When virtual becomes reality

Artists Jess Johnson, in New York, and Simon Ward, in New Zealand, are collaborating virtually during lockdown. They talk with Jaklyn Babington about digital engagement during the pandemic.

Jaklyn: You have both mostly resided in different locations and utilised alternative and virtual ways of collaborating, which makes for interesting work. The pandemic has launched a new era of digital engagement and I wonder if you have already participated in, or witnessed, this new surge of digital creativity?

Simon: I’m quite interested in the music scene and the live streaming community has ballooned like crazy over this time. There’s a program called VR Chat where you can walk around as an avatar and go to different meeting rooms. I went to a rave there. They’re doing their raves every week and then putting all of their mixes up on SoundCloud. It’s called Club Cringe, if anyone wants to check it out. There’s also a boutique film theatre in New York that is called Spectacle. I think Soda Jerk are involved with it. They’ve got daily films that they show, and Soda Jerk showed their film Terror Nullius. Everyone seems a lot more connected [digitally].

Jess Johnson in her studio, New York; and New Zealand-based artist Simon Ward

Jaklyn: Alternative spaces are fascinating right now, as our physical lives are compressed, the escapism that VR offers seems important. Are people using VR in a greater kind of capacity as a means of providing a virtual experience of something that’s been taken away?

Jess: In the last few weeks, I’ve delved into doing more of other people’s VR experiences and playing games in VR. I do think that impulse purely comes from a need to escape, escape my apartment, and escape the reality and all of that. Do you know Boneworks? There’s also a rhythm game set in this slightly rave environment called Beat Saber. It’s incredibly popular in VR. It’s basically a rhythm game where you’re just obliterating these beat blocks which come at you in time to an electronic music. I just wanted something to lose myself in and apparently, that’s very effective. It does seem quite dystopic and grim though, that it takes a global pandemic to push me towards what I’ve had available for the last few years. I remember me and Simon met up in VR a week or two ago and…at one point, I pressed the wrong button and I ended up in an open cinema. There was a dozen or so avatars around me with people just watching some Bill Murray movie in VR. It was this odd sense of community…I was only in there for about 15 seconds before I got out, but there was something nice about it. And I’ve thought about going back in there to be in a simulated cinema, watching a movie with these other avatars of people around me doing the same thing.

Jess’s works in progress in her New York studio

Jaklyn: Do you have particular avatars that you use when you’re meeting up in VR spaces? Is it a work in progress, or a new character every time?

Simon: Everyone sort of turns into a cyberpunk…[that’s] the choice that we tend to make, with robotic glasses or with mohawks or something like that. The last one I was trying to make was a sort of 70s tech lord wizard kind of guy. It’s a new one every time. Keep it fresh. That program that I was talking about, it’s called VRCHAT, or Second Life, and people have their avatar and they work on it constantly and build it up to be their personality and their representative. You can add different animations and different kinds of effects to your character, like teaching yourself different dance moves and stuff like that. I don’t do that myself, but I know people put a lot of time into that sort of stuff.

Jess in her New York studio

Jaklyn: It feels as though we have entered a science fiction narrative. How eerily familiar is this strange situation to you as artists, who have long been engaged with the production of parallel realities?

Jess: Yes, the boundaries definitely feel a lot blurrier now than they did this time last year.

Simon: I’d be really interested in knowing what movies people were watching as soon as the crisis happened. I went straight to World War Z and Contagion…It does feel like we’re all playing a part in this science fiction story or futuristic story, where people and their leaders need to come to grips with the new reality. They’re in that story and they should play those roles.

Jess: It feels like we’re in the middle of a story that is being written and that we have an active part, instead of being these voyeurs watching a story that’s being told to us. We’re all part of it and the ending hasn’t been written yet. I think that kind of feeling has come to me a little bit.

Jaklyn: Artists have an amazing ability to look at the world and assess and interpret its information for audiences in new kinds of ways. I wonder how this situation and its urgent issues has conceptually altered your work?

Jess: For me, [the lockdown] has allowed me to step off the hamster wheel I feel I’ve been on for the last several years. I’ve fallen into a bit of a trap where I’m always creating work with an outcome in mind. With a lot of exhibitions and projects and commissions getting obliterated in one fell swoop, it does free you from making work with an outcome in mind. Getting to make art that might reconnect to the universal. The universality of being human as opposed to being a professional artist within an art world. It’s something that I want to try to embrace somewhat…It’s a little bit of ‘be careful what you wish for’ though. It’s all I’ve been complaining about for a few years now — all of the administrative aspects of being an artist and the time that it takes to organise exhibitions, the emailing, writing grant proposals, and the collaborations as well…that all takes time away from drawing. All I want is more time to draw with no distractions. And then, you get handed that on a plate. But there’s a void that’s left from all of that and it’s like we all have to get comfortable with ourselves again.

Jess’s studio assistant, Ghost

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s Terminus tour has been postponed due to COVID-19 — check our website for updates. The work was commissioned by the National Gallery with the assistance of The Balnaves Foundation. The National Gallery acknowledges funding support for the Terminus tour from the Visions of Australia touring program and the National Collecting Institutions Touring and Outreach program, both Australian Government programs aiming to improve access to national collections for all Australians.

Jaklyn Babington is Senior Curator, Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Australia.

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