There should be no doubts about the relevance of immersive media for decades to come. As humanity continues to document and express its experience on planet earth, from the depths of caves and cave paintings to today, it is only natural that a rich and potent medium like VR, or other forms of virtual space experiences, become future playground for artists, programmers, designers and explorers alike. I think the potential of VR as a medium, to explore storytelling and narratives from a first-person perspective, constitutes a paradigm shift in storytelling in general, and opens up for the use of new narrative devices, potentially based in immersive computer games that have already to some extend explored these first-person storytelling tools, to emerge as part of our expressive vocabulary for the contemporary human experience. This not only opens up a portal into highly inspiring and potentially life-changing spiritual experiences, but also new forms of connecting with human and non-human beings all over the world.
I also believe that the use of the game engine offers a major opportunity in form of unexplored artistic possibilities, from connecting people from anywhere in virtual spaces, to letting users interact with personified AI, to redefining the theatre and art installation space; the modern game engine offers a vast new playground which easily adapts to a wide variety of contemporary and future social and artistic contexts. The engine's potential to combine, connect and synchronize audio, text, visual information, video, 3d animation, immersive simulation elements and user control and agency, in form of sensors or controllers, make it one of the most compelling contemporary artistic multimedia tools. In a world where big tech companies and consumer marketability increasingly defines areas of technological advancements and modern aesthetics and values, it becomes paramount that transgressive and creative use of modern immersive mediums, like the game engine, is encouraged and explored.
Building and dynamically enriching our language for virtual experiences will only add to the complexity and understanding of our current human experience, fragmented, dynamic and manifold as it is, as we continue to observe and act on new major shifts in society, technology and our global mindsets at faster and faster pace.
If we think about the overall processes that will shape our near future the most, socially, technologically and politically, I believe that simulation in general, from a landscape architect's simulation of new residential planning in VR, to medical simulations predicting viruses and vaccines, to performance training and optimization in virtual environments, to global market predictions, climate and ecological predictions, and simulation as a form of immersive entertainment, will increasingly dominate the future of the modern human in years to come. Especially in the field between simulation and AI, where we already see interesting developments both in the integration of AI agents in virtual environments, but also virtual simulation environments used to train AI, I see the potential of big innovations with major social impacts happening rather sooner than later.
I therefore also believe that the integration of AI and simulation environments in the art of tomorrow is not just important, but necessary, as we through art have the power to explore and define the language and values needed to have a meaningful discourse about big changes happening, for now and the future. If we analyze how children learn about and define their world, one way of looking at it would be to say that they constantly simulate adult life, exploring roles, rules and limitations in continuous play. Who says this shouldn't apply to adults, and our collective future as well?
Music, writing and theatre are forms of collective storytelling, and therefore ancient simulation environments, forms for playing out fictional possibilities without the potential risk of loss or failure. Music may be a storytelling form of special consideration here, as it has the (theoretical) power to transcend the physical realm, and if we speculatively bypass the idea of the instrument, it can immerse a listener in a world formed by purely harmonic, melodic and rhythmic relationships. These relationships are all mathematical at their core, and therefore could be considered somewhat fundamental to every (human) experience.
Music or not, I believe that any form of storytelling at its base (which through its inner rhythm and morphology always could be considered having musical properties), can be relevant and has the power to profoundly inspire and change us on both conscious and subconscious levels. I also believe that modern storytelling needs to be consciously adapted to modern forms and mediums, which may be differently paced and shaped than the forms of the past. Nevertheless, the human being of today had ancestors that were able to survive harsh environments due to their ability to adapt to new situations, collaborate in groups, and evaluate and reorganize their social structure, and I believe that these deeply integrated human features also lend us to respond well to certain narrative archetypes and base structures, as for instance the 'Hero's Journey' or other narrative models based in transformation and bringing subconscious ideas into the conscious.
Global climate change, market collapse, mass immigration and nuclear war all are contemporary examples of themes too vast and complex for the individual to fathom, just like life after death, the meaning of life and the question of creation of the world remain questions too big and complex for for the individual to answer. I think that immersive mediums in conjunction with AI-powered intelligence may be able to offer some valuable and new perspectives on these questions, and let us have more nuanced, informed and personal ideas of what these vast themes and problems may constitute. Being able to confront such themes on an experiential level, through for instance immersive modeling or simulation, may improve our inner plasticity and ability to consciously adjust to new ideas, scientific discoveries and societal changes. As we increasingly continue to live on the internet, on social media, inside virtual environments, chat rooms, forums, communicating with human and non-human agents around the world, like Siri, smart homes, helper bots, AI-agents and so on, our personal identities are becoming increasingly fragmented and complex, always changing in conjunction with the mediums and technological contexts we interact with on a day-to day basis. In wake of a dying age of hyper-individualism and mass-capitalism, it becomes increasingly important to question what constitutes the modern human being, and whether something like a collective intelligence, a nature intelligence, a cosmic intelligence or artificial intelligence is something we can and/or want to identify with. How do we describe the 'I', the 'you' and the 'we' in a society where these terms mean increasingly different things in different (virtual) contexts? Who am 'I' when I embody an avatar in an online virtual space, and how does this context impact the sum of parts I call 'me'? As McKenzie Wark subtly puts it in 'Gamer Theory': “What do we look like from [game]space? What do we look like to [game]space? Surely we resemble a Beckettian assemblage of abstracted functions more than we do a holistic organism connected to a great chain of being. As games players, we are merely a set of directional impulses (up, down, left, right) [...] Gamespace is an end in itself."
