Featured Collaboration: Brookline Interactive Group’s Kathy Bisbee and Artist Nathan Miner

If you haven’t heard, HUBweek’s fourth annual Collaboration Call is now open! Since we have collaboration on the brain, we caught up with Kathy Bisbee, executive director of the Brookline Interactive Group (BIG) and co-founder of the Public VR Lab, and Nathan Miner, a Boston-based interdisciplinary artist and the Lab/BIG’s first artist in residence, to talk about their collaboration that originated when the two met at HUBweek 2017.

To start out, Nathan, can you provide a bit of background on your artistic practice, and Kathy, on your work with the Brookline Interactive Group?

Nathan: In school at [the Rhode Island School of Design] I was really looking for an interdisciplinary education, and found that my history as a photographer, painter, and printmaker, as well as the ideas I had at the time for projects [directed me toward] sculpture. [After graduation] I was using my skills as a fabricator to build furniture and design functional objects for different people, for some clients like Lenny Kravitz! I was focusing on fabrication during the day, and on developing my painting practice in the evening. Later, I began to experiment with combining various aspects of my fabrication skills with the painting side and with my interest in technology. And what I developed over the subsequent 10 years was a very elaborate process that combines photography, digital printmaking, fabrication, and painting to the point of creating large, immersive scale installations. The space of augmented reality and virtual reality opens up a tremendous new dimension of possibilities for this immersive art landscape, which is very exciting for me.

Kathy: I come from a documentary filmmaking background and a community organizing background, and I spent 13 years in Silicon Valley. I’m focused on using media and technology to organize collaborative projects in the public interest. But I’ll start with the Brookline Interactive Group — it’s a community media arts center, and we’ve been around for 35 years as a community media hub and incubator. We come from this long tradition of public access television, civic engagement, and have been providing community access to media, technology, creative projects, and facilitating community dialogue. So, the kind of work we’ve transitioned into is very much in alignment with our past, to move into the incubation of artists and helping cross-pollinate interdisciplinary media art projects, which lend themselves really well to collaboration, especially cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Two and a half years ago we started the Public VR Lab, which was initially a way that we could bring the same kind of public access to training and equipment into the AR and VR space that we have offered in the traditional media space.We’ve completed eight different projects in the public interest — as an example, we partnered with the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and Datavized to create a global air pollution XR experience that we were invited to demo to world leaders in Nairobi, Kenya. Now we’re working on a national project — Immigration in Full Frame. We have 15 partners that are participating in capturing stories of immigrants in their communities and putting it on a VR/XR timeline from 1620 to 2018 to show the breadth of American diaspora.

What was the vision for the BIG artist-in-residence program?

K: I definitely feel like we co-created [the artist-in-residence program] together. And it’s still a work in progress. With Nathan, he approached us and we felt like there was a really good fit for the kind of work he was wanting to do and the needs that he had as an artist. When we met Nathan at HUBweek last year, we saw his art and vision fit well into the program we were hoping to develop as the artist-in-residence program, which provides technology, equipment, training, and having access to our expertise and our staff who can guide the process along the way. And then additionally, being able to collaborate on funding opportunities and distribution opportunities. And so I think as we were working together we really started to think of new ways we can invite people to collaborate further, that for me also informs how were going to be shifting and promoting the program in the fall, which will be both the artist residency and a fellowship program. So it really has enabled us to understand how to put the new program together, and blend it with our traditional public access work.

N: I was so excited and happy when I did approach you to find out that you’d been thinking about this for a while, and looking for someone to explore the needs and the dynamics of supporting someone new in this area.

Nathan, how has working with BIG shaped your artistic practice? And Kathy, how has your view of what’s possible with VR changed since working with Nathan?

N: Starting using Kathy’s direction and some of the staff at BIG and getting my hands dirty and feet wet in [the AR/VR] environments has allowed me to begin exploring a project that I thought of a few years ago, and to really flesh it out in virtual reality to a degree that now I can take the next steps and reach out to even more collaborators.

The project was conceived as a virtual world that also has a physical reality, so a hybrid art installation. The overall concept is called The Eye of Time. The idea of time has been a big player in the conceptual side of the paintings I’ve been making, in particular wanting to make works that change how people think about their own orientation to time, to push back against the immediacy of the now, and to open up the space of the moment into a more contemplative space. I feel like there’s a kind of social detriment, a cultural detriment, to how people view the world: We tend to look at things in order to figure out what they are as quickly as possible then move on to the next thing. There’s a great difference between that and how we listen to a piece of music or experience a poem, and I’m interested in making visual art experiences that behave and operate experientially more like a piece of music or a poem, and have a durational, experiential openness to them. We often see people charging through museums holding up their cellphones and taking pictures of all the paintings, but knowing that there’s now AR technology available that can actually make an opening within that desire to use their technology as an interface with the world as we all do, but to use it in a more positive way that can leverage that desire and pivot it into durational experience of the work by actually engaging AR.

Thinking about immersive environments I’ve made as artworks and then looking forward to creating the next piece I make as a 360-degree panoramic arena artwork that then also has dimensions, multiple other dimensions of itself in VR. That’s the basic concept behind the The Eye of Time — there is an arena with gates, with the idea that the gates can lead to other virtual worlds, and that from these virtual worlds I will also create actual paintings that become the kind of jumping-off point to reach those worlds. Two things being created in tandem, side by side in the real and virtual world, back and forth, informing one another.

