Nine Minutes with Marshmallow Laser Feast

Using cutting-edge technology, Marshmallow Laser Feast are on a mission to push the boundaries of art, science and technology to bring us mind-blowing virtual reality experiences such as their latest installation, We Live in an Ocean of Air, which is currently exhibiting at SALON at Saatchi Gallery.

Incorporating breath sensors, heart rate monitors, scent dispersal systems and wind machines, this new multisensory experience beautifully reveals the invisible but fundamental connections between the human and natural worlds. With each exhale of your breath, the very essence of life is seen before you, while all around nature explodes in breathtaking light and colour.

We sat down with Marshmallow Laser Feast’s Barnaby Steel to hear more about the creation of We Live in an Ocean of Air.

What is the inspiration behind We Live in an Ocean of Air? How does it differ from previous Marshmallow Laser Feast projects?

What the plants are quietly exhaling we are breathing in and what we exhale, the plants are breathing in. This is a commonly known fact but whose profound nature is too rarely reflected upon. It is the desire to reconnect people to these moments of everyday wonder that drives our work; a fusing of technological innovation and curiosity in the natural sciences.

Our previous work, Treehugger: Wawona, invited audiences into a virtual giant sequoia grove to trace a water molecule’s journey from root to canopy. Returning to this world, participants in We Live in an Ocean of Air will become integral to the cycle of oxygen and carbon dioxide, a multi-sensory journey that traces the inhalation through lung, heart and body; and the exhalation, as their breath brings life to the forest around them, with human and tree united in one collective rhythm.

Behind each project must be a hugely collaborative process. Do you find that each of you brings something different to the team in terms of experience and skills?

Scientists are like scalpels cutting deep into the fabric of reality, probing the limits of what can be observed and measured. We kind of peer over their shoulders and ask questions which inspires our work. Richard Feynman got it right when he said ‘a scientific understanding only ever adds to wonder, it never subtracts.’ We really believe this.

The process of making an immersive experience is a combination of many talented people, each with their very unique skill for tickling the senses. We have Mileece L’Anson, a sonic and installation artist, who created the unique organic, electronic soundscape from biometric data captured from plants. Grace Boyle, a multi-sensory designer, who crafted a scent scape to tickle the nostrils. She worked with an array of fans and scent dispersal systems that all triggered in time with the virtual world. There is Natan Sinigaglia, a real time graphics mastermind who can massage pixels into the most organic flowing forms… The list goes on. It’s worth mentioning our sponsors, Vive have the best VR gear on the market and their expanded tracking system combined with HP backpack PC’s meant we could break away from cables and free roam within a large space. In the end we had 12 people all sharing an experience…next year we might start a roller disco.

There are so many different technologies involved in this new experience including heart rate monitors and breath sensors. What was the technical process of creating such a multi-sensory installation as We Live in an Ocean of Air?

Science has illuminated what our five senses cannot: that we are a part of nature and not independent from it. Knowing this is different from experiencing it and what is unique about immersive technology is that we can simulate experiences that no human has ever, or could ever have. In doing so we offer a glimpse of that broader reality unavailable to our senses.

“As the crickets’ soft autumn hum is to us so are we to the trees as are they to the rocks and the hills.” Gary Snyder

In what sense do you find the boundaries between art, technology and science are blurring?

I don’t see any boundaries, it’s all part of the rich gloop of existence. Artist’s and technology are peas in a pod, whether clay, oil paint, language or film, the technology is a medium for creation. All of the tech we play with allows us to sculpt the senses – in a way we are moulding perception.

Do you feel as artists that you are responsible for encouraging debate on important topics such as environmentalism?

We are just open, sponging up juicy puddles of inspiration and squirting it into people’s eyeballs through VR headsets in the hope their eyes never see the world the same way again.

Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and our manmade technology. We have become detached from nature and our trajectory looks set for increased urbanisation. Satis Kumar puts forward a view that we hold dear: “To be able to have deep experience in nature we have to touch the soil, walk in the woods, swim in the sea, watch the clouds and celebrate the sunset. Only from such deep experiences can a deep commitment to respect and care for nature arise. Only then can we move from consumerism to conservation.” We asked the question, can you have such a deep experience of nature through virtual reality, and I think the answer is yes… But it’s not the same, in the same way a photo isn’t reality.

“Nature is not our enemy, to be raped and conquered. Nature is ourselves, to be cherished and explored.” ― Terence McKenna

What do you hope visitors will learn and come away with from experiencing We Live in an Ocean of Air?

We talk a lot about what happens when you take the headset off. Our experiences are designed not as an escape from reality but to reconnect participants to reality, to make visible the broader spectrum of the world beyond the limits of our senses. With We Live in an Ocean of Air, our hope would be that at least for a few breaths people will pause to consider that the air we breathe connects us intimately to other beings we share the planet with. It asks the question where do you end and where does the tree begin?

One of our science advisors Merlin Sheldrake said: ‘We are not individuals. Nothing is, everything from our cells upwards, is a symbiosis: an enmeshed and embodied network of relationships.’ A wonderful root through to the realisation that everything is connected.

Do you have any other exciting projects coming up next?

The plan is to tour We Live in an Ocean of Air to major cities over the next two years and to begin work on the next chapter of the experience ’the wood wide web’ – the social network of the forest. That experience begins by simulating death… which becomes the ingredient for new life to grow. Over the next five years we will add new perspectives to this forest ecosystem including an encounter with a photon of light – the spark of cosmic energy that powers all of life on earth – photosynthesis.

We have a piece at Sundance in collaboration with the BFI called Sweet Dreams, which is a multi-sensory dining experience that explores the relationship of taste to the other senses. The piece asks the question ‘can we taste in our dreams?’ and delves into theme of the debt to desire.

We are also unveiling a large-scale light and sound installation called NEST that will be live at Lloyds Park (Waltham Forest) on the 11th -12th January from 18:00 – 21:30. The piece has been developed in collaboration with Erland Cooper and commissioned by London Borough of Culture.

We Live in an Ocean of Air is open at SALON at Saatchi Gallery until 20 January 2019. Tickets are £20 (£15 concs) and can be booked via www.oceanofair.com.

Stay up-to-date with Marshmallow Laser Feast on www.instagram.com/marshmallowlaserfeast.

For more information about the exhibition: www.saatchigallery.com/art/salon_009.php.