similar to an ayahuasca ceremony, you get the same belly tingling, sweaty palms, feeling of weightlessness and losing sense of the body. I do not think, however, that the technology we have at the moment can go as deep as a real psychedelic experience, because the real thing includes you, your dreams, fears, hopes, imaginations and the opening up to your own infinite potential as a human being or looking into your very own mysterious soul. It is an integral part of the experience.”

Reflecting on my own ayahuasca VR experience, perhaps my problem with the project stemmed from its obsession with replicating a traditional cultural ceremony, instead of trying to focus on the novel effects of the VR technology itself. Ayahuasca (Kosmik Journey) quite literally begins with the participant sitting on a rug, deep in the Amazon jungle, in front of an old, stereotypical shaman.

Kounan’s somewhat myopic focus on so explicitly depicting a certain ancient, geographically specific, experience ultimately feels like an unsettlingly thorough act of cultural appropriation, taking a rich and distinct traditional ceremony and turning it into a short “trippy” spectacle, easily consumable for Western audiences. It’s the psychedelic equivalent of a theme-park ride for curious urban hipsters.

Ayahuasca (Kosmik Journey) is a sanitized and palatable version of something deeply spiritual and meaningful, and while the VR experience has undeniably been created with sincere intent, it still can’t help but come across as a textbook form of 21st century technological colonialism.

But, maybe the meshing of a psychedelic experience with virtual reality is not fundamentally futile, maybe it just needs to home in more specifically on the novel strengths of the technology. Instead of trying to so literally recreate an LSD or ayahuasca experience, maybe technologically-mediated ASCs need to find a language wholly its own.

Rich Haridy of NewAtlas.com

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