Defining Art and Ethics in VR: An Interview with Mariam Zakarian of Amaryllis VR
It’s rare for an artist to encounter a major medium that has no real art history yet, no rules, no language. It means you’re helping shape and define these things through your work, which is a great privilege. Both terrifying and exciting.
How were you first drawn to VR? Did it seem more practical for you to work in VR or was there a moment when it just clicked?
There wasn’t really a single defining moment. It was more like an evolution, a natural next step on my journey. I was one of those children who would prefer to spend their time in their own world — drawing, writing poetry, reading — and I have been obsessed with making mainly visual art all my life. In my pre-teen years, I was absolutely fascinated by how Michelangelo and classical Greek art could convey so much emotion via figures and faces, so I started painting and drawing portraits and figures. Art was my safe space and consequently, I felt no pressure or fear of picking up new media and learning the craft on my own. I was also stubborn and very protective of this activity, so I rejected teachers since
I never found anyone I admired enough to desire being influenced by them.
And because I simultaneously grew up in a family of engineers and tech-enthusiasts, technology and computers have always been in my vicinity. I gradually started exploring digital painting, compositing and photography as a teenager, so when I was introduced to VR in 2013 through my university degree, the idea of using it for artistic expression wasn’t that far from what I was already used to doing: spending my time on teaching myself to use different tools in order to make art.
At the time, no one around me was using VR for purely artistic purposes and very few people in general even knew what VR was, so I was even more intrigued by the idea of figuring out what a fine art piece for VR piece could be, exploring the unknown. It’s rare for an artist to encounter a major medium that has no real art history yet, no rules, no language. It means you’re helping shape and define these things through your work, which is a great privilege. Both terrifying and exciting.
What does VR offer artists that other media might not? Is there something unique to VR as an artistic medium?
I always say that VR allows you to bring your audience inside your world instead of allowing them to just look at it through the window. A painting is typically a framed rectangle on the wall, just a window into the artist’s imagination. The audience doesn’t get to experience what goes on beyond the frame. In VR, there is no frame. The audience is enveloped by the artwork, and this physicality presents different possibilities for creating interesting moments. In that sense VR is more like performance art where the audience may become a part of the piece. That’s not to say VR art is superior to flat art, it’s just different. Some things simply can’t be expressed via VR art as well as they can via a painting, for example, which is why I also still work in that medium.
As for VR, I mainly work in room-scale and to me the most interesting aspects of making VR art are being able to create something for multiple senses at the same time, being able to physically affect a person in a different, perhaps more direct or personal way, and, in the creation process, to unite the different media I like to work in meaningfully.
With Amaryllis VR I wanted to work more deeply with a concept from multiple angles, and VR proved to be ideal for that. Because I work alone, I can bring together a synthesis of my favorite media: Making digital sculptures, composing and recording music, painting and making textures, planning and composing movement, animation, interaction and of course all of the real-world staging and performance aspects of showing VR.
Obviously, making these kind of complex projects in VR is also very challenging and time consuming, particularly for a solo artist like myself, since there are so many more elements that need to fit together, and especially because there is still no standard workflow. For my first piece, I spent a year on developing a workflow and defining what a VR artwork is — much longer than I spent on actually making it. And that’s not counting the optimization and user testing that came afterwards to prepare it for public exhibitions.
As someone who has been active artistically in VR for some time, is there a guiding principle or philosophy that you have followed?
Yes, there is. First of all, my analysis is that there needs to be a voice for sustainability and real concern about the future we are building in the tech industry. VR itself is a young industry driven by hype and optimism, and although this optimism is maybe understandable and necessary to attract people in the beginning of any industry, it is also dishonest, because we’re not addressing potential problems or speaking realistically about the future we so badly want to build.
I am acutely aware of the responsibility we have right now as developers to make the correct choices, because the way we develop these devices and applications will have a big impact on people’s lives in the future. If the goal is to make VR as ubiquitous as smartphones, then
we owe it to ourselves to really think things through, for example by coming up with ethical guidelines for developers and companies, by protecting the end user’s physical and mental well-being, by addressing problems like addiction, by not allowing the so-called attention economy model to transfer to the VR space, by addressing the issue of collecting biometric data and profiling users, prioritizing the users’ privacy/security and so on.
As I am an artist, I have no illusions about my role in solving complex issues like this, but while writing my master thesis on VR art a few years ago, I simultaneously started developing a philosophy I call “Slow VR”, as an exercise in understanding the situation. Slow VR was basically born out of my observation that VR provides a rare opportunity for the user’s undivided attention in a world where attention is literally treated as a scarce commodity. This presents a great argument for creating non-intrusive experiences that move away from a hectic, stressful, superficial, hyperactive pace that characterizes much of contemporary popular entertainment, and really prioritizing the mental and physical well-being of the user. It’s a call for radical counter-urgency as a protest against sensory overload and information overload.
