Esther Splett is one of three VR Technology Residents at Canadian Stage. We were lucky enough to catch up with them during the three week intensive.
What are you exploring during this residency?
I’ve been primarily exploring and familiarizing myself with popular VR platforms such as VR Chat and Altspace. The variety of groups congregating in VR came as a surprise to me, ones I wouldn’t have assumed to utilize virtual reality the way they do, such as rural farming communities and religious groups. I’ve also been working on small scale performances, exercises and experiments within Altspace and Multibrush, while learning world building tools. I’m particularly interested in learning the medium in order to create immersive experiences, performances and sound installations beyond this residency.
What made you interested in emergent technology and how do you envision incorporating it into your artistic practice?
I’ve always been interested in computer games and digital art, but had very little experience using a headset before this residency. A year ago during lockdown, my friend and I, while quarantined together, began spending a lot of time in VR Chat, play-acting and chatting with strangers. I was playing on a dying laptop with no VR headset, and my experience was somewhat degraded, but the artistic and performative possibilities suggested by the medium intrigued me.
In VR chat, people use their avatars as costumes to role play different characters or personas, often non-human ones such as animals, hotdogs or walking christmas trees. While I don’t think virtual reality on its own liberates from the influences of gender, class, or race, not being limited to the constraints of one’s physical body or the identities imposed upon you by the outside world offers a certain curious sense of freedom.
I am intrigued by what this freedom constitutes and the possibilities in exploration and expression of the self it offers in combining storytelling, gameplay systems design and performance.
The thought of a new medium often came to mind during the pandemic quarantine period, when I regularly played tabletop roleplaying games with a group of friends using virtual meetings. My work has always dealt with embodiments of the extreme, the excessive or grotesque, whether to do with femininity or the darker aspects of self that cause shame. Bringing these new tools and approaches into my artistic practice is something I’m especially excited to experiment with, to create echoes of the physical world while not bound by its inherent limitations.
What possibilities open up through this new medium?
The relationship between the user and the avatar as it exists in the VR medium is of particular interest as it offers new and fascinating, emotionally-resonant possibilities, raw material for continued exploration. An element highly specific to this medium is the physicality of that relationship, the sensory connection existing between the user and the avatar.
Just as the varied and imaginative use of visual trickery and optical illusions has been broadly explored in the arts, the sensory immediacy of VR and the connection between the user and the avatar come with a plethora of techniques and phenomena that may find similar, powerful use. Phenomena like sensory aberrations in ownership of the virtual body and self-location and worlds that defy conventions of spatial logic; geometric shapes that levitate in the air, a tiny cow sitting atop a massive hamburger, the strangeness of being insubstantial while passing through solid objects and people; these illusions specific to VR can be used to create new kind of performances and immersive art.
What discoveries have you learned in the process?
I had only worn a VR headset once before and was not familiar with virtual reality at all. I joked at the beginning of the residency that we should all watch The Lawnmower Man together, since that was one of my few reference points. Before starting this residency, what I envisioned creating were mostly complex immersive theatre-type pieces. I am now more familiar with both the strengths and limitations of the medium and have a better sense of what approaches are the most emotionally-resonant. From what I have experienced so far, asking the audience to do or watch anything too demanding can be distracting or difficult to focus on, since the experience of prolonged headset use presents a significant challenge in and of itself, often becoming physically painful and exhausting, with headaches and nausea a frequent complaint. Very simple gestures in VR can often feel meaningful or interesting. During the residency, we spent a good 20 minutes or so enthralled by the act of throwing virtual snowballs or rockets at each other’s faces, or climbing into each other’s bodies. Once we hid our bodies together in a massive ball so that only parts of our hands and faces were poking out, and experimented with weaving our hands in and out in complex, abstract geometric patterns.
Can you share some of the challenges as an artist working with this type of technology?
The most challenging aspect is the prolonged wear of the headset itself, which is often a physically-exhausting and painful ordeal. I usually need to take breaks every half hour or so and suffer frequent headaches as well as bouts of nausea associated with the headset. The graphics in communal chat based VR worlds are also extremely low fidelity, lagging far behind what we’ve come to expect in video games and media, creating a virtual feeling of being permanently stuck in the 90’s. The avatars in Altspace are particularly uninspiring – blocky puppet looking characters with frozen smiles and marionette arms. Not very engaging as “actors”, these stiff and unintentionally creepy avatars can make watching traditional plays transposed into VR worlds a bit unsettling.
How does the VR experience enhance the creation and performance experience?
I think by leaning into the strangeness of VR, as well as the sense of wonder in shared exploration of virtual landscapes with others, we can create sensory and storytelling experiences not possible in other media. Something I asked myself and my collaborators at the beginning of this residency was, “Why VR?” When creating work within a medium, it’s important for me to have a clear understanding of why this particular medium has been chosen. The mood I have been intuitively drawn towards in my experiments and miniature performances created during this residency has been tied to the concept of hauntology or experiences of the uncanny. The physical body haunting an unknown and emerging virtual world. A sense of melancholy as the virtual world forms a clumsy facsimile of the reality beyond it, a world suffering plagues, ecological collapse and the looming threat of war, as well as the sense of awe and wonder when we leave that world behind and find ourselves somewhere new. At once familiar and alien, a world not yet entirely demarcated or wholly-understood.
Though the image of virtual reality has long been associated with the promise of the future, the current technical limitations often leave us experiencing a clunky retro 90’s aesthetic. Virtual reality feels retro not out of nostalgia or an attempt to be ‘cool’, but due to its evocation of that era’s roughness and newness. While the poor graphics, clumsy avatars and painful, cumbersome headsets can be an irritant, they parallel the early days of the internet, the early development of digital art and online culture. As a child of the 90’s who was frequently online when a dial-up connection took 15 minutes, I remember the sense of this internet being a secret place, one full of endless possibilities that weren’t diminished by how slow, difficult, ugly and frustrating the online experience of that time actually was.
It is important to cultivate these kinds of spaces- virtual, emotional, creative and physical, that resist the monopolies of capitalism, that retain their essence and peculiarities without yielding to the ever-present encroachment of finance, marketing and branding.