Lauren Moffatt on the intimacy of VR

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Fabien Siouffi

On the occasion of our collaboration with Fabbula on the artcast Worlding with the Trouble, which features the work of Lauren Moffatt, Serafín Álvarez, and Xenoangel, we are featuring in this post an interview by guest author Fabien Siouffi with artist Lauren Moffatt.

Following the selection of Lauren Moffatt as the first recipient of Fabbula’s Worlding with the Trouble programme, Fabien Siouffi discusses with the artist her trajectory towards the VR medium. 

Worlding with the Trouble is a commission and production programme designed to support artists, hackers and thinkers in the creation of disconcerting, heady virtual worlds, translating radical thoughts into multi-sensory experiences. 

I’d love for you to trace back your trajectory as an artist. When did you start with VR, and what have you done with it so far?

I’m a graduate of painting and drawing but actually all through my studies there was an almost even balance between time-based media and painting, and even while I was studying I was integrating animation and different types of experimental image making into my painting. This culminated in a painted animation from my graduate work, and around that time I started to get really interested in embodied experiences and how to visualize what someone sees through their eyes. I started creating self portraits and then I moved onto trying to show other people’s views.

Considering this form of representation also led me to think about how our visual system works, the fact that we’re only focused on one thing that our eyes are scanning all the time and that we’re seeing parts of our faces as we look at the world around us. To me, this was a very intimate way to try and represent a world from inside someone’s body. What I found missing was questioning the visual system when certain aspects of it don’t belong in this objective table system in which everything is delineated with a horizon line. Everything starts with this fictional line. This is quite different to the way that we subjectively see things and the way that we also trace the narrative and our surroundings, as we go about our day to day. And so, it became clear at some point that painting wasn’t the right medium for these experiments that I was doing because it was taking too long. It was too complicated to bring these images that I wanted to make to the surface of a canvas.

I started working with digital images and animating them using video editing software and then I started making videos and editing them. This progressively led to a series of works in which I was building multi camera rigs, performing in public spaces while wearing these camera costumes and filming with them. I made this footage into a massive collage by manually knitting together 360 degree perspectives to create immersive videos. And by chance, it was around this time that 3D was becoming big and I received some funding and support to train in stereoscopic filmmaking. Actually, Céline Tricart was one of my trainers in Prague. She taught me how to make stereoscopic images interesting in video. 

Lauren Moffatt, On Hybrids and Strings. Image courtesy of the artist and Fabbula.

From there I went on to do a fellowship at Le Fresnoy, and it was there that I started working with VR. I wanted to do something really different and so I created the first documentary piece that I’d ever made, which was also the first VR piece that I’ve ever made. This was a piece called The Oculist Reason. I was really interested in history and the way that virtual documentation could possibly change the way that history is written. And so I used as a case study a dome-shaped painting in Liverpool and looked at it from different points of view, creating a virtual reproduction of the painting and telling its story and that of the events it describes. The next project I did was made in collaboration with a Korean filmmaker. It was an adaptation of a sequence from one of his films to VR, and it led us to think about the way that this translation changes the rules for cinema. And also about how there isn’t this cutoff between cinema and life anymore, everything is cinema and cinema is life. 

I started working with digital images because I realized that it was too complicated to bring these images that I wanted to make to the surface of a canvas.

From there I went on to make a piece called Image Technology Echoes, which has been in production for the last two years and in development for another year before that. It deals with the separation between the body and the mind, and the idea that there could be an homunculus that lives inside your mind and that is controlling everything and perceiving everything from this more interiorized point of view than the one that you are  aware of in your everyday dealings. And so in this case you can step inside each of the characters: there are two characters in an art gallery, watching an exhibition and having a conversation. As you approach them, you become transported into their mind space, a room of their own where there are some clues about who these people are. So as a viewer, you jump between these different realities and if you choose to pay close attention, then you might find out why these two people are together and what’s going on inside their minds and what’s going on between them in this conversation. However, a lot of people just like to move between all of these different spaces and look at things from different points of view, so there is no right or wrong way to to experience it.

Lauren Moffatt, Image Technology Echoes. Image courtesy of the artist

About your relationship with the medium VR in general, I’m interested in knowing why it has caught your attention? What do you see in this medium that feels special for your work?

What I find really special is that I can build a subjective space that brings together many things that I’ve been working on for many years before all of this technology became available to me. And I find it also quite powerful in the sense that you can build an entire architecture that encloses the person and, if the viewing conditions are right, they can feel safe inside it and completely suspend their disbelief in this thing that you’ve built. And this is even more powerful than a physical installation because it becomes so intimate. The intimate relationship that is created between the viewer and the piece is something that is quite appealing to me because I’m often working with intimate concepts that I’m trying to transmit to the people I’m showing my work to. There is an intensified relationship between the viewer, and you as an artist, expressing something about the medium itself, and producing subjective realities. 

Which subjective realities are you interested in conveying or which ones do you think come out with this medium that could not come out with others?

In VR you can create quiet meditative spaces where you have time to engage with ideas that play a little bit foreign or a little bit difficult to take seriously unless you really pay attention. When you get the viewer’s undivided attention, you can build empathy, and that can be really powerful when you tell human stories with this medium. The attention that the audience gives to the objects or the surfaces or whatever it is that you’re constructing in these environments is much more focused because of how they are delivered to them.

What I find really special about VR is that I can build a subjective space that encloses the person and make them feel safe inside it and completely suspend their disbelief in this thing that you’ve built. 

You once stated that VR can represent realities that we hold inside our minds.

Yes, I find it interesting to think about the way that reality is for us intimately, how we build our perception of reality and how often our ideas and our imagination are suppressed by our need to adapt to our environment. So it’s interesting to create spaces where it is possible to explore the interior life of a person and that this is not something that’s scary, or formless, or unhealthy. 

For instance, I was quite inspired by Notes on Blindness (2016), a VR experience based on a film which I found very interesting. There have been a number of works that I thought were really interesting, because they were not just constructing visible realities but also constructing points of view and  allowing you to realize how much of the lives of all of the people around me are invisible to me.

Lauren Moffatt, The Unbinding. Image courtesy of the artist

Do you feel that there is a particular area or subject matter that comes out in your work that only comes out with this medium?

Yes, there are some formulas, some narrative resources and themes that tend to surface, but it’s difficult to point them out because I’ve noticed that the audience who visit my work, had a really different experience of it to what I saw when I made it. So there’s an openness to interpretation, while it is also true that frequently strong feelings such as anxiety or melancholy emerge from the VR experiences. However, the artworks are more of an invitation to explore other realms of realities all in their complex layers rather than simply an exposition of a theme. It is often rather cryptic, so there are a lot of different interpretations that could come from it.

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