Virtual reality exhibition takes audiences back to the dawn of photography

Mat Collishaw’s ‘Thresholds’ at Somerset House.
©Richard Eaton

This autumn, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, in collaboration with Blain|Southern gallery, is proud to present Thresholds, a new virtual reality artwork by internationally acclaimed artist Mat Collishaw.

Using the latest in VR technology, Collishaw is set to restage one of the world’s first major exhibitions of photography for contemporary audiences. Visitors will travel back in time to 1839, when British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. Fox Talbot lived at Lacock Abbey, now cared for by the National Trust.

The experience will be a full immersive portal to the past; visitors can walk freely throughout a digitally reconstructed room, and be able to touch the bespoke vitrines, fixtures and mouldings; even the heat from a coal fire is recreated. Infrared sensors will track visitors’ movements, creating ghostly avatars that indicate their position and enhance the feeling of travelling through time. Collishaw has also created a soundscape to accompany the exhibition: the demonstrations of the Chartist protesters who rioted in 1839 on the streets of Birmingham, and who can be glimpsed through the digital windows.

Tom Brockington, Senior Visitor Experience Officer at Lacock, said “When we were approached to be part of Mat’s Thresholds exhibition as a host venue, being the birthplace of photography and William Henry Fox Talbot’s former home, we jumped at the opportunity. To bring contemporary art and new technologies to us here at Lacock, replicates the kind of boundaries Talbot was pushing in 1839 and we couldn’t be happier seeing it appear before us in the courtyard of the abbey.”

The original 19th-century exhibition, staged by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, celebrated cutting edge technological innovation. Unfortunately, Fox Talbot’s original images have faded almost beyond recognition with several of the surviving photographs existing only in light-proof vaults. Through Thresholds, this exhibition not only restages an important historical exhibition but provides a way to view images that have since been lost to the public.

Mat Collishaw’s ‘Thresholds’ at Somerset House.
©Richard Eaton

Mat Collishaw said: “I have been looking to work with virtual reality for a number of years and I’m delighted that it has now become a feasible medium for me to use in an artwork. VR’s ability to enable visitors to revisit the birth of photography – a medium that has come to saturate our lives – is uncanny and compelling. It’s also quite appropriate as VR is the total 360 degree immersion of the viewer within an image, and is itself one of the many innovations spawned by the invention of photography.”

In creating Thresholds Collishaw has worked with photographic historian Pete James; Paul Tennent from Nottingham University’s Mixed Reality Laboratory; respected authority on Fox Talbot, Larry Schaaf; Architectural Historian David Blisset; the team at VMI studios and The Whitewall Company, London.

Mat Collishaw: Thresholds is supported by: Colmore Business District, Birmingham City University, King Edward’s School, The Schools of King Edward’s Birmingham, BOM, an Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant, and the exhibition’s touring partners.

Mat Collishaw is one of the UK’s most thought provoking contemporary artists, and the installation will be in place for you to visit from Saturday 16 September – Sunday 29 October 2017. Tickets are available online at nationaltrust.org.uk/lacock

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