The title of Richard Brown's installation 'Alembic', refers directly to a kind of vessel used by alchemists for the purposes of distillation, ultimately for transmuting base matter into gold. Although a complex and multifaceted subject, alchemy, as a form of inquiry/experiment practised between the 11th and 17thC, could be viewed as a precursor of modern chemistry, but also as embodying the fundamental precepts of artistic activity, i.e. the manipulation of media and material in questioning accepted understanding of reality. Likewise, it is the dissolution of the divisions between art and science, that Brown has always sought to achieve, or rather to positively combine such seemingly opposed practices.
Central to the ideas forming 'Alembic', is the challenge to our acceptance of a Cartesian model of space/reality and its representation through traditional Renaissance perspective and Euclidean geometry i.e. that the shortest distance between two points is a line, parallel lines never meet etc. More specifically, it is the use of these traditional modes employed by creators of Virtual Reality to represent form and space that Brown seeks to actively question. Such a challenge has been made throughout the evolution of modernism, beginning with the Cubists, some of whom were well versed in the principles of non-Euclidean geometry, through the depiction of objects in space from multiple viewpoints in a single picture plane. Furthermore, an integral aspect of this line of exploration is the concept of the fourth dimension, in simple terms that the third dimension is the shadow cast by a four dimensional 'object'. The fourth dimension has also been popularly understood as being time, first put forward by H.G.Wells in The Time Machine (1895).
Marcel Duchamp, after 1912, was actively engaged with ideas relating to higher dimensions which he explored in works such as the 'Large Glass', pointing towards highly cerebral alternative modes of representation. However an essential problem in trying to realise multi-dimensional ideas artistically is the obvious limitation of working with physical media. Kandinsky, amongst other artist, reached this impasse, stating
"Since matter was dissolving, it is futile to represent the material aspect of the world of painting - could art dispense altogether with its material media? A purely immaterial medium of artistic expression."
Such restraints of the physical world only now seem no longer to apply with the advent of Virtual Reality. Whilst the creation of animated, interactive three-dimensional forms without physical restrictions are evidently possible in VR, as a medium it is still reliant on the traditional models of representation already mentioned. These are extremely useful for disciplines such as architecture, but for the creation of artistic 'unrealities' prove to be severely limiting.
In 'Alembic', Brown has sought to overcome these constraints through the creation of Dynamic Form, virtual form that can change shape and appearance interactively in the dimensions of space, time and energy. He states,
"The concept of Dynamic Form challenges the assumptions of static VR objects by redefining form as a process of energy relationships between points in space. Time equates to changes in space, whilst energy effects this rate of change. The concept of a fourth dimension I suggest is embedded in the relationship between the dimensions of space, time and energy. This fourth dimension represents a "hyper-process" that describes and controls the energy relationships between points in space, which in turn define the appearance of Dynamic Form."
Here, the digital floor projection represents the contents of a simulated alembic which contains the base matter of Dynamic Form, abstractions of the four alchemical elements of fire, earth, air and water. Energy created by the movement of the viewer via electric field sensors influences the dynamics of the elements that make up the form. Thus the viewer in the installation effectively takes on the role of alchemist, creating their own reality.
In the installation, Brown has not only presented us with a polar view of space instead of a Cartesian co-ordinate perspective, but has hopefully encouraged in the interactive viewer a sense of mystery and magic, a sense of the beyond, a spiritual depth that is often absent in the cool rationality of much electronic art. 'Alembic' points to the application of VR in exploring our understanding of reality itself instead of just simulating it, as the artist himself says,
"We should try and look forward to the creation of worlds that are of our imagination, for creative expression and abstraction rather than simply recreating the mundane."
John Hewitt, Bonington Gallery, March 1997.