Pictured Above: L-R: Book cover of Brainard’s Reality’s Fugue, Author F. Samuel Brainard, Patron’s experiencing Brainard’s interactive exhibit at New Hope Arts Center. Photo Credits: Contributed, Mandee K. Hammerstein, Arts News Now, Contributed.

From Many, Into One: F. Samuel Brainard on Reality’s Fugue at New Hope Arts

By Louise Feder

Sitting down with F. Samuel Brainard (“Sandy”), in Union Coffee this week, I’m immediately struck by his folder covered in Post-It Notes. “I don’t know much about this new media,” he tells me. “I’m all about sticky notes, I don’t even have a computer with me. There is a way of working with something physical you just can’t get on a screen.”

It’s a surprising comment for one of the co-organizers of an exhibition designed around a virtual reality experience, but given the intriguing apparent contradictions that surround the show, it makes sense. Reality’s Fugue, currently on view at New Hope Arts, investigate questions posed in Brainard’s 2017 book, Reality’s Fugue: Reconciling Worldviews in Philosophy, Religion, and Science, namely, as stated in the exhibition, that, “a puzzle lies at the center of everything we’re aware of,” and that, “It hides the true nature of ourselves and the fundamental nature of the universe we live in. This approach challenges the exclusionist notion that only one worldview can be correct. It presents an alternative mode of understanding using Douglas Hofstadter’s metaphor of a musical fugue. Different ‘voices’ and ‘melodies’ of worldviews coexist in counterpoint and conversation. At the same time, each perspective remains distinct; none is privileged.”

Brainard – who taught at both Temple University and Rutgers University, specializing in the philosophies that undergird various world religions, particularly mystical experiences and enlightenment experiences – is aware that for the average visitor, philosophical theories like those posited by Hofstadter may be somewhat dense and certainly more academic than the usual fare at New Hope Art exhibitions. But, ever the professor, Brainard assures me that the theories behind the work in the Reality’s Fugue show should not be considered daunting. Instead, he hopes visitors approach the work as though they are listening to a story.

Pictured Above: Brainard giving a demonstration during the opening of the Reality’s Fugue exhibition at New Hope Arts Center.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

“It’s very much like being in a book, except in a book your imagination creates the world for you. Here, the goggles surround you… I think it’s another way of looking. It’s another dimension, it heightens the experience. With a painting, there is always a sense of the painting being here and you being over there. But in virtual reality, you’re there. You’re in the world the artist created.”

The exhibition includes a virtual reality experience titled Reality’s Fugue: Genesis, a video by exhibition co-producer and co-director David Tamés (Teaching Professor, Northeastern University College of Arts, Media and Design) on the history of immersive art, and paintings by artists whose work is included in the virtual reality experience (Aurelle Sprout, Carol Cruickshanks, Stacie Speer Scott, and Susanne Davis). Brainard and Tamés state that, “Reality’s Fugue: Genesis immerses participants in a virtual world that provides a new take on the Genesis origin story to illustrate how we create a shared world, and we hope it catalyzes conversation.”

Pictured Above: The Reality’s Fugue exhibition at New Hope Arts Center.  Photo Credit: Contributed.

Brainard tells me that Tamés’ scholarship, “addresses that immersive art has been around since cave paintings, that they were a way to learn about the environment in a new way. And this [ the VR project] is a new way for us to experience the world; it’s very flexible…You have all these different uses for this new technology, which allows you to manipulate this world in ways you would not otherwise be able to do.”

It appears that the technology has been particularly helpful to Brainard in making one of the main themes in his Reality’s Fugue book visible and, by being lived and experience by New Hope Arts visitors, more readily understood.

“One of the themes in the book is that we’re all not only one person, we’re many people at the same time,” he explains to me. “And what I wanted to do with the video – and we had to make many compromises along the way – was have an experience where you’re there all by yourself. And out of the darkness you create light. And then you divide into two, so there are two perspectives, each of which mimics each other. And then you go through this process of one, becoming two, becoming three, becoming four – sort of going through the first four days of Genesis but from a metaphysical sense. In the sense of there is nothing there at all, and then there is a sort of separation between light and dark, and then out of the boundary between light and dark, a new realm is created.”

Pictured Above: L-R: Writer Louise Feder and F. Samuel Brainard during their interview at a local Lambertville coffee house. Photo Credit: Mandee K. Hammerstein for Arts News Now.

It’s a lot to process while the two of us sip our drinks in the busy coffee shop. But Brainard has an easy, conversational way of explaining his work that invites conversation and participation. He’s a pleasure to talk to, and it’s clear that he loves digging into theory and making the complex more easily understood.

“We have a body, where we are physical. But we also have this very abstract realm; we have thoughts, we have minds,” he says with an easy gesture. “In this conversation between the two of us, there is something going on between the two of us, in these words, that is not just my body or your body – it’s in the space between. Something bigger than just one and yet we are each that one. How does this one and many come together? I wanted to play with that. The whole video plays with this notion of one and many, back and forth.”

When I ask him what he hopes visitors experience and take away from the exhibition, he laughs, “Well I hope they have a wonderful time!” But after a moment he adds, “Perhaps they start to think about this notion of being larger than we think we are. The part of it deals with the notion of artists – it starts off with this thing that every piece of art is like a window into the world, where we can expand and become more than ourselves. And it would be great if people just thought about that a bit more.”

 Reality’s Fugue is on view now through February 10th, 2024 at New Hope Arts. New Hope Arts is not taking reservation for viewing the virtual reality experience on the headsets. For future reservations or groups of more than 4, please register with date and approximate time. Gallery hours are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday noon to 5pm.

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