Essay
Tom Crago Materials / Gorillaz Plastic Beach
Rachel Pakula

Presented at the NGV's 2017 Triennial, Tom Crago's VR game Materials allows the player to explore an empty ship through the mediation of virtual reality goggles and a hand-held remote. Wandering in total solitude, players collect glowing fragments from areas all over the ship, able to explore cavernous rooms and gaze in wonder at the heaving ocean outside the ship.

I went to visit the Triennial with two friends. Knowing that VR can often make the user feel motion sick, I went into the booth feeling determined to play for as long as I could. I stepped into the game and felt myself surrounded by an image of the Gorillaz' Plastic Beach. My old friend Ella and I both agree that while Demon Days is the best album, Plastic Beach is our favourite.


Ella was the first person to show me how long life can feel, how a relationship can want to last forever but forever just drags on to the point where you want to just watch it go up in flames already, I'm impatient, can't wait, don't want to know what comes after. Forever is a terribly long time. If it was shorter, there would be less opportunity for things to go wrong.


I wandered through the ship, thinking about Ella and our favourite album, how good Ella was at video games, how I didn't really know what I was doing in them, didn't know now which glowing bit of something I was supposed to go for first, what if I missed something important? Ella wasn't there to tell me.


In her work A Field Guide to Getting Lost, author Rebecca Solnit returns many times to "the blue of distance" - it is the title of every second chapter. Blue is the colour of distant horizons where the sea fades into the sky, space far from the atmosphere of our earth, tree-covered mountains transpiring water into the clouds. I often used to ask my friends a question when on a drive out of Melbourne, when mountains far away were visible. If you look at the mountains far away, and have this feeling that you want to go up into the mountains, be in those mountains, would you realise once you were there that you were in that space, that atmosphere that you longed for? Or would you not be able to see or feel whatever it was you saw or felt in those mountains from the distance? It is a question based on a fairly standard idea, but I think one of the answers is that from so close up in the mountains, you wouldn't be able to see the blue.


In the few years after high school, my group of friends made several trips to the Ocean Grove beach house of our friend Nick’s aunty. We would make trips to the local Coles for ingredients for our favourite cocktails, breakfasts and usually a big spaghetti bolognese. And at any time of day or night that took our fancy, we would take the 5-10 minute walk to the beach. Ella was on these trips with us, as well as my boyfriend and a best friend of the time. I almost think I should have known it wouldn’t last because they were both much too cool to dance with me to any song from Plastic Beach - except for Ella. But Ella and I didn’t last either. The second I think about the beach at Ocean Grove, the sun goes down, lights appear in the sea and "Superfast Jellyfish" ricochets through my head.


Around this time, my parents bought a house on the other side of the city, and at 18 years old, myself the child and them the parents, I had to go with them. Away from this group of friends, I found myself in bed with a sense of immense loss, as we surely and too-rapidly fell apart. Eventually, I found walking to be the best way to make my new home. Walking along Toolern Creek, I was able to finally feel that I had my own place in the town where I didn't want to be and felt that I had nothing of my past life. Not only did I find belonging and comfort, I found a place to share with those who cared to see it. With each step, a new motion began in my mind, repetitive action drawing focus, and external stimuli of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch grounding me in the present.


In Crago's Materials, orange light filters through the boards of the ship from an overcast sky, much like the orange sky and sea on the album cover and music videos of Gorillaz' Plastic Beach. As I quietly and peacefully made my way through the orange scenes, I remember feeling somewhat near a meditative or contemplative state, akin to how I feel after some time walking, making peace with my body and taking steps laying down string to unravel the static in my head. Walking in nature, for example along waterways around which parks and walking trails are usually constructed, a walker may choose to look at the close-at-hand, or gaze out to the horizon, wandering, yes, but with some sense of purpose to reach a destination, or the closing of a circuit. Everything is as far away as you can expect it to be, but in VR and video games, there is no guarantee of trustworthy physics - and surrounded by orange, without a blue horizon, everything simply feels so close. The closeness allows our sensitivities and our proprioceptive awareness in the extremities of both body and sensation to construct feeling and affect within the experience of gameplay. With the specificity and physicality of walking and its meditative effects on thought process, Materials could not quite make par, but there is something more important at stake with Materials. Without Crago's work, I would not have had the opportunity to take what felt like a very literal walk through a memory. Every moment associated with Ella and Plastic Beach is now intrinsically linked with my memories of meditative walking in VR - I only wish now that I could do it again.


It seems that everything is telling me this time in my life is over; of the people around me now, not one of them was on that beach, not one of them saw what happened, not one of them knows that place in my memory. Every day I move further away from that summer, the possibility of my returning to the beach house at Ocean's Grove becomes slimmer and slimmer and the taste of Midori gets more and more bitter, unable to be diluted with lemonade or pineapple juice. (Just thinking about it makes me nauseous).


Time is dragging me along by my hair. I think, soon, it's time I get up and walk. Not yet - but soon.