Makers of The Metaverse: Tess Baxter On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries
An Interview With Susan Johnston
Be prepared to share things with others. They will share back. A few will take advantage of you, so be a bit wary, but don’t build walls that keep everyone out.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing Tess Baxter.
Tess Baxter is an artist-writer who draws from a range of experience across photography, graphic design, writing and model making. These inform her current practice, along with her personal and academic interest in music, poetry and literature. She sees herself foremost as an editor, working digital material together with Creative Commons and public domain works to make the past and present talk to each other, across distance, culture and technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
Tess was brought up in Lancashire and now lives in the Lake District, in the north of England. Seeing her older sister was better at drawing, she took little interest in art at school and turned to three dimensional work, which led into working as a model maker during the 1980s. After a period in local politics, in 2001 she set up in business to publish her inventively combined writing and photography about local food traditions and landscape, using the recently introduced software of InDesign.
She first touched a computer around 1980, and the computer as a tool for creativity has fascinated her ever since, often seeking the possibilities that new software sets up to explore.
Her past — three dimensional model making, social and political concerns, editing the graphical and verbal forms — all come through in her machinima, as does her long fascination with animation. But her influences are wide, and draw from the history of film, poetry, music and literature.
Returning to university later in life, in 2009 she graduated from UCLan with a BA in Sociology, and the following year with an MA from Manchester University in Gender, Sexuality and Culture. She recently was awarded a doctorate in Contemporary Art by Lancaster University.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
This is difficult. So many influences; so much great work to choose from. I’ll choose a person, a poet, and Edward Thomas’s book of Collected Poems. I came across him at school, where we told we didn’t have time for him as he was too complex!
I’d already read it.
As I said in my machinima in 2017 that reworked some of his poetry visually 100 years after his death in World War I: “Edward Thomas entranced with prose like poetry, and poetry as prose: words freed from the rhyming ranks of black-inked lines.”
That imagination for creativity that doesn’t belong in a single category and crosses boundaries has influenced my approach to work since.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I kind of fell into it! I’d been doing a lot of photography through my life, but I’d come to the end of an idea, a project. It happened I was in arts marketing at that point, and video was just beginning to take off. I liked the editing process, and wondered where I could get more material, Ironically, while I live in a beautiful area of landscape, there were already too many videos, and most tread the same, familiar ground and there was little scope for escaping it. So I wondered what the possibilities were in a virtual world, as I was already doing still images there. I had no idea at that point about machinima, and that people had been making moving images in those spaces — that’s something I found out later.
The last few years I have been doing both printmaking and video art, going between ink on paper and light on screen. Both are ways of seeing things, but different interpretations in colour and tactility. Technologies displace, they don’t replace — the past feeds the future, and the interchange is the most interesting area. Originality is a myth.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
It’s the opportunities that opened up because I started with an open mind, the motivation being ideas and communicating with people, rather than making money. The end of 2019 was the culmination of things, with a digital animation festival in Denver, followed by an arts meets science event for families in Berlin, followed by an academic conference in Montreal that ran alongside their enormous video gaming business and public events. It was seeing my work in diverse places, at diverse events, with diverse languages, and being seen by different people with different outlooks and frames of reference. It’s about opening up the world not just closing it into a single genre or outlook.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve made mistakes, but I’m not sure they were very funny! Artists often prefer to work with the unpredictable and with material that is prone to mistake — and that’s been my motivation. It is experimenting on the edges of things and working with the inevitability of failure, knowing it’s going to happen and that’s where the most interesting things and discoveries lie.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Serene Footman was his Second Life name. He was never pretentious, always thoughtful, and always willing to give. I was considering doing a PhD on creative communities in online spaces and didn’t have funding — but I had been accepted, a very good potential supervisor has taken it on, and I had been offered a fee waiver. But it had to be full time, which would be impossible if I was working. He said ‘Accept it, it’ll be the only chance you get. Once you are there, they won’t want to lose you’. I won funding for the second two years, and it was some of the most astonishing years of my life.
Many of my machinima reworked Serene’s builds. He welcomed it — to see what others saw of his work and what they created out of it. It was truly in the spirit of SL — and more widely, of machinima. An open space where individual ideas and creativity bounce off each other — in the true tradition of art where there is no original, everything is borrowed and built on something else. It is the antithesis of NFT and the idea that everything digital is owned.
His name was in the dissertation, but also in the catalogue of video art I produced and published with an ISBN. He died this year, but his name now lives on in the British Library, and the other UK deposit libraries, for as long as they stand. That’s the most fitting tribute I could give to an academic.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
It’s another sideways step! But it relates in particular to The Safe Shipment of Small Cargo, Future City, Passengers Paid a Station Agent, and Breaking Ice. I am now employed to digitise archive material from a shipyard, but in a wider museum setting. Working with others, I want to make material available and communicate it with others in imaginative ways. It is a community project, of retelling a shared history, but also about telling the story to those who are unfamiliar with the place.
The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
AR and MR are the two where I really see the possibilities, but its about blending those new technologies with established ones, and blurring the boundaries. It’s about the what the technology can do, rather than about the technology itself. Rather than seeing it as an industry — I’ll name two artists, as artists are often there at the beginning of technologies, when the possibilities are most open and unexplored.
