"Dreams of Dali": The Surreal in the Virtual

02/09/2016 01:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Dreams of Dali can be experienced in the Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination exhibit at The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL through June 12, 2016. For a 360-video version of Dreams of Dali visit Dreamsofdali.org.

I have recently experienced Dreams of Dali, an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience that allows visitors to discover Dali's world. This VR experience was created by Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P) in partnership with The Dali Museum as part of the exhibition Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination. It takes viewers inside Dali's surrealist painting Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus. The experience of spatiality in a painting is the most striking aspect of Dreams of Dali. We reached out to Dr. Hank Hine, Executive Director of The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL and Jeff Goodby, Executive Creative Director and Partner at GS&P to get a detailed account on how this experience was created.

Lilia Ziamou: Tell us about the relationship between Disney and Dali. In one of your earlier interviews you mentioned that they both "wanted to take art off the palette, out of the canvas and into the world." Can you please elaborate?

Hank Hine: Both these artists began their work in traditional media -- Disney with ink on illustration board, Dali with paint on canvas. But they soon leapt into the newest media, at times pioneering new techniques. Disney took up the young art of animation. Dali made a boundary breaking film. Disney invented a multi-plane camera to enhance the depth of field in animations. Dali experimented with holograms and made the first artist video. They both went beyond individual works to create entire environments drawn from their imaginations. Dali created a surreal funhouse called Dream of Venus for the 1939 World's Fair. A work of art itself, it housed paintings of melting clocks, sculptures, a taxi plumbed so that a torrent of rain poured in the interior, and performance pieces such as topless mermaids diving for sunken treasure. This work certainly paved the way for Disneyland, an environment of fantasy where one can travel through time and the wide world. Perhaps this expansion of the artist's realm into environment, into architectural spaces, is both Disney and Dali's greatest contribution to art.

Lilia Ziamou: Describe the VR experience and how/where it can be experienced.

Hank Hine: Donning the Oculus Rift headset and earphones you are inhaled into the imagined landscape of the painting. As you look down, the ground beneath you is real and particular and looking up the horizon provides the joy and sorrow of real distance. The remarkable thing about the terrain mapped by the GS&P team is its accessibility. Wherever you look you go. This is a remarkable experience of empowerment. And the accompanying pleasure is to see so secretly the insides, the towers and the imagined rear of the world Dali describes in paint. I say secretly, because the VR experience is a sequestered one. You feel you are alone in a hidden place with infinite time to explore it.

We've placed three stations equipped with the Oculus Rift and headphones beside the painting that inspired this experience. Visitors can also look onward at those participating in the virtual reality experience via LED screens that show what the user is currently seeing. They are the last stop in a series of rooms that provide paintings, drawings, environments, and films made by these artists. Disney and Dali worked in every medium that would make their vision real and palpable. Had they lived into this era, they would have embraced the tools of virtual reality to make their dreams ever more real.

Lilia Ziamou: What was the inspiration behind Dreams of Dali? Why did you work with Archeological Reminiscence of Millet's Angelus?

Jeff Goodby: Director Hank Hine and the people at The Dali envisioned a show exploring the partnership of Dali and Disney. We tried to imagine an experience that both artists would have endorsed and enjoyed. Our creative team wondered what it would be like to actually step inside a Dali painting. This particular work was chosen because it offered such a great variety of landscape and inviting towers to explore. The painting was created at the height of Dali as a Surrealist. The depth and beauty of this painting offered a myriad of options to explore. The viewer is taken around and behind the two stone spires, across a vast landscape populated by icons from Dali's work like the long-legged elephants and the girl jumping rope. Imagined caves inside the spires hide a dizzying staircase and a hologram of Alice Cooper (who is a fan of Dali and the museum). There is even a tiny city in the distance not apparent without magnification. The project was completed entirely in-house at GS&P. We have been very fortunate to have the intellectual and financial support of The Dali throughout this experience. It is not something most museums would have the boldness to explore and offer to their visitors. And the people at Oculus Rift, and their mother company Facebook, have been generous with their help and encouragement throughout the creation of this installation.

Lilia Ziamou: How does the VR experience enhance the visual experience of the exhibition Disney and Dali: Architects of Imagination?

Hank Hine: After the magic of a VR exploration of Dali's world, we are returned to the old magic of painterly mimesis. The two dimensions that through color, darkness and light pretend to be three dimensions. That is one of the pleasures of VR, to step back out of it. But there is also this. We inhabit a boring timeshare with our imaginations. No matter how vivid what we imagine might be, our imaginings are fleeting. This is our human limitation. Though we may use VR to explore an artist's imagination and take to another level the world the artists propose, as with Dreams of Dali, yet the ultimate use of the medium may be for meditation. One is so clearly and firmly transposed from the pedestrian self, the self that brought us to the VR, that we feel the freedom of quietude and introspection.

Lilia Ziamou: How will VR change the museum experience?

Hank Hine: The VR experience comes at the end of the series of galleries exploring Disney and Dali's similar artistic paths. It is certainly a highlight of the exhibition, and yet the gallery is very quiet, even as people wait their turn to try it out. Museums are a social space. We look at others, hear them, and even as we stand in the palpable awe that an artwork can provoke, we are aware of others. The VR is a kind of cave that takes you out of that space. Brilliantly, GS&P devised a screen that shows the visual experience of the person in VR, and in this way brings other visitors into that moment. In the future, VR will allow a compellingly real visit to a museum by the donning of the headset. How will the technology account for the missing social element? Will you encounter another visitor to Dali's landscape wandering through? Will you communicate, exchange digital addresses? How far will the virtual experience penetrate into that retreating vision we call the real?

Lilia Ziamou: At the New York preview of the VR experience you talked about VR and vulnerability. Can you please elaborate?

Jeff Goodby: There is a vulnerability one feels when approaching the landscapes of Dali, the stories of Disney, and the mechanics of the Oculus Rift. Dali created dreamlike worlds constructed out of stunning admixtures of our daily experiences. They are both familiar yet aggressively strange and foreign to us. Certainly, Disney's Fantasia made use of these same devices. Disney's stories often feature trips into extreme vulnerability and back -- Bambi, Dumbo, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence, all come to mind. Finally, the physical experience of the Oculus Rift, with its complete sensual enclosure, creates extreme vulnerability. Some people actually find it disorienting, as any immersive new world would be at first. As time goes on, I suspect we will embrace such experiences the same way we've embraced movies and video games.