The traditional media world demands that we reduce our artistic output to a short string of adjectives that fit neatly on a 3.5 inch business card. Everything that artists like myself do throws this notion into chaos.
I see an email I missed from earlier. It confirms that NASA is going to participate in a panel I’m planning at Slamdance DIG (digital, interactive, and gaming) — this year I’m an organizer. It’s 4am and I’m looking out across Hollywood excited for the possibilities. I’m one of a new wave of creators that’s merging interactivity, virtual reality, filmmaking, and live events into a hard-to-explain jumble of an art scene. It feels like I’m working twenty or more hours a day and I feel alive.
This week I’m launching an interactive animated film called Joy Ride with BroomX, a company in Europe that outfits spaces like hotels with 360 degree immersive projectors. Audiences will experience Joy Ride exclusively in this full room projection format at partner locations like Catalonia Hotels. I’ve never worked in this format before because it didn’t exist until a little over a year ago. This kind of shoot first, ask questions later approach is indicative of not just the kind of work that I produce, but the landscape of how immersive content is made. It’s a challenging laboratory of exotic platforms in unexpected locations — creators are one part theme park engineer and one part film director. Each project seems to have its own quirks that are completely different from the last. It’s the wild west, but at the same time it’s just how things are now. I can’t imagine settling on a set of guidelines. It’s always about each project being bigger and more engaging.
The traditional media world demands that we reduce our artistic output to a short string of adjectives that fit neatly on a 3.5 inch business card. Everything that artists like myself do throws this notion into chaos. A few years ago I put the television landscape on the backburner and moved squarely into the immersive media universe. I started a production company called Clever Fox with my wife and partner Julia Howe. Since then I’ve bounced between creating augmented reality touring shows like the 80’s set horror experience The Summoning, virtual reality interactive experiences, 360 degree documentaries and shorts, music videos, apparel, feature films, snapchat lenses, even original lenticular art prints that now live with buyers like Bob Odenkirk. My work has been experienced by millions of people, but the natural high of this falls apart when I’m asked what I do for a living. “A little bit of everything,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. I have no clear answer to give. The inevitable follow-up conversation where I frantically try to connect the collectable VHS release of my feature film The Arcadian, my work with special FX houses, theme parks, and even building an interactive spy museum for the video game Hitman 2 comes off sounding more like a lunatic conspiracy theory than a CV.
I know that the predominant school of thought is that you can either do one thing very well or you can do several things half-assed. My generation of creators flies in the face of this by embracing one of the key facts of 21st century life — that you’re required to be a life-long learner.
I know that the predominant school of thought is that you can either do one thing very well or you can do several things half-assed. My generation of creators flies in the face of this by embracing one of the key facts of 21st century life — that you’re required to be a life-long learner. If you don’t evolve you’ll become unemployable and obsolete. The tangible effect of this economic reality is that you’re going to breed a generation of polymaths. It also helps that we’re mostly digital natives, so that we can take the rapid pace of changing technology in stride.
The best way to explain this is to get a little nostalgic. I’m old enough to remember a world where computers filled giant office buildings instead of fitting snugly in your pants pockets, but I never worked in that world. I never sat at a drafting table and got my hands covered in ink or had to load film into a motion picture camera unless those were specific creative choices. In my professional life the computer and I developed together. I made my first animated short at age 12. It was created on a Wacom ArtPad II with software called Fractal Design Sketcher; I’d rotoscope footage that I recorded frame by frame using an underpowered video capture card and my VCR. At 13 I was building virtual reality worlds (VRML) and cg models with Caligari Truespace. I still use a Wacom drawing tablet, it’s just much larger, and my VCR has been replaced by Adobe Premiere and SD Cards. I’ve traded Truespace for newer programs like Maya, Unity, and Mudbox, but fundamentally my workflow hasn’t evolved much since before I could drive. My first real film was a short called Closed Circuit, which was commissioned by Miramax the year I turned 21. It was shot on digital 8 video specifically to be shown online as a sidecar project to the feature film Naqoyqatsi. This was four years before youtube bought their domain name. We can talk all day about how new and exciting digital media is, but for artists like myself we’ve been waiting a quarter century for the world to catch up.
I’d be lying if I said that this isn’t partially motivated by the shaky viability of independent traditional media projects. It’s not a secret that over the last decade it’s become even more difficult to make a profit on indie films and records. That’s driving forward-thinking creators to look at the horizon and run toward the greener pastures of what might be there. We’re also not the first generation to try this. For whatever your opinions may be about Andy Warhol he was right about at least two things. Beyond predicting the timely notion of everyone getting their 15 minutes of fame, he was also the prototype of the 21st century artist. Not only has a Warhol-like notion of remixing and repurposing become the dominant artistic form of communication, but he popularized the idea that an artist’s body of work could transcend any medium and still retain the artist’s voice. Warhol might not be a direct influence on meme culture or hip-hop, but he was absolutely the biggest canary in the cave for the current artistic era. Warhol also dabbled in what we’d today call experiential events. Shows like Exploding Plastic Inevitable brought together films, light shows, and musical performances to become the forerunners of the kind of experience you get at venues like Meow Wolf. The baton has been passed around from Warhol to Burning Man to Banksy’s Dismaland and it’s come crashing down on Los Angeles like a ton of technicolored bricks.