The virtual space is the playground of the future, where we can explore and discover perspectives, ideas and characteristics new to the contemporary human experience; our relationships with the interconnected other and the fragmented self.
AURAE, exhibition by Sabrina Ratté. She says this about the exhibition: "Aurae brings together many of my works, past and recent, in large-scale installations that include videos, sculptures, prints, virtual reality, architecture as well as an interactive installation. The pieces are organized in the space in order to create a journey through different “units of ambiances”. The visitor becomes an actor or actress in the space. It is a large ensemble of immersive architectures and landscapes, questioning the physical separation between two realities." Ratté's sublime use of immersive and 3d-powered media in interplay with the physical installation space, creates a dynamic environment where the relations between the human, post-human, technology, nature, creation and decay are explored. I would claim that an exhibition like this, in inviting the visitor into a place so ambiguously situated between multiple realities, constitutes a modern temple, a place where a contemporary spiritual experience is made possible.
If I should pinpoint a main value statement that pervades AFTERLIFE and this text, it must be the advocacy for imaginative and fantasy-based aesthetics in technology-driven artworks and pieces. Fantasy here is not used to refer to the fantasy-genre or anything relating to that, but refers to the powers of imagination - to conceive of, shape, realize and share original ideas in a given realm or playground. Whether abstract or figurative, conceptually or intuitively motivated, I strongly believe that the manifold imaginative and visionary powers of human (and machine) imagination should be harnessed and explored to their fullest potential (=extremes) in any medium or form.
In terms of technology-driven art and aesthetics, I say this in terms of counter-acting the realism-based aesthetic so often fronted by big tech corporations and game development studios. As a virtual environment's most banale and ethically lowest measure of value, we find it's realistic rendition of the world - it's 'objective' portrayal of nature, physics, culture, people and ideas, and its obscuring of the medium itself in the process. For a game developer, it is wonderfully tempting to proclaim, 'look at this incredibly photorealistic rendition of a real place we've modeled inside the engine', which implies that that which constitutes the imaginative, creative, 'magical' and personal is lost. Advances in photorealism and 'objectivity' may be useful for scientific simulations, and may impress big investors and conservative gamers (I would claim that all 'objective', i.e. made-to-reflect-the-masses'-shared-filtering-of-reality renderings of the world are inherently conservative), but reflect no artistic or experiential value-judgement. Unfortunately, realism as a value statement is overemphasized by game development and tech companies in their constant hunt for defeating their competitors with higher and higher degrees of accurate portrayals of the irl world. It is maybe in this over-emphasis on tech innovation for tech innovation's sake, and the very loss of the imaginative and creative in the game development world, that we can explain the last couple of years' surge of a digital nostalgia aesthetic - a new generation of kids melancholically mourning a pixelated, overly saturated, bit-crushed and imperfect digital experience that existed long before they were even born on this planet. I attribute my own obsession with games such as 'Deus Ex' to this same nostalgic sentiment - my love for the stylized, imperfect, politically incorrect, awkwardly memorable characters, environments and interfaces I spent hours engaging with.
I think the value-judgement here does not necessarily have anything to to with the idea of 'things were better in the past', or the notion that something is forever lost, but I think it has to do with engaging with an artwork that overtly (and maybe transparently and awkwardly) exposes the characteristics inherent of its medium - thus making the medium itself felt and experienced. Brian Eno puts it quite well in 'A Year with Swollen Appendices':
"Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit - all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them."
I think what is cherished and missed is the profound impact of the uncorrected, pure medium in its biased rendering of a world. And I think this feeling of an uncorrected medium, utilized and accepted in it's imperfection, with it's weaknesses creatively turned into it's strong characteristics by smart artists, should be explored, also in modern tech-powered works. It does not have to belong to the domain of retro and nostalgia, it can be explored in completely modern works of the future. In fact, in referring to Eno's statement above, I think it is in the communication of a story, an energy, a statement or a force too powerful to be rendered without the medium being pushed to its limits and characteristically colouring its content, that some sort of truth or something of universal value can be defined, both on an individual and on a collective level.
