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We have been creating for generations. The earliest examples of visual arts, sculpture or cave-painting date back to prehistory. Innovation, technology and art have always gone hand in hand, as artists develop new styles, techniques or perspectives. In 2017, virtual reality will propel the art creation process in unexpected directions, giving artists more opportunities to interact with their audience and enabling them to create in completely new ways.

Software or applications using technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are growing in popularity, as the recent success of Pokemon Go and PlayStation VR demonstrates. AR and VR are also being embraced beyond the gaming industry, as museum curators and artists start to explore the potential these technologies have to help them better engage with their audiences. Tools like Expeditions, which enables students to take virtual tours of major landmarks and museums using only a smartphone and Google Cardboard, are now directly influencing the democratisation and experience of art.

Virtual creation

VR will have an even more radical impact on the creation of new works of art. It will change the way people make art, giving it a new sense of space and dimension, making it more collaborative and more like a game. With the launch in April 2016 of Tilt Brush, an application using a VR headset and motion-tracking controllers as paintbrushes, Google initiated this revolution. It enables users to paint life-size three-dimensional brush strokes in a virtual space, or in a way, to create a sculpture by painting.

VR transforms the creative experience. Creating in a virtual three-dimensional space helps make the process more intuitive and natural than painting in two dimensions. It also gives the tool great potential to be used as a platform in museums or galleries to create elaborate art installations, such as the 2016 Björk Digital exhibition at Somerset House. The Icelandic artist chose VR because of its unique ability to facilitate interactions between different forms of art - in her case music and visual arts - and between artist and audience.

From January 2017, Royal Academy Schools graduates Adham Faramawy and Elliot Dodd, along with third-year student Jessy Jetpacks, will showcase their virtual works at the Virtually Real exhibition hosted at the Royal Academy of Arts. The exhibition will give visitors the opportunity to relive the creation of the works displayed, as well as create their own virtual art works.

VR opens up possibilities for art creation to become more collaborative and playful, therefore appealing not only to professional artists, but also to amateurs and the audience themselves. Google is, for example, enabling a Tilt Brush multiplayer mode. More generally, artists can experiment with concepts like immersion more easily. Nicola Plant’s Sentient Flux, immerses the user in a virtual space filled with glowing particles that can be interacted with and disturbed through movement. This combination of VR and motion-tracking is key for the artist in exploring the boundary between real and virtual. But this new world of creative possibilities will raise questions around the relationship between traditional and virtual visual arts.

Given the current pace of technological change, issues might arise around the longevity of virtual art. Unless we find systematic ways to move virtual works of art to newer, more advanced platforms as technology changes, they might be lost. Virtual art only exists as long as the technology to support the medium exists. Given the obsolescence of floppy disks, audio tapes and VHS, the question of longevity is a relevant one. If a particular work of art - a movie, a song - is not deemed culturally or commercially significant enough when the support platform changes, there is a strong risk it will be lost.

The technologies behind virtual art will also have an impact on the artists themselves, and the skills needed to build sophisticated installations. The wider range of technical, logistical and artistic skills that might be required will lead to more collaborative, crew-like work, as is common in the film or gaming industry. At the same time, open source movements might allow artists to work together or get involved in the VR space more easily.

Who owns virtual art?

Several of the characteristics of the virtual art creation process will trigger valid concerns around intellectual property. Does the work of art belong to the artist, or does it belong to the technology provider who enabled the realisation of the work of art in the first place? Could the technology provider hold any type of right or license on it? With Tilt Brush for example, while artists own their creations, Google retains a worldwide license to use, create or modify them for the operation, promotion and improvement of their services. Some of these questions remain unanswered as VR for art creation gains momentum among artists.

On the other hand, can a virtual painting or sculpture be stolen, hijacked or pirated? Take the Mona Lisa, for example. In 1911, she disappeared in the hands of Italian thief Vincenzo Peruggia, in maybe one of the most famous heists of all times. In 1919, she was hijacked and given a moustache by French artist Marcel Duchamp, in the memorable L.H.O.O.Q. Both contributed hugely to the painting’s fame. Would this be possible, desirable or not, for a work of art with no material existence? If objects as immaterial as Linden dollars (currency of online virtual world Second Life) can be hacked, there’s a good chance the answer to that question is yes.

VR art will also lead to new questions around the perceived importance and uniqueness of certain creations. About 1.3 million people each year come to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence to see the original and monumental David, however many replicas and by-products of it exist. Virtual art is not damageable or destructible like a sculpture or a canvas might be. While this means no risk of a young boy puncturing a 350-year-old, $1.5 million painting, the uniqueness and cultural significance of a virtual work of art could be questioned if it can be saved, downloaded or reproduced endlessly.

VR will no doubt change the way people produce, as well as the skills needed to create, art. But it won’t destroy traditional visual arts - after all, photography didn’t wipe out painting as an art form. Quite the opposite, it will blur the boundaries between real and virtual and provide new avenues for artistic expression until the next radical art-enabling technologies emerge.