The creator of the LGBTQ+ museum in virtual reality, Antonia Forster with a VR headset and the sculpture of Patricia Cronin Memorial to a Marriage. Photo: Courtesy of Fraser.
I stand in an indeterminate liminal zone with a rainbow icon floating before my eyes. Beneath me is the Milky Way, a spectacular astral view that makes our galaxy mere dust in an ocean of stars. For once, this vision is not the result of a nasty dose of acid taken in after the day after the pridebut indeed that of the entrance hall of the first museum in virtual reality Of the history LGBTQ+.
Designed by Antonia Forster — activist, speaker, self-taught coder and once declared one of the Bristol’s most influential people – the LGBTQ+ VR Museum offers a cultural exhibition based on contributions from the queer community, South West England, Denmark and Ghana. Each work consists of a 3D scan of an object, accompanied by a voice message from its owner telling its story and meaning. This is where a nail polish collection becomes an act of defiance, a karaoke microphone an avatar for the community and a copy of John’s RoomJames Baldwin’s novel, a subtle (and failed) attempt at coming out.
Like so many other cultural turning points, Antonia Forster’s museum came to life when she herself couldn’t find one anywhere else. From a cafe in Brislington, Bristol, she tells me she was sure someone else had thought of doing something like this. But that was not the case. At the time in the United Kingdom, there was no museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ (Queer Britain has since opened as a physical museum, where Antonia’s project will make an appearance in July). So she decided to create one.
In addition to wanting to unite the community, the project was also intensely personal. After being invited to speak at an event TEDxTalk in 2017, Antonia realized that in the eyes of her family, her speech constituted her coming out as bisexual and polyamorous. Most of the conversations she’s had with them have gone pretty badly; some, she tells me, turned into blackmail, insults and threats. “I was given a very explicit choice: ‘We will continue to support you, but only if you stay in the closet.’ And I didn’t want to. So my strategy was to become a software engineer.”
“I’ve never seen artwork telling stories of men loving men. If this kind of representations had existed, I’m sure it would have helped me to find myself. And now it does” – Thomas Terkildsen
This initiative provided Antonia with the knowledge and resources to create and access virtual worlds, while empowering her to serve her community. Thomas Terkildsen was among the wave of contributors who answered his call on social media, and it quickly became apparent that his background in development and VR opened up opportunities for deeper collaboration on the project.
“I knew it was a huge project for one person — and looking back, it was also a huge project for two people who, on the side, have a full-time job,” he says. “I remember school trips to museums where I saw paintings of men and women in love. I have never seen any artwork telling stories of men loving men. If this kind of representations had existed, I’m sure it would have helped me to find myself. And now it is. “.
Upon entering the museum, the experience of stepping into an alternate reality transcends the technical beauty of its pristine surfaces and colorful works. This is my first time using a Meta Quest 2 headset, and its immersive quality is frankly enough to convince me I’m about to fall off the step leading to the outdoor garden, multiple times in a row. But what’s truly remarkable is the sense of occupying a queer space that isn’t temporary, when LGBTQ+ events are so often rushed, stuffed into straight bars or mainstream arts venues. This is a space that is entirely dedicated to them, and whose absence in the United Kingdom is sorely felt once the helmet is removed.
Some people have been waiting for this space longer than others. New York artist Patricia Cronin provided a virtual reproduction of the marble statue she created in 2002. Titled ‘Memorial to a Marriage’, it depicts Patricia and her partner Deborah, sealed in a loving embrace after death, at a time when they were still forbidden to marry. It is the first and only monument in the world dedicated to marriage for all. “The challenge of this work was to find a balance between a high level of formal execution and a sharp political protest”, can be heard explaining in the museum. “What I couldn’t have in life, I would have forever in death.”
Twenty years later, while she and Deborah are happily married, she still sees a frustrating lack of visibility for lesbians and the broader LGBTQ+ community. As always, the issue is intersectional: for a Bristol-based project launched the same year as theColston case (where activists toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader), the question of who owns public spaces and how what’s displayed there is decided is more relevant than ever.
“I rarely see my reflection in the heterosexual white male patriarchal culture. And if it happens, it’s through lesbians vanished in a movie trailer or in porn designed by and for straight men, ”explains Patricia Cronin. “So in reaction to not seeing women honored in public monuments and the illegality of same-sex marriage in the United States at the start of the 21st century, I decided to imagine a world where misogyny and homophobia did not exist. »
The artist tells us that she still gives those around her the same advice as in 2002: “If you want permanent public art, you’ll have to buy the land. But she is not patient. “I refuse to wait for the outside world, local and federal municipalities, culture or even the Hollywood art world to validate me. I will do it myself, thank you. I have the radical imagination necessary to deny my absence and insist on my presence with dignity. »
This is perhaps where virtual reality comes in: it makes it possible to create new spaces beyond this stifling and heteronormative dimension. As the fight for gay rights continues IRL, more and more projects are springing up (including the Minecraft Uncensored Library) and allow us to imagine what the future could look like elsewhere. But as the metaverse expands, the term “elsewhere” takes on an increasingly nebulous character.
So far, the reaction from the internet has been as expected. “The two criticisms I tend to get when I do queer activism are either ‘we don’t need this because gay people are treated like everyone else’ or ‘going to die of AIDS’,” explains Antonia. “And I’m like, well man, one cripples the other, right? The tech industry itself isn’t fully inclusive either. “It functions as its own sounding board because it includes, at its core, a biased demographic. I don’t know the stats on queer people, but there are fewer women in the tech industry, for example, and it may be more difficult for them just because there are fewer of them. »
Nevertheless, the museum turns out to be an international success. This month, the project won the prize New Voices to tribeca festival from New York, where the experience had been enhanced with a biometric element — the visitor wore a device with electrodes to measure his heart rate and the conductivity of his skin, which resulted in emotional arousal and a great engagement with the content. In October, Forster and his team will work with the Danish Consulate in New York to create a New York version of the museum, which will be on display at the High Line.
For Antonia, who admits being a fan of Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing games, parallel worlds exist not only to be discovered, they can also be built. And they don’t need to operate by the same rules. “In my opinion, we are still very prisoners of our ideas of what the world could be. These ideas are very narrow, because they are based on the limited vision of our current Western society,” she says. “The concept of VR struck me as pure wizardry — and it still is. I can create anything I dare to imagine, from scratch. It’s real magic, pure conjuration. »
The LGBTQ+ VR Museum is stopping by Tribeca Festival 2022 until July 19.
Matthew Neale is on Twitter.