My favourite kind of artwork must be the kind of work that opens up a portal and transports me into a completely different world. Immersed in a different reality, I can forget who I was, disintegrate, and when I come back to the real world, I get a chance to reconfigure and put myself back together. I think this kind of transformation is only possible with the intelligent and profound organization and composition of elements that let the work tap into the deep subconscious. Only in accessing the subconscious, that which lies beneath the surface, can a piece or an artwork setting truly make a personal difference. And I think to do so, we need to tap into the supernatural, the extreme, the over-the-top, the sublime, that in us which may go beyond generations and has an archetypical quality. Carl Jung may have called that 'Magic'. We need to tap into the inner workings of our bodies and of our subconscious, and intelligently 'hack' the brain's ability to individually filter and reduce objective experiences into subjective psychological and physical memories. If we reduce our memories to the core, what are the main attributes that constitute a memory after a lived situation? Which aspects of reality do we cherish and value? Which aspects of reality play around in the depths of our subconscious, which aspects of reality are repressed as fear?
I don't think realism in art has the power to profoundly change someone. I don't think high-quality, accurate renditions of places I can recognize from the real world will do. I don't think method acting or characters acting from a psychologically realistic causality can get really deep. If we want to engage and enthrall someone, I personally think we need to make links and connections to reality as we collectively refer to it, but then we need to descend into the unknown - into the depths of the subconscious. What constitutes this shared reality is forever changing, and will fluctuate between the shared abstractions of it, i.e. culture, as constantly redefined by artists pushing new mediums to their limits and exposing universal frontiers of human expression, and a human experience's only perceptible constant, nature, forever in cyclical evolution, but constantly indifferent to human culture and society. It is in the process itself of starting off in a shared idea of the world, and then diving into the subsurface, subconscious world of distilled symbols and archetypes, that I think we find the most powerful stories. I think heavily stylized and unrealistic characters and symbols must be employed to evoke the inner working of the subconscious psyche. And I think the constant re-evaluation, the process of repeatedly comparing reality as it is experienced in its day-to-day rawness or bluntness, with an inner subconscious reality brought into the conscious by stories, exchange with other personal accounts of experiences, the subjective portrayal of memories and of lived situations in their exaggeration and stylization, that a possibility for deep personal change and transformation is invited.
In AFTERLIFE, I make use of characters based in modern culture as symbolic representatives of deeper character archetypes. A good example is the Oracle character, that looks like a Pokémon, has an ASMR-inspired voice and playfully adopts a guardian character archetype (the Oracle holds the key to the underworld, and is persuaded to give it away when the main characters have convinced the Oracle of their search's urgency). These characters are all situated in environments that refer to archetypical natural environments. It is in the clash of symbols and archetypes that something interesting emerges. I use (opposing) symbols (i.e. heavy simplifications and subjective filterings of natural phenomena or characteristics) as tools for portraying complex question or ideas. My characters and environments are all unrealistic, but they have attributes that are recognizable and derived from our contemporary, commonly shared (culture-nature) reality. Other artists may use a higher or lower degree of abstraction in their pieces, potentially reflecting their subjective bias or narrative need for weighting in a culture-nature dichotomy. I respond well to symbols and the figurative, and I respond well to abstracted renditions of nature, and to maintain a feel of personal integrity, this is reflected in the work. On stage, the medium is openly exposed. The sensors and computers are clearly visible, and it is obvious from the moment the performers enter, that the video projected, is generated inside a running computer game universe, which is interacting with the stage-performer environment. The nature, affordances and limitations of the game engine permeate every aspect of the piece, from the storytelling choices, to the character attributes, to the dialogue jargon. I want you to feel the impact of a history of games and gamer culture, not just as a creative re-imagining of a music-theatre artistic context, but as a substantial cultural reference point for an entire generation, a world of its own, with power and relevance today. I want the technology itself and the machinery of the piece to open up a portal to this world, in which something intangible is made tangible, where something resting in our collective unconscious can be addressed openly and playfully.
Personally, venturing into the world of AFTERLIFE was a risky and challenging step, but one that has come with many personal rewards. Although I think there are many things that can be done differently (and better) in future pieces, I am very grateful for the experience of having completed a work of such volume and complexity, and for contributing with a personal and profound art piece in a growing environment of multimedia pieces based in games and simulation. I am extremely excited about the multitude of new and interesting artworks that emerge as we continue to see game engines and immersive technology become more widespread and generally accessible. Not only have very supportive and helpful online-communities grown around these technological tools, but new subcultures and subgenres based in love for unconventional aesthetics and storytelling modes are developing and growing. The VR headset is slowly becoming an art gallery standard, and I am thrilled to see the impact on mainstream culture if VR and virtual immersive simulation environments become a standard medium in the modern household. It is however increasingly important that creators and artists around the world hold their own standards high in competition with major game development companies and big tech firms. The last thing we want is a homogenization of the game genre and the use of the game engine medium - as this would effectively hinder the inherent potentials of the medium to bloom fully in the future. Play should not only happen within the constraints of the medium, but also with it.