Real violence

Hundreds of people watched a man beaten to death at Whitney, and did nothing.

March 26, 2017 - 4 minute read -
blog art vr

In 1964, 37 people saw Genovese “get knifed to death in a New York street” and didn’t call the police (known as the bystander effect). Today, hundreds of people watched a man beaten to death at Whitney, and didn’t do anything. They couldn’t have, because the beating took place in Virtual Reality (VR).

The artwork, Real Violence, is a 90-second VR video installation at the Whitney Biennial. In the video, the artist Jordan Wolfson played an anonymous man, taking a baseball bat and his feet to the skull and face of the victim repeatedly, with the background sound of Hebrew prayers. Viewers put on a Oculus Rift headset and earphones, and somehow agree to witness this unexplained head-on violence after receiving a warning from the museum staff (see a popular Instagram post below).

No one looks happy after 90 seconds. During the video, the victim makes eye contact with the viewer through presumably built-in eye tracking technology. The technique of making eye contact is not new to the artist, see Female Figure for a creepy robotic sculpture making eye contact with the viewer through facial recognition. However, the gaze amidst the immersion of VR and repetitive sound of baseball bat hitting the skull leaves people in a state of disoriented powerlessness.

It feels so real and there is nothing you can do to stop it.

VR and the Art World

At this point, VR has not only been accepted but also embraced by the art world. In Jan 4, 2017, Google launched an Artist in Residence program (AiR), bringing in graffiti artists, painters, illustrates, graphic designers, dancers, and cartoonists to create art with the painting tool Tilt Brush. In Nov, 2016, the New York Times distributed 1 million Google Cardboard viewer to home-delivery subscribers along with a VR story The Displaced, depicting how war has displaced 30 million children from their homes.

In fact, Chris Milk talked about the birth of virtual reality as an art form in a TED talk last year. He argues that VR is the last medium for storying telling, as it closes the gap between audience and storyteller. He also orchestrated the TED audience to perform the world’s largest collective VR watching together, again using Google Cardboard.

The Science

But why? What’s the science behind VR and why do we feel the way we do in VR? What is VR to begin with?

It turns out that scientists have been asking this questions since the 90s. In a seminal paper in 1992, Defining VR: Dimensions Determining Telepresence, Jonathan Steuer from Stanford Communication Department at the time defined key concepts such as presence, telepresence, vividness and interactivity. Steuer’s paper shifted away our focus on the technological aspects of VR to a definition that is more focused on the human experience.

According to Steuer, presence is defined as the sense of being in an environment; and telepresence is defined as the experience of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium.

Further, Steuer set out two dimensions that influence the human experience of presence, which are: vividness and interactivity. For example, online chat is low in vividness but high in interactivity, while 3D films are high in vividness and low in interactivity (see figure below). In terms of these two dimensions, the artwork, Real Violence is intentionally designed to be high on vividness, and low interactivity, in order to create the sense of passive powerlessness in viewers – there is zero interactivity in fact. There is nothing you can do.

Crime & Law in VR

What can we do then? As we see VR/AR become more and more popular, conversations are starting about crime and legal issues in VR.

Law scholars Mark Lemley and Eugene Volokh recently submitted a draft of a new article, Law, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality. In one section, the authors discussed potential “street crimes” in VR, including disturbing the peace, indecent exposure, strobe lighting, and virtual groping. VR will pose challenges on the current law and policing system.

Finally, there is the question of whether the violence portrayed in the artwork is implying something about our current political climate. I’ll leave that to you to decide.


  1. A History of Violence: Jordan Wolfson on His Shocking Foray into VR at the Whitney Biennial
  2. Confronting the “Shocking” Virtual-Reality Artwork at the Whitney Biennial
  3. The Gut-Wrenching VR Work That’s Got the Art World Talking about Violence
  4. “The Work Is Repellant”: All the Horrified Reactions to Jordan Wolfson’s Ultraviolent VR Art at the Whitney Biennial