Theo Triantafyllidis: Studio Visit

by Jonathan Velardi

“Check out my new studio. It’s a cool space. I like working here. I brought in my stuff and my tools. Finally, I have enough room to make things”, declares a larger than life figure of endomorphic stature. Brawny, busty and brazen in a competition bikini; bicep bands and shin guards complete the fantasy-look with an electric blue ponytail. This is Ork. And this is no ordinary studio visit. “I’m acting out a persona of an Ork artist”, explainsTheo Triantafyllidis, the human behind the humanoid.

‘Studio Visit, 2018‘ — Site specific mixed reality installation. Courtesy of the artist

Triantafyllidis is an artist and architect based in Los Angeles. Having studied architecture in Athens, Greece, he completed a Design Media Arts MFA in 2016 at UCLA, where he continues to teach his experimental approach to Virtual Reality technology. The artist, who hasn’t been shy about depicting himself in VR — ‘Self Portrait (Interior)’, 2016 — is now exploring avatars as the development of emerging technologies and its function in both real and virtual worlds increasingly overlap.

‘Studio Visit, 2018‘ — Site specific mixed reality installation. Courtesy of the artist

“And this is my new body. My old body felt so uncomfortable and saggy. Now I am strong. And I am sexy. Do you like my hair?” Ork continues — their diction surprisingly familiar and relatable. The character, typical in video game fantasy worlds, was created from his ‘Nu Ork’ series for the exhibition, ‘Role Play’ at Meredith Rosen Gallery, New York earlier this year. The new media artist tailored the virtual environments he created to the dimensions of the gallery, which was under construction at the time — a speculative residency occupied by Ork in a space that wasn’t yet built in the real world. Triantafyllidis embodies Ork, defying their brutish stereotype, by taking on the problematic persona of a “bad boy artist” in drag, with a volatile formula of swagger, frustration and insecurity that the viewer would otherwise expect from an artist under pressure before their exhibition. This moment is captured in the mixed-media video work, ‘Painting’, 2018 when the artist performs as Ork, generated with full-motion tracking, improvising from a script he had written about painting. The script describes the analogue medium while Ork attempts to produce a painting in their studio. The result is twofold: a one-take performance of glitches and animation breaks that he embraces, calling the motions, “much more alive” without the use of artificial intelligence systems; and the recording of an object in VR subsequently manifested in to a physical object. Ork’s painting is replicated to scale by means of 3D modelling with every gesture and stroke, documented in VR. The synergy achieved from manipulating the effects of both worlds — successes and failures, respectively — is awesome.

‘Studio Visit, 2018‘ — Site specific mixed reality installation. Courtesy of the artist

“I don’t get painting”, the new media artist confesses. “I don’t get why artists still paint; why it’s still so valuable”. Questions that Triantafyllidis attempts to answer through his performance as Ork. What it means for him to be an artist and to be producing art that isn’t painting, outside of the traditions of artmaking. Orks are commonly perceived as the ‘bad guy’ — only smart enough to pick fights. So if a domesticated Ork isn’t slaying in the wilderness, are they coming for the art world? Among the humor and gaming tropes, clever commentary of art history and the function of art in society in relation to the history and development of technology is woven into the contextual narrative. Ork contemplates, “…why am I making work for the art world when I could be riding a horse naked, swinging my axe in the battlefield…”

‘Painting, 2018‘ — Wall mounted mixed media piece. Courtesy of the artist

The works in ‘Role Play’ introduce the concept of virtual labor and production in today’s hybrid-reality work environments with equal concern for human interaction and materiality. These ideas are presented by way of sculpture or the use of monitors as augmented reality portals cum mobile paintings in the site specific mixed reality installation, ‘Studio Visit’, 2018, which challenge scale and the physicality of space. “If I want to be a bad boy artist, I gotta make something BIGGER”, Ork concludes as they cock their hip from side to side, admiring their own work. For Triantafyllidis, his experience with the Nu Ork series is spurring him on to more improvisational systems. “I’m beginning to think of ways to superimpose physical performers with their avatars in a virtual scene, within a live situation”, as he embarks on visualising a competition between Ork and a ping-pong machine using artificial neuro networks as well as a band with musicians wearing VR headsets and others playing actual instruments. They will create a score of both physical and virtual sound in real time.

@theo.trian — Courtesy of the artist

A teaser illustrates this latter work in progress: an alien sits at a drum kit under stage lights, and jams out to a cacophony of disruptive music. The artist’s continued relationship between digital and physical objects is reflected with a hen flapping around the stage and jumping on tom-toms. When viewers wear the VR headset they take on the role of the alien, using the controllers as drumsticks. Simple yet effective pleasure can be found to the left of a hi-hat cymbal. A pair of pink ping-pong balls suspended in gravity offer a terrifically satisfying sensation as users poke between the two magnetised balls using the tip of a drumstick. Unashamedly perverse and playful, the artist’s search for technical solutions and contextual answers in tandem is what will edge this untraditional medium closer to institutional acceptance.

This month, Triantafyllidis will exhibit “Nike”, in which Ork uses scrap material available at the studio to recreate the Hellenistic sculpture from memory. The augmented sculpture will be shown in full at the 6th Athens Biennale, ‘ANTI’, opening October, 26, 2018.

Curate LA’s Editor, Jonathan Velardi serves up 10 questions for the artist and architect on the launch of a special collaboration with L.A.’s comprehensive art discovery platform. Triantafyllidis has recently designed a suite of campaigns that feature his signature, simulated severed hands playing with a smartphone, logged in to the Curate.LA app, of course. The digital works incorporate his surreal spatial imagery — architectural infinities, nature and aesthetics — with some of Curate LA’s favorite emojis to create hybrid realities that explore his research between human interaction and new technologies: a shared interest that has been one of the founding objectives of the online platform since 2014. The collaboration also presents Curate LA’s active commitment to promote emerging artists working in Los Angeles to its art-loving audience. Look out for the full series of campaigns by Theo Triantafyllidis across all Curate LA channels dropping soon!

1. The Middle Ages OG or Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament?

Neither. Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, CA, all the way. Btw, I recommend ‘A Touch of Medieval’ by Eddo Stern — a classic read on the matter.

2. Describe Orkness in three words

Beautyness. Humorness. Thickness. Brutalness. Poeticness. That’s five!

3. Can Ork paint better than you?

Definitely. I can’t paint at all.

4. Will Ork crush their critics?

No. Ork is actually good-hearted and has a soft spot for criticism.

5. When are they going to redesign the VR headset?

I don’t know! It gets really sweaty in there.

@theo.trian — Courtesy of the artist

6. eSports and chill?

It’s hard to chill with eSports. I’m really interested in how serious gamers get about the games they play and how competitive gaming has pushed the industry. I also really like to fantasize what would happen if people became as obsessed about artworks as some people do about certain games, easily spending 400 hours on a game for example, often for weeks non-stop.

7. Favorite cheat code?

“jokeplease” gives you a random joke in Sims 3.

8. What do you like most about living in L.A.?

When I moved to LA from Athens, I was attracted to the strong community of artists working creatively with technology. I still feel that way and I’m glad to be a part of the community now and to be able to contribute to the discourse around this type of work. On the flip side, it’s hard to find suitable spaces to show VR work.

9. How do you switch off?

I just went offline for 10 days and it was amazing!

10. What Instagram account can you not live without?

@puppycodes — current favorite!

‘Self Portrait (Interior)’, 2016 — Virtual Reality experience (video still). Courtesy of the artist