Review: Uncertain Data: a brief meditation at FACT

^ Yambe Tam Deep Dive (2021). Installation view at FACT. Courtesy of the artist. ©Rob Battersby

Uncertain Data:
a brief meditation at FACT

So, you know how mindfulness is a way to force yourself to relax? I know that’s dumbing it down, but stay with me. And you know how having your forehead wet wiped before you’re strapped into an incredibly heavy VR headset isn’t relaxing? Yeah – that normal feeling. I still don’t understand how I left FACT feeling relaxed, but the mini installation of their online exhibition, Uncertain Data, just sort of baffled me into meditation.

I loved it by the way. I know I’m rambling, and it sounds like an odd experience but that’s because it was. The show is a celebration of what mixed media really means now, without ever really saying that.

I don’t think anyone can get away with calling multiple paint techniques mixed media these days, because it’s been taken over by VR, digital, immersive installation and audio inserts into otherwise traditional art forms.

©Rob Battersby

Uncertain data is an exhibition by four artists in residence, all focussed on the trust we place in data; all putting themselves in positions which manipulate that trust. Yambe Tam, whose work took that trust most literally, created Deep Dive.

Deep Dive felt like a performance, which I’m unsure how willing the invigilators were to be involved in, but it set the tone for a VR experience I’ve never quite had before.

So let’s start – I never fit VR headsets properly, because my glasses don’t fit in them. So I either need to hold them awkwardly, or experience a colourful VR blur. I elected for holding them awkwardly at FACT, because it seemed important to see stuff. Once I’d made that decision I was told to wet wipe my head (which was apparently for COVID safety, but I think the invigilator was just offended by the sweat beads from my power walk to the gallery). While cleaning my head, I was told that the way to get the most from the experience was to try to fully relax, as sensors on the headset allowed me to sink deeper into the game the lower my heart rate sank.

Then I realised how heavy the headset was. This was going to be a long slog, but I was determined, and by this point, utterly unrelaxed. So on went the headset, up went my hands to hold it in place, and down went my heart rate as I slowed my breathing, and just tried to go with it. It took a few minutes for me to go anywhere, but once it began I was addicted. I didn’t want to leave.

Every so often a new light appeared below me, pulling me through floating effervescent algae, past sharks, whales, and shoals of fish. The audio kind of pushed through the water in that hollow way it does when you’re washing your hair.

I was completely involved, but still really ware of my glasses pressing on the bridge of my nose. So I stopped myself again, and focussed on my breathing, and sunk down again into the game.

Another few minutes of sinking and I’d forgotten about my glasses, the headset, my arms, everything.

This was something outside of mindfulness, and despite my head’s best attempts to stop me, I managed to sink into a genuinely deep meditation under the waves. I was lost for a while, and when I reached the end I just sat down, and enjoyed it. Breathing slower, thinking less, and caring less. Just sitting.

Because it had been such a labour intensive process to get there I felt like I was part of the work, and just as responsible for my own meditation as the artist. Which made meant I walked out of FACT with my head held high, feeling like I’d worked somehow in collaboration with the artist, Yambe Tam, on my own mediation.

Of course, the skill was all hers, having created everything about it. The trust placed in her, in this instance was actual, and lived by her audience. A perfect summary of what FACT were aiming for with Uncertain Data.

©Rob Battersby

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith
Uncertain Data runs at FACT until 3rd October