On any weekend in LA you’ll find some kind of event that has an experiential or interactive exhibit attached to it. What gets lost in these events is a sense of artistic balance. There are two extremes right now. Any digital artist who pays a fee to a concert promoter can pop a tent next to a t-shirt booth in the corner of a warehouse and hope people find them through a cloud of marijuana vape. It’s frustratingly punk, but at least you’re representing yourself and your work. On the other end of the spectrum is something more complicated — the corporate digital art world. This is a world of tech demos and tradeshows. A company will commission a piece of art to showcase the technological advancements of their newest widget. Companies will largely strip away any deeper meaning or creator’s signature from the work. The work is further reduced to a dubiously credited talking point in a press release about venture funding or corporate partnerships. This has both the negative side effect of separating the art from any kind of true sense of authorship by the artist and feeding a culture that expects digital art to be intrinsically tied to new pieces of technology. If you develop a killer work of art using tools from a year ago you’re fighting an uphill battle to get it seen.
Audiences and writers are left asking themselves where all the great interactive artists are. They’re in the back of warehouses in art districts all over the world covered in sweat and dead tired from handing out fliers on street corners.
This cycle of new and different tech married to bland content has created an environment where even the press doesn’t completely know how to engage with interactive art. I understand their frustration. To write about anything you need to contextualize what you’re seeing and if that context is that experiences are always linked to new hardware you start to think that there are no artists making quality independently produced work. The media is being fed a steady stream of press releases about higher bit rates and slightly faster chips and I don’t blame them for starting to think that the only value in interactive art is when it’s showing off some new gadget. Audiences and writers are left asking themselves where all the great interactive artists are. They’re in the back of warehouses in art districts all over the world covered in sweat and dead tired from handing out fliers on street corners.
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to straddle the line between brands, tech companies and artistic integrity, but for every person like me there are a staggering number of creators out there who don’t have the kind of access you get from being in a major city; especially one with an ecosystem like Los Angeles. Immersive creators with access need to build bridges with talented artists who don’t have it. We need to stick together and learn and teach and give opportunities. As part of this mission I designed a class that’s available at Columbia College Chicago Online about creating virtual and augmented reality projects and I’m working with Slamdance for the same reason.
This all comes back to 4am, looking out over Hollywood, thinking about Slamdance’s DIG. As someone who is acutely aware that I’m drifting between creative epochs I recognize how much DIG matters. This year’s show is a turning point. Alongside the gaming content that the show has heavily featured in the past there’s more virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive theater… all kinds of interactive art projects that blur the line between digital and physical. This is the type of showcase I’ve been waiting for and I know that audiences are going to love it.
This revolution in media isn’t something that’s happening on some far off calendar date, it’s something that’s already happening. It’s been bubbling to the surface for decades and now we’re drowning in it.
We’re also going full steam toward building a true community from the disjointed world of interactive art. We’re bringing together emerging artists with past alumni and speakers from places you wouldn’t normally think have much in common. On the same stage we’re hosting representatives from NASA’s The Studio at JPL and the founder of Lost Spirits Distillery. How are they related? The Studio creates interactive art installations which communicate NASA data in engaging ways, while the Lost Spirits Distillery tour has smashed through all kinds of barriers by creating a Willy Wonka-style experience to excite people about the science of making rum. They both take pretty dense subjects and make them accessible to the general public through interactive art. It’s a prime example of how DIG is representing the convergence of storytelling and it feels like home.
After all is said and done I could go on and on about how this is the future or how the next five years will do this or that… but I’d be disingenuous. This revolution in media isn’t something that’s happening on some far off calendar date, it’s something that’s already happening. It’s been bubbling to the surface for decades and now we’re drowning in it. That’s why I’m up at 4am, working on a new project, feeling excited and counting the days until DIG.
Dekker Dreyer is a filmmaker and experiential artist. His work spans television, feature film, books, graphic novels and virtual reality. He is the creator of Columbia College Chicago’s VR/AR producing program and is a member of the Television Academy.
Dekker is co-curating Slamdance’s 2018 DIG Showcase, opening at LA Artist Collective from September 13–15. DIG features new and unseen works by emerging visual artists and indie game developers from around the world. Admission is free and open to the public. For more info, please visit slamdance.com.