Layers in a virtual artwork
"All artists are prepared to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?"
Over the years I have thought about what it is that I feel defines virtual art. The questions I asked myself were what makes it unique over other mediums such as painting, sculpture or cinema? I am going to do a series of posts explaining my thoughts on this subject, and it will be split into what I see as "layers" to an artwork created in a virtual space. This is just my perspective and I am sure others may have completely different ways of viewing artwork created in virtual worlds or perhaps their focus lies in a different direction. There are no "rules" in art but it is good to formulate observations and that is my intention. The first layer which I will speak about now is the artwork itself.
For a while now I have been a practicing artist in Toronto, Canada. During this time I have concentrated mainly on the traditional medium of oil painting. Although I enjoyed very much working with static imagery, I had at the same time many ideas that were unrelated to what I was, at the time, painting. Many of these ideas I wanted to convey were narratives involving characters and environments. Narratives that had more depth or duration than I could achieve in my paintings which were essentially a snapshot in time. My medium was paint, and these ideas weren’t coming through the way I had imagined them to. It was around 2006 that this all changed. That was when I was introduced to virtual worlds primarily through Second Life.
I decided to try the online world of Second Life out of curiosity, after reading about it in the newspaper. What I found, to my surprise, was a medium which afforded some very innovative ways of making art. Having a background education in both the visual fine arts and computer animation, I was immediately drawn to the look and construction of virtual world art. Finally, I had found a place where I could develop my stories and characters in ways I had never thought possible. Working within a virtual world meant that I could create art works that have more interaction between the viewer and creator than many traditional art forms, but why might there be a deeper level of immersion?
In 2D painting the viewer generally observes the work from a fixed point directly in front of the artwork, and they are able to interact or connect with it on a certain level. From this static viewing point the viewer is subconsciously influenced by elements within the painting. There are many ways to influence the viewer by using things ranging from colour to symbolism, and to give an idea of one method I will focus on the "eyepath" created through subtle manipulation of the paintings composition. I will then loop these ideas back to how some relate to creating art in virtual worlds.
This work by Mattia Preti is a good example of how to create an eyepath, which is a term that generally refers to how your eye subconsciously moves around within the composition of a painting. Essentially when you view an artwork your eye usually enters from the bottom right side of a painting and follows in a counter clockwise circle moving from focal point to focal point. A focal point is a place in an artwork intended to draw your attention. Some artists are aware of this phenomenon and will work on the 2D plane to lead the viewers eye around their artwork. They are attempting to cycle the viewers eye for as long as possible, as the eye can leave a painting quite easily if the composition is poor. If your eye leaves the painting then the connection or immersion is broken and it is difficult to renew that connection.
Your eye will be drawn to and follow contrasting colours such as white against black. The high contrast will draw your eye there. In this example you can see high contrast in the foreground figures leg against the white table cloth at the bottom center.
The angle of this area of contrast points upward towards the right hand side to where a woman is pointing at the central figure. Your eye follows her gaze or finger to the focal point of the entire painting which is the murder of Amnon by Absalom, son of King David, for the rape of his sister Tamar.
I have made some directional lines in the painting to help see the parts I am referring to.
If you are walking down the street and see a group of people looking in a shop window, there is a very good chance you also will peer in as you walk by, just out of curiosity. Point at something and humans will look automatically. Cats won't but humans will. Similar to this your eye will also follow what figures in a painting are looking or pointing at. It will also move to unique areas that stand out.
So if a painting, for example, is made up of a majority of triangular sharp shapes, the eye will naturally be drawn to a single soft circular shape because of its uniqueness within the painting environment. Same would be true for a painting composed predominately in blue, which had a small area of red in it. Your eye would typically go first to the red portion.
In the painting before us, all the figures are vertical whereas the main character, whom the artist wants you to focus on, is horizontal. If you look at the dark strip of black in the top center of the painting it contrasts strikingly against the blue area on its left side and the assassins hand which holds an important narrative element to the painting... a knife.
Both knives are hard to see against the dark background which forces the viewer to focus on them longer or notice them at a later time. When they are discovered the eye studies them longer because they are a found object with a sense of mystery. When they are discovered you imagine their sharpness and the figures complete vulnerability to them. Also it is the moment before violence which generally is more powerful than the act of or aftermath to violence. If you have seen my build Anna's Many Murders you may have noticed that despite the title you don't actually see Anna murder anyone.
Your eye follows the angle of the blade directly to the face of the figure, and a process called "triangulation" is used whereby the assassins eyes also look down to the figure. This creates the shape of a triangle which circulates the eye.
Look at this painting for a moment and see how your eye is drawn to the central character. I have marked down some of the directional lines which lead to the main character. All these things are used to lead your eye thus keeping you focused on the artwork.
As you can see the artist has created a very strong composition to not only draw you to the central figure, but to also keep your eye within the painting for an extended period of time. Each time your eye wanders it is caught and sent back down into the painting. You will also notice that people could apparently shoot lasers from their eyes way back then.
But this is all looking on a 2D surface that is static. You often will stand back in a gallery and view a painting from six or so feet away. The artist can control you subtly with these techniques and you can be immersed to a degree as you imagine what is happening in the scene.
Now suppose in this gallery a pretty lady or handsome gentleman walks by or your cell phone rings. The connection between the painting and yourself is strained or possibly broken. The artist wants to immerse you, but they are not strong enough to fight against your cell phone or other distractions. So there is a level of immersion but it is very fragile.
