When did it occur to you that VR could be used as a new art form?
Well when the oculus came out I was already an artist so I immediately thought, how can I make this art? Because my first real experience of art was with video games I never really saw this huge difference between technology and art. It might have been different for people whose first experience of art was going to a gallery with their parents and looking at a painting. I mean I did that too, but the first thing that really blew my mind was playing Mario Brothers.
That said, now that I have done some projects in VR, it feels like a lot of people just want to have a technological experience and don't really care that much about the art. It can be frustrating because you put so much effort into creating an experience, and when you finally put it out there, people just think, ‘Cool I get to try VR.”
What inspired your piece AlienAfterlife?
One of the things that I really love about real-time engines is their ability to simulate anything you want. I was thinking about what are some of the things I could simulate that I could never experience in real life. One of them was being abducted by aliens and the other was dying and going into the afterlife. So I thought what if I simulate those two things together. Where you die and go into the afterlife and then aliens hijack the afterlife while you are there.
So do you think at some point there could be a new psychedelic movement based around VR?
That’s the hope. I think that would be a really awesome direction. Like a drug you could take, but more controlled. That's kind of my hope for it. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a technology that would be so immersive that you would forget your own identity. You would forget your name. Just be so far gone, that you might even forget that you are human for a bit. It could be a nightmare or it could be very interesting. And if it was considered an art experience as well as a spiritual or technological experience, that could be even more fascinating.
Who are some of the artists and writers that inspired you and kind of pointed you in this direction?
The earliest would be playing Nintendo. And then as an undergraduate in college I majored in Spanish because I loved reading writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolano, all these kind of bizarre South American writers that informed my ideas about what narrative could be.
And in terms of art, some early inspirations would be something like the collective Paper Rad. They did these really weird animations and zines with funky characters that kind of resembled pop culture figures like Bart Simpson or Felix The Cat but the smoked, talked trash and solved psychedelic mysteries. That was something that really inspired me in my early twenties.
What do you think about the possibility of storytelling in virtual reality?
It’s not something I would ever claim to be doing. I think of VR more as an experiences. I think what is happening right now with VR is similar to what was happening with film around 1910. Where in a few years they invented the idea of the montage and editing and the ways we understand how time moves in film. I think we just haven't invented that language for VR yet. And maybe no one will because maybe it will be just a totally different. I think we've become so used to seeing a moving image in a square for the last 100 years, and now all of a sudden we have a sphere. And I think maybe it's going to work in a totally different way, as more of an experiential medium.
Do you think there is resistance to VR in the art world? Are they intrigued or dismissive?
There was a piece in the New York Times that talked about this exhibit we did at the New Museum and the title was ‘VR Has Arrived in The Art World, Now What?’ And I think that is basically the sentiment. Okay, there's a bunch of artists and they mess around with VR and it's kind of cool, but now what can we do with it? Reading that article I don't think the writer even watched most of the experiences, and that kind of sums it as well.
At the Virtual Arcade at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a lot of the experiences were presented as installations complete with sets. Do you think that is something that could help create more interest in experiences?
I think so. The first project I did in VR was an out of body experience clinic. The gallery was in Chinatown and we converted it into a clinic that blended into the neighborhood. You had to make an appointment and people would come in and think what the hell? The VR component was down in the basement and I worked as the docent. People would think, where is this tall skinny guy taking me? And in the basement was my shitty computer with these wires coming out of it and a stool and I would sit them down and put the Oculus on them. I did that because I thought it was important to really prime people for the experience.