Video still for Desert Rain Audience memberAudience memberAudience memberPerformerDesert Rain graphic

A game, an installation and a performance placing you in a collaborative virtual environment and sending you on a mission into a virtual world.

Desert Rain is a war game. Six players at a time suit up and go into the virtual desert which is video projected onto water spray.  It is our first collaboration with the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham. In a world where Gulf War images echo Hollywood images, where Norman Schwarzkopf blurs into Arnold Schwarzenegger, Desert Rain looks for the feint line between the real and the fictional.

A video graphic from Desert Rain

Standing on a footplate and zipped into a cubicle, each of the six team members explores motels, deserts and underground bunkers, communicating with each other within the virtual world . . . a world projected onto a screen of falling water. You have 30 minutes to find the target, complete the mission, and get to the final room, where others may have a very different idea of what actually happened out there.

one of the most complex and powerful responses to the first Gulf War to be produced within the sphere of theatrical practice.
Gabriella Giannachi
Virtual Theatres

Desert Rain is a collaboration between Blast Theory and the Mixed Reality Lab, University of Nottingham.  It was originally co-commissioned by Contemporary Archives and ZKM Centre for Arts & Media (Karlsruhe, Germany) in association with DA2 (Bristol) and KTH (Stockholm, Sweden).  It is supported by the Arts Council of England and the European Commission’s Kaleidoscope Fund for NOWninety9.

It was nominated for an Interactive Arts BAFTA Award in 2000 and received an Honorary Mention at the Transmediale Awards in 2001. It has toured internationally including the UK, Central and Eastern Europe and Australia with support from the British Council.

Conceptual Background

Desert Rain uses a combination of virtual reality, installation and performance to problematise the boundary between the real and the virtual. It places participants in a Collaborative Virtual Environment in which the real intrudes upon the virtual and vice versa. It uses the real, the imaginary, the fictional and the virtual side by side and juxtaposes these elements as a means of defining them.

The piece is influenced by Jean Baudrillard’s assertion that the Gulf War did not take place because it was in fact a virtual event. Whilst remaining deeply suspicious of this kind of theoretical position Blast Theory recognise that this idea touches upon a crucial shift in our perception and understanding of the world around us. It asserts that the role of the media, advertising and of the entertainment industries in the presentation of events is casually misleading at best and perniciously deceptive at worst. As Paul Patton says in an essay about Baudrillard, “the sense in which Baudrillard speaks of events as virtual is related to the idea that real events lose their identity when they attain the velocity of real time information, or to employ another metaphor, when they become encrusted with the information which represents them.”

In this sense, while televisual information claims to provide immediate access to real events, in fact what it does is produce informational events which stand in for the real, and which “inform” public opinion which in turn affects the course of subsequent events, both real and informational. As consumers of mass media, we never experience the bare material event but only the informational coating which renders it “sticky and unintelligible like the oil soaked sea bird”.

This reference to the “oil soaked sea bird” as an icon that stands in for the reality of an oil spill (and which, in effect, distracts attention from and even masks entirely the real complexity and significance of the events surrounding an oil spill), gives a direct example of the ways in which these processes affect us every day.

While these ideas form the backdrop to Desert Rain the piece is not intended to be a demonstration of this theory merely to accept its significance in informing our view of the relationship of the real to the virtual and especially in its assertion that the virtual has a daily presence in our lives.

Indeed we also have a great interest in those who have coruscatingly attacked Baudrillard’s ideas as “absurd theses” which are “ill equipped to mount any kind of effective critical resistance”The role of the cinema, particularly Hollywood, in this process is also important. As a vehicle for dreams, aspirations and fantasies, films play a major role in affecting our self image and as a source of inspiration.

The key motif of the individual overcoming all odds to triumph is a touchstone for our culture and has an impact on real life. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Norman Schwarzkopf both exemplify certain aspects of leadership, for example, and each draws on the attributes of the other.

Desert Rain therefore attempts to bring visitors to a new understanding of the ways in which the virtual and the real are blurred and, in particular, the role of the mass media in distorting our appraisal of the world beyond our own personal experience.

I can guarantee that you will come out changed and humbled…utterly gripping…a brilliantly judged experience
The Scotsman


On arrival, six visitors at a time enter a small antechamber. They are given a magnetic swipe card of a person they must find. They leave their coats and bags and put on hooded black jackets. The visitors are then lead in total darkness into the next space. Each visitor finds themself standing on a foot pad. In front of them is a rain screen, 4 metres across, which provides a surface of fine water spray which holds the projected image of a virtual world. The visitor begins alone in an American motel room.

Reaching the apparent safety of an underground network of bunkers and tunnels, the visitors come face to face with performers, fragments of the Gulf War and each other. If they successfully find their target a performer emerges through the water screen and hands them a magnetic swipe card.

The final virtual space is a vast underground hangar containing a floating field of numbers, all of which are estimates of Iraqi casualties. As the visitors push their way through the densely packed numbers they reach the exit. Only if all six visitors escape together has their mission been a success.

Having left the virtual world and crossed through the water screens, the visitors find the exit corridor is blocked by a large pile of sand. Having climbed up the sand and down the other side they reach the final room of the installation. The walls of the final room are full scale photographs of the walls of an English hotel room. The room contains no objects apart from a magnetic card reader and a monitor cut into the wall exactly where the television is in the hotel room.

As each visitor swipes their card, their target appears on a monitor sitting in the very same hotel room. Each of the six targets has had their life changed by the Gulf War in some way: as a soldier, a journalist, a peaceworker, an actor or a passive spectator. They talk about their relationship to the events, their proximity to them and how ‘real’ it felt. On leaving, the visitors collect their coats and bags. At some point later they will discover a small bag of sand concealed in their coat or bag. The bag contains approximately 100,000 grains.

one of the most successful and advanced digital performances of the late 90s… a seminal experimental production fusing the technological complexity of hard science skills with a truly original artistic vision.
Steve Dixon
Digital Performance

Tagged with
Related Projects