Last week we headed to Pittsburgh for Art&&Code: Weird Reality. It was a symposium hosted by Golan Levin at CMU on “new and independent head-mounted art and code.” These were a few of my favorite things:
Ditching the Empathy Story
“If you are standing in someone else’s shoes… you took their shoes.” – Wendy H.K. Chun
Wendy H.K. Chun, a new media theorist and professor of modern culture at Brown University, gave a nuanced talk disempowering the persistent empathy machine talk that has afixed itself to nearly every article and conversation about VR. Chun argued that systems which we tend to call empathetic often replace the other with the self and since that ‘self’ is usually a white person turns people of color in to objects to be occupied (using the example of a research project which had white participants play a black avatar who witnesses the shooting of another black character). The talk showed how this kind of hollowing out is not new but has extensive connections to how empathy has been induced historically (esp. in relationship slave narratives) by centering whiteness.
The Craft Box
There’s clear correlation between a conference providing a craft box full of fun art supplies and a conference being full of interesting people
— M Eifler (@blinkpopshift) October 11, 2016
Seriously though. They had holographic stickers! What?! I’m putting this in my rider: all conferences must has craft box. Here’s all the drawings I made during the event.
History is totally a thing
And Brenda Laurel is its President in Chief.
Laurel’s talk explored the past and present of three challenges facing the medium: 1, If we want to give people agency in immersive synthetic spaces, what constitutes a life-like choice?; 2, How does dramatic experience form within this medium?; and 3, What is the relationship between capability and intent? The talk explored how in activated immersive art tension over time (the basic way we graph narrative arc) could be thought of as a probability field with any one users experience collapsing those possibilities into a dramatic arc or plot. The talk finished with a call: “Use VR to fall in love with the world in a new way.”
All the WebVR
So much webVR happened. Andrea eased people in with a My-first-webVR workshop. Cindy Sherman-Bishop showed off VRdoodler, a web based drawing tool my favorite part of which is that you can import any 3D model as a surface to draw on. Ricardo Cabello, creator of Three.JS, walked people through workflows. There was even a workshop on webVR for Unity lovers. So much!
One vs Many
There was a lot of worry in the community that the headsets makes the medium to individualistic. The most blatant manifestation of this is of course everyone’s favorite part of any VR showcase: lines. Many projects shown and talked about did fall into the waiting-around-for-isolation-in-the-new-world category but there were a few stand outs. Ken Perlin and his team showed a live demo their gearVR + motion tracking system for multi-user co-located immersive experiences. My favorite part of their system is that it so obviously lowers play inhibitions in adults (but more about this in the next section).
My own performance falls into this category. I had the entire audience watch a spherical video on all of their phones while simultaneously narrating in person. The piece was meant to activate a group audience by dividing their attention by sense, keeping their eyes focused on their individual experience of the virtual world while at the same time having them share a communal auditory experience.
Like a kid again
Rebuilding childhood is totally trending right now. Claire Hentschker built a entire world with a child collaborator using hand drawn maps, characters made using Sculpt+ and animated with motion capture. It is a fantastical, imaginative, silly, beautiful place. Sarah Rothberg reconstructed a childhood home and realized, once inside, that the spatialness of the reconstruction triggered memories that pictures and videos did not. Vi spoke of the project Clem and Toto, a VR reconstruction of an website made with a cousin when they were 12.
I’m chewing on a theory that this is because head mounted immersion lowers inhibitions to play in users. I noticed it quite strongly in Ken Perlin’s presentation. Participants were each in a headset sharing both the same virtual space and physical space. But the “blindness” of the headset got people playing very quickly. No other participant could see your actual body so there was no embarrassment. I need to play with this idea more before it will be filled out.
The semantic struggle lives on
Both in conversation and onstage it came up again and again: What words should we be using for all this stuff anyway? What counts as virtual reality? Is it nothing short of fully traversable, fully interactive computational spaces? Should we even use that phrase? Does it matter what we call it? Salome Asega mentioned a project that went so far as to ask people on Taskrabbit: “Dear anonymous internet worker, Define Virtual.” Brenda Laurel defined the space as art and systems which facilitate “human action in representational worlds” and then “presents to participants the results of their body acting in the synthetic world.”
The answer? Lack of consensus continues, and good thing too cause I have yet to convince every single human that I am right and that ‘immersive media’ is the best semantics ever, forever.
VR as a Costume
Many of the artists showed not just virtual spaces but the connected apparatus they’d made for each virtual space. Martha Hipley created a custom VR headset which looks like a pink 90’s girl phone. Salome Asega showed VR enabled masks which, emulating african diaspora spiritual traditions, become a kind of spirit possession, letting the viewer see from the spirit’s eyes. Laura Juo-Hsin Chen’s handmade headsets even incorporate unusual physical controls like chewing and smiling.
“MASK is a collection of virtual reality wearables inspired by communication difficulties” by Laura Juo-Hsin Chen
Beyond customized headsets, Jeremy Bailey showed a nail art museum: an augmented reality performance using a Leap Motion to make fingers into plinths topped with randomized 3D art ‘thumbnails’. Wiggle your fingers and get a whole new collection of pieces. Inspired by the recent flurry of tech companies applying their patents to our bodies Bailey has begun patenting performances like the nail art museum.
Interface Elephantiasis by M Eifler, Digital drawing on handheld screen, 2015
We are so team!
We got so many lovely compliments on the teamfulness of our team while at Art&&Code. It’s really nice when you are used to something (and take it a bit for granted) but then others point it out to you. Also did y’all see our superb new team picture? It’s the best.