I have always had trouble finding a subject matter to make paintings and drawings about, even though I’ve always known how I would want them to “feel” compositionally and emotionally. A couple of years ago, after feeling frustrated at my inability to find a subject matter to draw from, I found myself collecting seemingly random objects and rearranging them on my studio wall inside of an empty wooden frame. At around the same time, I was reading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score and learning about the psychosomatic effects of flashbacks, memories and emotions on the body. One current theory about the existence of flashbacks is that they are memories that were initially stored “unnaturally” or “improperly”, because sometimes the brain is too overwhelmed with stimuli to process events logically and methodically. As a result, when we experience flashbacks, we usually just recall isolated sensations: single images, sounds and emotions that seem disconnected from time or context, and so end up feeling present and confusing. Looking at the objects I was collecting and collaging in my studio at the time, it occurred to me that they were actually representations of my own flashback images, and that perhaps I was attempting to somehow ‘reframe’ them by literally arranging them in different ways on my wall.
Reframing objects from my memories on my studio wall
This realization was liberating because it finally gave me a subject matter for creating visual art. However, it was still difficult for me to work up the energy and emotional strength (or access to all the resources), to create or collect these ‘flashback objects’ to rearrange in my small studio. Recently, I was temporarily given access to a larger studio and scrap materials where I was able to push this method of art making further, and I found it productive to have a lot of space and breathing room to make a large mess in. The extra space let me lay out all the objects and engage my body in rearranging them over and over, intuitively and automatically.
Returning home from the residency, I came back to feeling limited, yet again lacking the energy and means to gather lots of objects and materials, and to find a large enough space to “think in” with my body. Then, I remembered Vi’s and M’s recent VR projects in Anyland that felt extremely spatial and full of objects. I decided to make my own art studio in Anyland, to see if I could recreate the conditions to make objects and rearrange them in there in a virtual way. I immediately found that it felt less intimidating, less frustrating, and technically easier to gather these resources virtually instead of in real life. In my new VR studio, the first thing I made was an “infinitely” long wall and floor, and a little desk with a speaker to play ambient music. Then I re-created a birthday cake slice from my flashbacks.
Recreating a birthday cake slice in Anyland
Since my flashbacks have been a repeating occurrence throughout my life, I always think of them in multiples or copies. So, immediately after making a single cake slice, I created many copies of it, which was much easier in my VR studio than it’s ever been in any of my real life studios.
Cake slice copies in the long studio
After populating the studio with lots of cake slices, I started re-coloring them to mimic how my flashbacks feel different from recall to recall. Then, I was finally inspired to rearrange them into sculptural arrangements intuitively, with the added bonus of not having to worry much about structural integrity (which reminded me of the experience of building a sculpture in AR). Making copies, resizing and rearranging the objects was so immediate and easy in VR that I found myself working very quickly and excitedly. It didn’t take very long to sketch out some arrangements that started feeling good to me. Here is a 2-minute video tour my VR studio after a couple of these sculpture-arranging sessions:
I wanted to see and feel these sculptures in real life, so the quickest thing I could do was to take screenshots and print them out on a black and white laser printer.
Laser prints of Anyland studio screenshots
I was really happy with the prints and immediately started imagining printmaking, painting and collaging techniques to use on them. Wanting to work quickly, however, I first tested quick collages back on the computer in Adobe Photoshop:
Collaging VR cake sculptures in Photoshop
At this point, I realized that I was actually creating the artworks that I had always been after, because the collages were beginning to have the emotional resonance I had been aiming for. I was surprised that the process of sketching in VR finally made it easier for me to get there. There is something about being able to work with my flashback imagery in a quick and easy way in VR that feels generative. I think one reason for this is the ease of embodied creation, replication and manipulation of objects in three-dimensional space that VR offers. Another reason might be that, somehow, VR felt like a safe in-between space between my mentally buried memories and flashbacks, and the very tangible and inflexible real world. My Anyland VR studio feels like the right mix between mental image and external representation. Somehow, with this fully visually-immersive VR, it felt like I was actually reaching into my mind and manipulating my flashbacks more directly than I had ever been able to before. It felt therapeutic, private, productive and comfortable all at the same time.
Further collaging and experimenting with the imagery with markers, ink transfers and Photoshop
I’d like to continue to build out my studio of memories in VR, taking more screenshots and pushing the imagery further into physical paintings, screen prints or even 3D prints. I am also curious to see if there are memory-based drawing and painting techniques that already exist in the real world that I can also borrow in VR. For now, though, I hope to continue spending time in there and just see what other mental imagery VR can help me rethink, reorient and reframe.