In this three-part series, experts from different fields explain how immersive technologies can make a real impact on society and business. Artists building virtual worlds, images constantly flowing on AR glasses… What are the possibilities? The second interview features artist Lauren Moffatt, in conversation about VR as a creative medium
by Margherita Concina | 07 Jun, 2021
Lauren Moffatt is an Australian artist who works with a variety of mediums, from performance to videography and immersive technologies. Her piece Image Technology Echoes won first place at the 2020 VR Art Prize, and allows spectators to immerse themselves in the perspectives of two fictional gallery patrons. Through Virtual Reality, Moffatt seeks to bridge the gap between the viewer, the artist and the piece itself
In your Virtual Reality installations, you create spaces and characters for viewers to interact with. Do you think immersive technologies can encourage empathy and connectedness?
Well, that's the theory that I operate on. It’s a little difficult to prove that it's the case, but this potential is what I find interesting about these technologies: That I can create a world that reflects the way I perceive things, or the way a character is experiencing things. I can allow viewers to inhabit that space and maybe allow them to access something they wouldn’t have understood otherwise.
Was it the pandemic that inspired you to explore the theme of connectedness through virtual reality?
The pandemic made me think about my medium and my work in a different way and see it in a new light. It also meant that more people were reflecting on the types of things that I focus on in my work: this interest in subjectivity and embodied perception. But I’d already been working on these themes for some time before the pandemic. Some of the things that I'm exploring in Image Technology Echoes are the resolution of different strains of research that I have been working on for many years. Some of the objects and the digitized drawings and paintings in the piece are from my teenage years and early twenties. For instance, the self-portrait I drew from a subjective point of view was a work I made around 15 years ago.
The term 'Immersive Technologies' covers a range of different technologies which provide you with the experience of being immersed in, or enable you to view or interact with simulated objects and environments. These range from 360-degree photography and video to Virtual and Augmented Reality.
Virtual Reality: Interactive 3D models of digitized environments and simulated spaces. You can engage with experiences through a range of low to high-cost virtual reality headsets. Enable students to explore or test practical skills and decision making within imagined, simulated or inaccessible locations.
What drew you to VR as a medium back then? Did you start your career with VR art?
No – I started with the question of what it is to see the world through from within a body. I began by trying to reproduce embodied perspectives using painting. But the process was taking too long, because I needed to experiment quite a bit, so I started working with small digital cameras and with Photoshop and Final Cut to make video collages. Through those works, I got into stereoscopic 3D filmmaking where two cameras create the illusion of 3D; this was around 2012, when there was a lot of interest in that technology. Since I was working with 3D techniques, and because I'd already spent all of this time thinking about the way that we inhabit and perceive space, it was natural for me to move into Virtual Reality from there. My doorway into VR was when I was invited to the Sundance Film Festival with one of my stereoscopic 3D installations. At Sundance, I met somebody from Oculus, which was still a start-up at that point. They liked my work, and they gave me a development kit which I used to make my first work in cooperation with FACT Liverpool.
What do you think people are drawn to in VR art? What is unique about this medium?
For me, what is special is the opportunity to be immersed in something completely different from where you just were, to access a different dimension. And I find it's special to inhabit a virtual space which an artist has built as self-expression, because they have so much control over everything that surrounds you. This makes the relationship between the author and the audience so intimate. And actually, the connection between the audience and the virtual world itself is very intimate as well, because there's no way to make a tune out of it – it overtakes all of your senses. That makes quite an impression, and also requires a certain amount of trust.
Do you think of immersive technology as a double-edged sword in terms of connection? Because despite this possibility of intimacy, there's a certain escapism in being somewhere that doesn’t correspond to the physical world.
Yeah, I definitely feel that. I don't want to be part of something that's just giving everybody another way to pretend that all of the problems in the world aren't there. This dystopic vision is often shown in science fiction movies or stories. It’s associated with a world where capitalism has completely taken over and people are basically being driven by simulations that they need to be inside all the time. I obviously don't want that, that's not why I'm working with Virtual Reality. The other problem I see is that audiences could eventually become desensitized, like they did with cinema and with TV. At this moment in history, viewers aren't prepared for the special immersive situation that they're put into, so it really affects them. But if VR becomes mainstream, it could be a short-lived thing that virtual environments make such an impression on people.
Could this lead to new forms of trauma porn?
Evangelists of VR feel that it allows people to inhabit the same space as somebody else who’s on the other side of the world, and therefore to empathize with that person, but it can be jarring how problematic these pitches sometimes sound: As if seeing a 360° video of a natural disaster in a developing country from the comfort of my Western life allows me to understand anything about that experience. There is a disconnectedness about some of these ideas that is really troubling.
Despite this, can VR art help the world in the future?
VR gives the artist so much control over the environment. These tools that we have are so incredible, because you can build an entire world. Artists are able to build visions of what they also want to see, optimistic visions that invite people into what's possible. And I find that truly great. For a long time, artists have been outside of the conversation about how things should progress in the world, and I feel like VR could allow creators to use their skills for real change rather than operating at the perimeters of society.