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Arts & Culture

Between Lived Experience and Simulated Presence

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Clara Jo is an artist-in-residence at King’s College London. Working in collaboration with Dr. Lucia Valmaggia, Head of Virtual Reality Lab at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience (IoPPN), and Dr. Sarah Atkinson, Head of Department, Culture, Media and Creative Industries (CMCI), Clara will be resident in the Departments of Psychology and CMCI to pursue a project exploring memory, empathy, and embodiment through virtual reality. The project became one of the pop-up projects launched in The REACH (Research & Engagement in the Arts, Culture, and Humanities) Space, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Institute.

Although virtual reality (VR) in gaming is becoming widespread due to hardware accessibility and commercial benefits, the lack of critical discourse about VR free from issues of market value in the arts drives Clara's research project.

The project, Between lived experience and simulated presence, aims to develop a VR prototype that explores the impact of digital integration and creation on clinical research. This will be the first iteration of a more comprehensive artwork. The project seeks to uncover and expand the possibilities of VR and immersive cinematic environments to engage with clinical approaches to memory, empathy, and embodiment.

The Virtual Reality Lab at the IoPPN develops VR treatment environments to assess and treat mental health problems. Drawing on the virtual environments created by the VR Lab, the team's prototype will engage with participants' personal experiences of sensory and perceptual shifts.

By creating an artistic narrative around these shifts, they hope to release the prototype online in collaboration with REACH-XR, a virtual version of the REACH Space, which will be used as the basis for public engagement workshops (or co-inquiry sessions) that invite new interdisciplinary, trans-regional dialogue between art and science in the UK, France, and Germany. The goal is that anyone will be able to use this prototype at home on their mobile devices, the advantage of which is that it is a more accessible, experimental, and content-driven way of conversing with the public. These workshops will facilitate new models of engagement through practice that are both inclusive and reflexive, in order to feedback into the artist’s own working methodology and to introduce additional layers of collaboration. The team also hopes that these workshops will be used to connect with teaching within both the Psychology and Arts & Humanities Departments as alternative learning models to engage in creative projects beyond students’ formal curricula.

The project seeks to enable individuals to identify and strengthen the social and emotional skills needed to tackle these issues in real life. Audiences will be granted agency to manipulate, interact and play with the narratives proposed to them by the prototype. The project also aspires to reduce stigma around mental health conditions by encouraging users to reconsider preconceived notions of mental health by assessing their creative potentials.

Phase 1

The artist conducted research in the REACH Space in early 2020 before lockdown and is now working remotely in Germany and France. While in London, she worked between the IoPPN campus in Denmark Hill and the REACH Space on the Strand. In Denmark Hill, she worked closely with Dr. Valmaggia and colleagues at the VR Lab to demo new software packages. The REACH Space was invaluable to hold meetings with King’s faculty and researchers working at the juncture of immersive technology and the arts, mental health foundations to discuss public engagement opportunities, the REACH Space and King’s Culture teams about future planning, and the King’s technical staff for guidance. She also participated in courses and lectures offered through CMCI.

While in London, she also held initial meetings with service users about possibilities for collaboratively creating the prototype, and also participated in external conferences organized by Immerse UK. It was invaluable to be able to conduct Phase 1 in London and participate in the city’s lively and cutting-edge research culture.

The artist’s research during Phase 1 focused on the innovative potential of VR-assisted therapy in terms of treatment. With VR-assisted therapy, clinicians can observe emotional and physical responses in real-time within controlled environments, as opposed to asking service users to recall previous experiences in a more talk-therapy style.

The artist is continuing research remotely in Germany and France. She is currently working with service users and clinicians who have demoed the VR Lab Environments, and interviewing them to learn more about their personal stories and thoughts regarding the potentials of VR-assisted Therapy. The artist has expanded the scope of the project to provide insight into psychosocial isolation through social exchange in the digital realm. She has also presented new project research during the VR Special Interest group meeting on 3 February 2021.

The artist is also currently developing an interactive storyboard for the prototype that explores these different experiences and stories. She is focusing on developing the player-character dynamic and interactive space for the player to explore. She is also trying to find ways to build these different inner worlds and possible character choices to change outcomes. She will follow an open world format which gives the player the sense that they can explore anywhere they choose.

The artist is currently tackling some exciting challenges, asking questions about the possibilities of working with scientific inquiry within the art context. What are the boundaries and overlaps, and can it evolve?


Clara Jo

Clara Jo is an artist based in Berlin. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Institut für Raumexperimente / UdK Berlin. Clara has exhibited her work both nationally at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, as well as internationally at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Savvy Contemporary, and Akademie der Künste in Berlin, and the Alliance Ethio-Française d’Addis-Abeba, Ethiopia.

Since 2020, she is a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart. In 2018, she received the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. She was the recipient of the 2015-2016 Starr Fellowship at the RA Schools, and 2016-2017 (in)versions Residency at SPACE Art + Technology, both in London.

Dr. Lucia Valmaggia

Dr. Lucia Valmaggia is a Reader in Clinical Psychology and Digital Mental Health at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience. She leads the Virtual Reality Lab and is a Hon. Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.

Her work focuses on the prevention and early detection of mental health problems, particularly psychosis. She has extensive experience in service implementation in the community and set up the first service for the prevention and early detection of psychosis in a prison setting. She conducts experimental studies using virtual reality to explore the effects of adverse life experiences on the appraisal of social situations. She leads clinical studies to evaluate virtual reality-assisted assessment and treatment.

Dr. Sarah Atkinson

Dr. Sarah Atkinson is the Head of Culture, Media and Creative Industries in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. Sarah is co-editor of Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.

Sarah has published widely on the impacts of digital technologies on film, cinema & media audiences, and screen production practices & industries. Sarah has undertaken extensive work into the Live Cinema economy. She is currently working on several funded immersive media projects including a Virtual Reality diversity initiative, a project which explores artificial intelligence and conversational interactivity in games, and ‘XR Circus’ which brings together circus artists with immersive technologists.

Project status: Ongoing


  • virtual
  • reality
  • social
  • and
  • emotional
  • skills