Suppose we now look at cinema. If you go to a movie you take a seat, then the lights go dark to reduce any distractions around you. The movie screen is very large to block out your peripheral vision. They want your view to be dominated exclusively by their narrative. They don't want your attention moving past the border of the screen to be distracted by elements outside of the movie itself. There is of course the big glowing red EXIT sign which always reminds you that you are not "in the movie" but rather "watching a movie".
Things like the exit sign are little barriers that keep you from being fully immersed. The goal is to eliminate as many barriers as you can. They then turn the sound up high so that you are again dominated by your senses. You won't hear others talking so easily, and are then less likely to be distracted, and thus have the immersion broken. There is narrative and each scene has its own composition. Big image, overpowering sound, darkness outside the border and hopefully a narrative able to captivate.
But with cinema you are a passive observer to the story. You do not interact but remain separate from the medium. Once the movie ends you can restart it, but the narrative is fixed as well as the camera movement. It will never change regardless how many times you watch it. Creating an immersive environment in a virtual world is an art form with some unique capabilities as well as interesting challenges.
I see the virtual space as a painting you can enter and explore.
A creation which can use tools such as ambient sound, duration, narrative, mystery, interaction, identity, emotion and so forth the same way an artist studio may contain tools such as brushes, wood, clay, paint, wire, canvas and wax. The viewer in a virtual environment can be an active participant who has the ability to choose their direction. They need not view a static image nor follow a scripted camera. They have a choice to determine their own experience within the artwork.
But as such how does one capture the viewers attention if you don't even know from what angle they are viewing your work? A painter knows generally where the viewer stands in front of their painting so they can plan ahead as we saw with Preti's painting.
In cinema they also lead you from event to essential dialogue and so on, often in a recognizable formula. You don't break away from their fixed camera. You are led by it. You can't stop and look inside a desk drawer or behind a door.
In a virtual world I create what I call Immersiva or immersive environments.
I attempt to build environments which allow the viewer to become engrossed within an experience to the extent that they forget about everything around them for a time. This medium has the potential to create a sense of immersion that surpasses the abilities of other more traditional ones like painting or cinema.
The way I do this is by combining a variety of elements. I begin by taking an experience of my own and converting it into a narrative. It might be a hope, dream or regret from my life but it must be something I am connected to in order for me to properly understand and convey it. I think everything you create must have something of yourself in it or it will come out sterile. You know yourself deeply and if you can translate some of what you know into an artwork then others will see a truth in it if they possess a degree of empathy. This is because you are expressing something you understand.
So for example I could do a virtual environment based on my feelings of being lost in a winter storm. I have, in the past, been in knee deep snow wandering aimlessly only being able to see ten feet in front of me. I know that experience and can portray the anxiety associated with it. If I was asked to portray everyday life in Africa I would fail. The work would probably be made up of stereotypes of things that I have heard about Africa since I have never actually been there. If my creation was then shown to someone from Africa they may well laugh and say there are no similarities at all. A mere caricature.
The real talent in an artist is to be able to filter something of themselves into an artwork.
Often I will convert my narrative into poetry and hide them as written notes in a landscape. The notes help to create a sense of immersion as the viewer is drawn into a story with mystery being an element used for that purpose. People enter my environment and may or may not find these notes or other hidden elements, but my focus is also on the joy of discovery. Knowing you have found something that others have missed, or being able to show others hidden secrets or meanings in an artwork are elements which I believe enhance the experience. The immersion comes with looking below the surface of a work and into the hidden layers.
When I first began building work in Second Life, I generally made one off sculptures that would have moving parts, sound, steam, etc. The viewer could come and look at my work from all different angles, but they didn’t really interact with it. I soon realized that I could create sculptures that had interactive elements integrated into them, so that a particular action on the part of the viewer would cause a change in the sculpture. Perhaps the viewer might find a way to activate a panel that would slide away, and they could see the inner workings, or a poem would be revealed that would hint at a deeper story. This made possible the ability to engross or guide my viewers throughout a narrative which was, essentially, a diary of all my hopes, dreams and sorrows. I kept these feelings hidden in my first life, but somehow the anonymity of a virtual identity was an outlet that let me express these emotions.
The viewer can walk around within my constructed environment, in any direction, experiencing ambient sounds, weather, wind and music; they can find hidden clues and treasures that will lead them deeper into the narrative. Sometimes they feel a part of what is happening around them including joy or anxiety. They can come back as often as they would like, experiencing the same work in different ways each time. My visitors are active participants in my art works, in a way that isn’t possible with my two dimensional paintings. Within my constructed world online, people can inhabit the story; they can go beneath the lakes surface, they can go inside the house in the distance, they can watch the insects leap out from beneath their feet in the grass and they can inhabit a narrative that they have followed for three or four years, not simply a snapshot in time. They can, essentially, turn to see who Mona is smiling at.
Many tell me that they have had deep emotional reactions to my work including weeping. I don't recall anyone ever telling me they wept at seeing one of my paintings, actually I think one of my first year painting professors said that a work I had done made him weep, and I don't think he meant it in a positive way. But what this means to me is that this medium potentially allows the artist to create a deep immersion to an extent beyond that of others. And this is despite artworks being shown on a computer screen much smaller than that in a cinema. Our peripheral vision when looking at a laptop or desktop screen is bombarded with distractions yet virtual worlds overcome this. Now imagine incorporating virtual headsets allowing for 360 degree viewing of virtual environments as well as headphones blocking out unwanted sounds beyond that of the virtual narrative, and you have a very powerful art form.
This is, to me, what I see as the first layer of the virtual artform. There is of course many artforms that can exist, but I am focusing on that of the Immersivist. My next post will talk about the second layer to virtual art which is the avatar and identity.