I started working on a very different version of The Eye of Time last year for the 2017 HUBweek call for art, and in my dialogue with Leonie [Bradbury, HUBweek’s Director of Art and Creative Initiatives] about the project she encouraged me to continue working on it for this year. So in a way HUBweek became a kind of atmospheric backdrop for my imagination and a way to focus my attention on a pure space of raw possibility. HUBweek and the field of collaborative possibility it engenders was a game-changer in the background of my thinking about what this work could become, and because of HUBweek’s stature, respect, and recognition, all the collaborators I engaged over the course of the last year, and BIG in particular, also deeply knew and believed in this atmosphere of possibility.

K: I love the way that Nathan brings his physical art skills into the 3D space, and how willing he was to jump into and explore that space. And I also love what he’s saying about blending realities. I think VR/XR is ripe for this kind of artistic expression. Because some of the best examples of both art and experiences in VR put the person experiencing the art or the blended reality or the VR inside of the poem in a way, continuing Nathan’s analogy to poetry. It’s harder to be not present inside VR because you’re so focused on being inside of the experience, and it forces you to be present in a way that maybe walking through a museum, for some people, they’re not as present. But when you’re actually inside the experience or inside the poem, or you’re part of the poem, this medium opens a lot of doors for creative expression for artists. And I think that is really exciting for both artists and people who want to experience things they’ve never experienced before.

For us, working with Nathan and being involved with HUBweek in general has inspired us to think about opportunities to assist artists, cultivate new creators, and support artists like Nathan who are already exploring emerging media. In the last year we’ve shifted to add a more artistic focus to our program, so instead of seeing ourselves as solely community media or public access television, we’re really shifted how we think about our organization in part because of these collaborations. So, for example this year instead of just having our 11-day Film Sprint, we added screenwriting and podcasting and became more creative than our public access television mission perhaps has been in the past. By affiliating and doing projects with artists, it’s inspiring to us to think about ways to add stronger artistic focus to more of our programs as well, and that’s really happened this year in part because of our collaboration with HUBweek and with Nathan. We’re also excited about what this means for community media, how traditional public access television stations can introduce VR as new form of facilitating public dialogue and nurturing creative expression to youth and adults of all ages and backgrounds.

What are the hallmarks of a good collaboration?

K: I try to explain to my staff and colleagues, “here’s how you do collaboration” and it’s so hard to break it down sometimes. You have a conversation with somebody, understand their needs, what they’re doing and are excited about, and look for ways there can be a synergy or mutual benefit to working together. Sometimes there is not and sometimes there is, and sometimes that person leads you to yet another person. It’s not linear. It takes the right people, too, because it takes a willingness and openness on both sides as part of a collaboration, and a commitment to each other to make sure the collaboration works.

One of the things that we definitely are also trying to do is help support other community media centers so that they can do the same kind of work in their communities. We’re trying to build a national movement and field for Community VR/XR. The idea is to make sure that these media centers can move into the XR space, since it gives them this tremendous opportunity to attract new funders and new creators, and be able to have partnerships with folks like Nathan who can come in and use the resources in different ways than we have traditionally. And so it’s a really great way for us to build a national field to enable this work to happen all over the country, and it’s super cool that it started in Boston. And I feel that HUBweek has enabled us to leverage those opportunities further both with artistic collaboration but also just building the credibility of our organization and field of community media — having partnered with the United Nations, Hubweek, the STAT News team and the Boston Globe last year, and being able to do that work helped us leverage other resources. Our community of Brookline people knew that HUBweek was doing really cool things and that we were involved with them. And so I think for us it’s been a wonderful opportunity not just to leverage those local and regional partnerships but also to meet talented, participatory artists with whom we share public interest values and can collaborate, like Nathan, because of HUBweek.

N: I want to echo the openness point, and reiterate my gratitude for your openness and cultivating that — it’s what BIG (and the Public VR Lab) is fundamentally about: supporting the community and being open for people to explore. The other thought that I had about collaboration — there’s the basic way that you often think about collaboration, which is bringing different skill sets together to accomplish a predetermined goal. That comes into play, but it is less interesting, at least to me. The really interesting part is when you get “radical collaboration,” and that’s when you bring disparate pieces, skill sets together, or perspectives, and then discover what it is you’re going to work on in the process of a dialogue. And for me, and in the interest of cultivating more openness in the viewership to work I make, it’s also been important to explore openness in creative process and to surrender to a state of not necessarily knowing what’s going to come out of engaging with people. It takes an initial concept to get the ball rolling, and then hopefully if the collaboration is really rich it ends up somewhere you never could have conceived of on your own.

Kathy Bisbee is the executive director of the Brookline Interactive Group (BIG), a community media arts center based in Brookline, MA. She is also the co-founder of Public VR Lab, a project of Brookline Interactive and an initiative supporting public emerging media literacy, training, and the production of locally-focused, globally impactful VR/XR experiences in the public interest.

Nathan Miner is a Boston-based interdisciplinary artist. Combining photography, painting, printmaking, industrial fabrication, and digital media, he creates immersive-scale paintings and environments that have been exhibited throughout New England and New York and reviewed by major publications. He is also the first ever artist in residence at the Brookline Interactive Group.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

HUBweek is a yearlong initiative and annual innovation festival that was founded by The Boston Globe, Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT. HUBweek explores the future being built at the intersections of art, science, and technology.