Interview: Gabrielle Jenks

Gabrielle Jenks is the Director of Abandon Normal Devices (AND), a festival for new approaches to art-making and digital invention. We asked Gabrielle a few questions about mixed reality work.

In The Eyes of The Animal, Marshmallow Laser Feast, premiered at Abandon Normal Devices festival

What mixed reality experiences have excited you the most?

I am inspired by VR experiences that explore the nature of perception and use Virtual Reality to reframe questions related to embodiment — what it feels like to own, to control, and to be inside a body. A few projects that already do this include:

  • Paolo Pedercini’s “A Short History of the Gaze,” which examines the act of looking and its’ relationship to violence. The player traverses and affects the virtual scenes by simply looking (or not looking) at things. From the evolution of sight in a pre-cambrian sea creature to the dominance of a primate; From a landscape of billboards begging for attention to an infinite panopticon. What this work does is question complicity, the act of looking and unpicks the artistic construct of the ‘gaze’.
  • Jeremy Bailey’s and Kirstin Schaffer’s, Preterna allows you to step into the body of a pregnant woman. Using leap motion sensors mounted onto headsets, it enables users to use their hands in virtual reality to touch their pregnant bodies. Using photogrammetry, Schaffer’s own figure was 3D-scanned for the piece, and Bailey modified the mesh to add the pregnant bump. This experience also is modelled as a satirical start up, which allows you to experience what it is like to be pregnant and is an extension of Jeremy’s existing work which looks at exploring body objectification and digital augmenting his own body. http://welkermedia.com/daily/pregnant-virtual-reality/
  • Notes on Blindness, is an award winning (UK & French production) and an important piece to highlight as I consider it sitting alongside moving image works like Derek Jarman’s Blue and Gary Tarn’s, Black Sun (both explore perception). This immersive virtual reality (VR) project is based on John Hull’s sensory and psychological experience of blindness. Each scene addresses a memory and a specific location from John’s audio diary, using binaural audio and real time 3D animations to create a fully immersive experience in a ‘world beyond sight’.
  • Although this isn’t an experience, I think it’s also important to highlight artists critiquing the medium, Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne have both done this in different ways. Tega Brain runs a blog called Something Something of Men, which calls out the gender bias in the marketing and also the male fascination with device.

What spaces have been most receptive to your work? How are you exploring distribution opportunities?

Film festivals have been the main platform for this kind of production, but I do think the curation of these spaces can be limited, usually manifesting in the form of a VR arcade. Media Art Festivals tend to create more exploratory spaces and when our productions have been curated in those contexts more time has been put into reflecting on the staging and the themes of the project.

For distribution we look to exploit Web VR, google cardboard and Marshmallow Laser Feast are developing an app which will allow the content to be viewed on your mobile handset in more stable way.

What are the challenges and opportunities around creating and presenting VR projects in the UK?

The opportunities are:

  • A number of film festivals are looking to exhibit and curate VR experiences internationally so there are opportunities to get UK work distributed (IDFA, Sheffield Doc Fest, Tribeca and Sundance film festival)
  • There are exciting opportunities for cross fertilization and collaborations with UK game developers.
  • You can adapt VR experiences for WebVR and Google cardboard, although the quality is variable it does allow audiences internationally to access it.
  • There is an enthusiasm and curiosity from cultural organisations in supporting productions.

The challenges are:

  • Venues don’t have the budgets to present or commission high quality VR productions
  • The facilitation required to support VR work in a gallery or museum context can be demanding on staffing costs — In The Eyes of the Animal could take up to 5 people running it per day
  • The limited numbers of audiences who can experience the work

How important is it to use the full potential of the technology to create an immersive experience?

Sound is critical to a VR work and to make a production complete. Directors should use it to support the flow of the narrative, as it encourages users to look in a particular direction. For ‘In the Eyes of the Animal’ we embedded a binaural soundtrack, created by Antoine Bertin, who was in residence at Grizedale Forest for six months prior to the premiere.

How do you ensure novelty of the technology doesn’t override artistic outcomes?

This comes down to curators, producers and artists working together to find opportunities, sites, partners and locations to develop interesting work. I have found the artistic outcome to resonate more when the VR experience is mapped onto the physical terrain or uses sculpture.

This was evident in Jon Rafman’s production, View for Parisier Platzfor the Berlin biennale, which recreated the view from the balcony, looking over the Pariser Platz and after a disorienting few moments a doomsday scenario starts to unfold, and the sculptures of hybrid creatures scattered around the balcony come to life through VR.

Do you see a distinct community forming around these technologies?

In terms of content creators there are key directors on the circuit (some are more indie and some are working on large scale commercial projects) Aaron Koblin, Chris Milk, Nonny Le Pena, Lynette Walworth and Oscar Raby being just a few.

Mixed Reality is more emerging strand, but obviously has roots in people who have been practicing in AR for many years artists in the media arts community like Jeremy Bailey, Julien Oliver and Manifesta AR.

In China, I like how they have pushed the exhibition of the VR experiences to consider more hardcore simulations, extending the VR headsets to include wind machines, rotating seats and contextual hardware. There are amazing early stage platforms and apps, but VR/AR in 2016 feels a bit like the smartphone market before the iPhone. There is still a lot to do.

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