How could artists share and promote their art? Are there multiple ways?
I don’t have a simple answer to this. Every artist is different and so is their audience. Sharing and promoting VR art depends entirely on who the audience is. If you simply want to show your VR art to anyone, it’s as easy as uploading it online and sharing a link with anyone who has an HMD at home. If you want to exhibit it at fine art spaces, it’s less straightforward. And if you want to do that while being an independent, solo artist like me, it’s even more complicated.
Although VR has existed since the 60s, it’s still such a new medium to the fine art world, which moves cautiously. The large institutions are waiting to see if VR art is just a passing trend, and many galleries are worried about exhibiting VR since they don’t understand the technology very well, or they are worried it may come off as a gimmick. However, during the past 2 years some of the celebrities of the art world (Marina Abramović, etc.) have started directing VR art, which has helped to sort of legitimize the medium in the fine art world.
What tools do you find useful for creating art in VR? What foreknowledge should artists have before they can create with these tools?
It very much depends on what type of VR art you want to make. There are many approaches and several categories. If we’re talking about simply picking up a controller and creating in VR art apps, like TiltBrush, it is super easy and relatively intuitive even for someone who’s never tried VR before. The issue I have with apps like Tilt Brush, though, is that you very easily end up with a particular look or style that is instantly recognizable due to the limitations of the tools available to you in the VR app itself.
I prefer to create more complex pieces that involve music, timing, intricate sculptures, some interactive elements etc., so it’s a long and complicated process with many steps. I compose my VR artworks using more than 12 different programs and plugins from 3D modeling software and DAWs to game engines, and I also occasionally use traditional art.
I also have a B.A. in Digital Design and a M.Sc. in Media Technology, which is the reason I can work independently on large, interactive projects like Amaryllis. Unlike most other art mediums, VR can make people feel physically uncomfortable, even sick, if the experience isn’t designed and tested properly, so this is something that needs to be taken seriously in the creation process.
How can artists sustain themselves with their work? How can they turn their attention into a revenue stream? How is it different from people working in still art such as paintings and sculpture?
I won’t sugarcoat it. Being an artist is and has always been a notoriously precarious profession and there are very few people who are able to only live off making fine art, let alone in a completely new medium like VR. Even many of the masters whose works we admire in museums around the world died miserable and penniless. For this reason, unless they’re somehow super wealthy to begin with, most artists, just like most musicians, have a secondary income, a revenue stream that is about another aspect of creating, work on commercial projects or partner up to start studios which depend on investments and funding due to a limited market. So there is no magic answer, unfortunately.
As for myself, I’m a child of a refugee, living in a foreign country, and we Armenians generally have a pretty pessimistic attitude towards the stability of the world, let alone art as a legitimate profession. In fact, my original plan was to become a doctor, have access to studying the body and the human condition in order to then make art in my spare time! After finishing the first year of Medicine at the University of Aarhus, I realized I would be a pretty terrible doctor, as I was more interested in how the human body looks and behaves rather than curing people, and I finally chose art.
My only advice is to seriously consider the risks of this profession, and if you, like me, still cannot keep yourself from pursuing art, then really go for it. This applies to both VR and still art.
What do you imagine for yourself and the future of VR? What could change or even enhance your craft?
Well, one of the frustrating things about working with this medium for the past 5 years has been the lack of efficient workflow and dedicated tools in the different applications I use to make VR art. Ideally, when making a piece for VR your entire workspace should also be accessible in VR, otherwise you can’t avoid having to constantly take the HMD on and off. This is true for all applications, from DAWs to modeling/sculpting apps, to the engines themselves. The issue is further complicated by lots of apps not even offering VR support, or simply not communicating with other apps.
You don’t want to deal with technical issues or obstacles when you’re in that flow state as an artist. It’s super important for the creation process not to be constantly interrupted. So that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to.
Another very specific issue I’m hoping someone finds a smart solution to soon is the absence of tactile, physical feedback when making art, for example, sculpting in VR. So far, we still have these controllers and hand-tracking options that are floating in air and you don’t have a physical reference point, which you have with a mouse and keyboard for example. This means loss of accuracy since it requires you to have super steady hands in order to move things in VR. As a visual artist, it’s deeply frustrating that if I want to draw something in VR, all the micro-movements my hands have learned when drawing on paper or making a clay sculpture, don’t translate to VR in such fine detail yet, and maybe never will, due to there not being physical material to manipulate and reference.
These are just workflow issues, though, and I’m certain we’ll solve them. It’s the bigger picture I’m really worried about, as I mentioned in an earlier question. I am hoping we solve the ethical problems in the industry, before we put VR devices in everyone’s home. Our future generations deserve that.