How to Make Culture When the Mother of All Hangovers is Gnawing at Your Soul
Up until 2010 I made movies: punk movies shot on fucky looking formats but movies all the same. It was where my money came from for about 15 years so I guess you could say it was my job. On the other hand I never had any money so I guess — in reality — I would have to admit it was primarily a passion.
“Do thy wilt shall be the whole of the law” says the Thelemic philosophy and I guess that’s exactly what was going down. I was indulging my will and I was lucky to be able to do so. The fact that it also meant over a decade of poverty was, in truth, a small price to pay. Poverty has taken its toll, but it allowed me to escape other evils.
Then in 2010 I started making virtual reality and my career took flight.
Here’s the thing you need to understand about that, back then virtual reality was a new medium, in fact it still is. There are no experts in this field, anyone in 2020 who describes themselves as a virtual reality ‘expert’ is either lying to you or lying to themselves. Most likely the latter, it’s an easy mistake to make. It’s still early days. Expertise is relative. Most VR creators now are, in fact, experts of cinema or gaming.
The invention of the moving picture in the 1890s landed film makers of the time with a similar set of problems to those faced by VR artists like me today. It took — arguably — 60 years for cinema to disentangle itself from its roots in theatre and there are good reasons for that. You cannot know what you don’t know.
Cinema comes with huge limitations and those limitations are, in part, what eventually forged the grammar of the medium in terms of cinematography and editing in particular.
Also, though, the fact that film is traditionally the endeavor of large teams also brought other more brutal limitations. My biggest bug bear when I was making cinema was the way in which one was forced the ‘kill’ the story by writing it down. When I say ‘kill’ the story that’s very much my opinion obviously and maybe has something to do with the kind of cinema that I wanted to make.
But there’s a concept in film making of ‘leaving the set door open’ to allow life to breathe into the script as you shoot. It’s an attempt to get around the problem of ‘killing’ the story. In Vivian Kubrick’s behind the scenes documentary ‘Making The Shining’ we see Stanley Kubrick again and again sat at a table rewriting dialogue on a ratty old typewriter as the cast and crew prepare for takes.
In music it can be similar. With some tunes I feel as though the recorded version is the tombstone left behind by the music, there to survive through time beyond the lifespan of the artist, there to make royalties for the owner of the rights in all perpetuity.
In particular there are music artists I’ve seen live whilst touring over the past ten years whose performances landed with a spectacular jolt, to do what art is designed to do: to shatter the frame, to raise weird questions and send us on our way reeling. When we get home and stream the same tunes into our ears it can be disappointing. Many of my musician friends feel the same way about their own recordings, somehow they lack the power and authenticity of the real thing. Producers like Steve Albini, I guess, have made a career out of trying to capture that power and authenticity and in fairness sometimes do a great job but the point is, the medium itself is often a barrier.
The need to write a film down for me does the same thing. Using written text to convey the atmosphere and the feeling of a work which will be rendered as images and sound amounts to some serious optimization of process. As with all optimizations there is a price to be paid for the expedience and practicality of actually getting shit done.
I made a number of films without scripts which could be performed live (2 features and one short) and they are still my favorite films I ever created but they relied on another optimization — I had to conceive, shoot and edit them on my own and I had to work with actors (and non-actors) who were happy to shoot from the hip.
With VR it is possible and preferable in my opinion to create a story without writing it down. I have said this many times in lectures, workshops and panel discussions and, in some cases, the writers in the room have groaned and even face palmed in protest but they misunderstand my point.
I have two VR companies. Circa69 represents my solo work and BRiGHTBLACK my collaborative work with fellow VR artist Myra Appannah. In either case the process begins with a concept and rapidly proceeds to world building.
Both myself and Myra use Unity Games Engine and create all the 3D models, scripts, soundtrack and other elements ourselves using a broad array of other applications. We both have a background in writing for cinema also, but when it comes to making VR with a games engine the writing process is only required for those elements of the story which will remain as words in the final version — either spoken words or words written on props, screens, letters, books etc in the scene.
There is no point at all, for example, in writing a description of a location because we can just get right on and make it. If we were operating as part of a huge team things would be different but we’re not and don’t need to because the technologies we are using are highly flexible, fast and affordable to create with.
The Circa69 show Whilst The Rest Were Sleeping, for example, comprised of 17 VR installations, an Augmented reality app for android and iOS, a feature length film with live electronic music and around 30 websites which formed an online transmedia trail. I was able to create all of this over an 18-month production schedule largely on my own precisely because the technology and the software enabled it.
But there’s a broader problem when transitioning from cinema to VR.
Cinema in its traditional form is a medium which enables only one-way communication and that means it is inherently persuasive. It does not ask your opinion and even if it did it would not be able to listen or respond to your answers.
VR made with games engines, on the other hand, allows for highly functional open worlds, meaningful interactivity and two-way communication. All of which sits at the heart of contemporary culture coming out of the internet age.
Contemporary stories, then, are there to be lived rather than consumed. It is the reason why games like Minecraft are so incredibly successful, because they’re not trying to tell or persuade you of anything. Instead they provide a platform for the user themselves to be creative, to interact, to communicate. The old traditional hierarchies of artists making content for others to consume are eroding fast. We are in the era of playable culture, livable culture and #newpower.
So when as BRiGHTBLACK we consider what it means to make stories which our audiences can live we hit an issue: because we’re trying to do that whilst still ailing with the collective 20th century hangover from hell.
When we think about what ‘living’ actually means we could do worse than return to the Thelemic Philosophy I mentioned earlier and their ‘do as thy wilt shall be the whole of the law’.
Do as thy wilt may well be the whole of the law but, having been written in the 20th century, is clearly a mischievous joke.
Because to do our will requires first and foremost that we are even acquainted with our will. From the Creel Committee and beyond, the gains of the 20th century were constructed almost entirely from the industrial scale conceptual mugging represented by the fields of advertising and public relations.
In that sense the whole point of the 20th century was to distance us from ourselves — to persuade us, in fact, to do the will of commercial brands — to live so that others may prosper, to be milked like cattle, to be fools. The most galling part of all is that the dark arts of persuasive media made fools of us all even while we thought it was making us cooler.
Remember Bill Hicks? “Anyone here work in advertising or marketing? Go kill yourselves, suck a tail pipe, do whatever you’ve got to do, kill yourselves”
I understand the sentiment but as Myra correctly pointed out to me it is unfair. Advertising is deeply uncool, it is the guzzling of Satan’s bountiful jizz but we all allowed it to happen.
So here’s the thing. Cinema utilizes the same hierarchical model as advertising, it is a persuasive medium, it aims to distance the viewer from themselves, which is also deeply uncool in the context of contemporary culture. These hierarchies by the way are the same ones that largely exclude certain people from being makers.
Now if we were making VR in 100 years time then maybe the hangover would have played out. The ad world is in crisis now, in a 100 years it will hopefully be fully fucked and we will be able to look back at it as a disaster, a tragedy, that nearly killed the planet and definitely fucked up billions of people’s lives.
But we ARE making VR now. So the first awkward step, for us, is to make something which roots out any traces of persuasion. Right now that means no language at all. The two of us are collaborating to make new worlds in which the user has the space to reconnect with themselves free from any voice telling them they should think, buy, look, feel, behave or vote any particular way. Satan can take his cock elsewhere, we’re not interested any more.
Everyone needs a pause to reflect right now, to reconnect with themselves and that includes me. Because there is no excuse for going back to business as usual. We need to put the 20th century behind us, we need to clear our heads and change it up. Only a dead fish goes with the flow.