A theatrical multi-media installation based on real life sources that probes the relationship between the real and the virtual in response to the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
What is it?
Desert Rain is an artwork by the British artists collective Blast Theory combining elements of performance, installation and virtual reality. The centerpiece is the war game Desert Rain which is part of a performance in an extensive physical setting, including a Virtual Reality environment. The topic is the 1990-1991 Gulf War which triggered questions about the intricate relation between the real and the virtual in the context of modern warfare and mass media.
How does it work?
Desert Rain is a mixed-reality performance for six participants in a carefully scripted sequence of physical spaces.
First, in the darkened ante-chamber, the participants get instructions. Then they are led to U-shaped cubicles, where they enter the virtual world of the war game projected onto a "screen" of water spray.
Here, the players have 20 minutes to capture their allocated targets in desert landscapes, bunkers and motels.
Once the game is over, the participants are asked to step through the rain curtain - to mark the transition from the virtual to the real world - and proceed along a sand corridor to a reconstructed motel room, where they are confronted with the real identities and experiences of their targets.
Among these targets were for instance a BBC journalist and this soldier, who the audience met through prerecorded video interviews on a television.
Technology and software tools
Desert Rain creates a collaborative virtual environment where communication and interaction between participants is made possible by virtual reality software and collaborative virtual environments.
The technical infrastructure includes a range of innovative technological devices.
These include the projection on the technologically driven water curtains-cum-screens; a pressure-sensitive footpad to navigate the 3D world; headphones for live audio links and feedback; and a magnetic card which stores crucial information and activates the various technologies. In the computer space behind the cubicles, technicians monitor the players without them always being aware of it.
Why did they make it?
Desert Rain is a critical response to the Gulf War as represented by mass media. While live television claimed to provide direct access to real events in the war zone, audiences had the feeling that "the more you watched, the less you knew."
"Gulf War did not take place"
In Blast Theory's words: "The media, advertising and the entertainment industries were casually misleading at best and perniciously deceptive at worst."
Desert Rain also takes a stand against philosopher Jean Baudrillard's position that the "Gulf War did not take place" which basically reduced the war to a grand simulation scheme while ignoring the real and devastating effects on the ground.
With Desert Rain, Blast Theory reconstructs the war in a collaborative virtual and physical environment, aiming to make the intersections and gaps between both worlds more concrete and to allow participants to experience them through immersion.
Why did we select it?
Desert Rain can be seen as a forerunner of immersive forms of journalism today, which recreate news events and situate participants inside virtual environments, such as Second Life, CAVE, and online virtual worlds and games.
'The real intrudes upon the virtual and vice versa'
Triggered by the media coverage of Gulf War I, Blast Theory explores the boundaries between the real and the virtual war by juxtaposing the two realms in one installation, where "the real intrudes upon the virtual and vice versa."
In tune with the reflexive tradition of modern art, Blast Theory's work critically questions the bombardment of images by CNN, BBC, and other media companies during Gulf War I, which foreclosed experience and objective information.
Blast Theory's mixed reality installation is an artistic form of journalism that offers a thoughtful alternative to the representation of the war in broadcast media.
Also see our case description of Gone Gitmo and Hunger in LA by Nonny de la Peña.
Blast Theory also made "Fixing Point" an audio walk in the woods that traces the legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The Refugee Challenge by British newspaper The Guardian invites readers to confront the choices real refugees have to make, in order to better understand what it’s like to look for a safe haven in Fortress Europe.