Stacey Steers, from Denver — I loved her exhibition, The Edge of Alchemy, where she spoke of being an alchemist of the past and the present in visual form, rather than an editor as I do.
The other person is William Kentridge, who combines different materials, different visualities, at different scales. Thick Time is the exhibition I saw — breathtakingly imaginative.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
Commercial exploitation is the main one, of which Meta is the most problematic. They want data, and VR is the means to that end, and when one company monopolises, it chokes off innovation by others. The big money has exited the VR market though, but it will return again, as it has since the 60s every 8 years or so, and new areas will be developed.
In terms of AR and MR, I think they are established enough and broad enough to allow innovation and new ideas to develop without worrying too much. However, the culture of NFT is my biggest concern, where everything, every idea, every thought, every pixel, is owned, defended, and saleable. That was never how copyright and patent law worked.
The last is a more general one about online content, which becomes stored in the ‘cloud’, and becomes forgotten material. That immortality has a cost; data centres of accumulated digital ‘guff ’ consumed nearly 2% of global electricity in 2012, with projected growth rates of three to ten times by 2030. The environmental cost shouldn’t be ignored — it’s gobbling energy, safely out of sight.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
I’m not sure I work in the industry, as such! I’m dealing with pieces of paper and computers, write with a fountain pen sometimes, type at other times, work with photographic glass plates and digital images. I eat and breath in one world, and venture into virtual worlds, but they run parallel. It’s another technology, and while digital intersects more parts of our lives than previous innovations, it’s no more revolutionary than farming, or Caxton’s printing press. Human culture reflects technological innovations — but alongside it goes power, inequalities and politics.
Another is that it’s about the technology. In one sense it is, in that it has to work. But much more important is the desire and passion to share ideas and things with other people. The biggest myth is that technology creates immersion. It doesn’t. It’s where people go in their minds. Immersion started with women reading books, moved into cinema, and is now in digital spaces. It’s not a new revolution, and people still get immersed in those older forms. Good books, good films, and good in digital spaces all (still) do it now.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
VR’s application in training, in controlled situation, where otherwise it would be risky, expensive or too difficult, is one of the big benefits from the latest surge in VR.
But we are all living in AR and MR environments. From mobile phones, through maps, email, social media, online billing, credit and debit cards — they are all virtual representations of the actual world that pervade 21st century living. Just think — five decades ago, people were still using manual typewriters in offices. Carbon paper limited the number of readable copies to three — now we can print off a thousand without thinking it odd. We can send a digital copy by email, and refer to it while doing other things within seconds — and not have to send it through the post as a piece of paper.
The downside of this is that we don’t have to concentrate our thoughts — there is now too much data and not enough thought and analysis. That said, the big data and analysis is done by the undemocratic companies collecting personal data, such as Google and Facebook.
That has to be the next step with VR, AR and MR — more is not always better, and what and who really matters?
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
The importance of games to humans (Homo ludens, as Johan Huizinga so astutely called us back in the early 20th century) cannot be underestimated, and all three support our playfulness.
And all forms can be used to show the world, past and present, to audiences in all kinds of settings — understanding culture, history and our place in the world all matter in our social and personal lives — a sense of belonging.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The VR, AR or MR Industries?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
Serendipity, as Sebastian Olma talked about it. Not just luck, but knowing where to be where luck has the best chance of happening. There are no certainties. It’s difficult to share a story, except to say that’s how I have done so much. There wasn’t a door to open.
Be imaginative, and play with it. Be prepared to make mistakes and work with error. I have had a lot of that, but
Get things right before they are published. I used to do a lot of print work. The typos stay out of sight until the print run comes back! The reality is that you can’t get everything right, but the less there is to correct, the better.
Be prepared to share things with others. They will share back. A few will take advantage of you, so be a bit wary, but don’t build walls that keep everyone out.
Go for walks, watch films, read books. Ideas arrive when you let your mind wander in other places. Oh and carry a notebook for when they do!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people,what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Giving time for people, and to people. Along with time comes conversation, sharing of thoughts, understanding of each other, and mutual respect. Generosity creates more opportunity, greed and conflict sucks time and creativity.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Isthere a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’m going to take this in the spirit you intend, not question why I wouldn’t want to spend it with family, or with one of the many people who have touched our lives but lived in the past. And what would I think if someone strode in on my breakfast! So, I’ll nominate the artist, William Kentridge. While doing my doctorate I was interested in how different materials could be used to express the same thoughts and ideas, but it’s like different languages, never translating perfectly. And then I came across his exhibitions twice, and the way he combines the written word, print, mechanical objects, textiles lighting and screens is astonishing. I’d be so interested in how he sees them coming together to express his view on the world.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success in your great work!
About The Interviewer: Susan Johnston is a Media Futurist, Columnist as well as Founder and Director at New Media Film Festival®. The New Media Film Festival, honoring stories worth telling since 2009, is an Award-winning, inclusive, and boundary-pushing catalyst for storytelling and technology. Susan was knighted in Rome in 2017 for her work in Arts & Humanity.