Serafín Álvarez: wandering into the unknown

Pau Waelder

Serafin Álvarez is an artist and researcher based in Barcelona, who explores themes and concepts associated with liminality, non-human otherness, the journey into the unknown and changes in the perception of reality; and how these are imagined and depicted in contemporary popular culture, with a particular interest in science fiction and fantasy film and video games. Encompassing 3D animation and interactive simulated environments, sculpture and installation, his work has been exhibited internationally.

The work of Serafín Álvarez has been featured in Niio in the artcasts Worlding with the Trouble (curated by Fabbula) and Heterotopias, alongside other international artists. The recent artcast Places of Otherness brings together four of his works, spanning the latest five years of his career. On the occasion of this presentation, we talked with him about the process and concepts behind his work.

Serafín Álvarez, Umbral Autoplay (Video Version), 2018

You have stated that the inspiration for Maze Walkthrough comes from the experience of going from one airport to another while you were producing a previous project. Would you say that both airports and videogame environments are “non-places” meant for endless circulation?

Indeed, airports have often been associated with Marc Augé’s concept of non-place, but I would not put, generally speaking, video game environments in that category, since they are, for many players, places where meaningful relationships are established. In any case, when I did these works I was not so much thinking about the concept of non-place as about liminality. In both cases I looked at certain architectural spaces (corridors and airports) as spaces for transit, circulation, change. Spaces that have not been designed to be inhabited, but to connect other spaces.

“What interests me most about science fiction is the speculation about the unknown and the ways of representing it. That unknown can be an Other, a place, a state of consciousness, a mutation, and so on.”

You are interested in science fiction as an exploration of the Other. In your work, this Other would be the space itself, strange and unpredictable?

One of the things that interests me most about science fiction is the speculation about the unknown and the ways of representing it. That unknown can be an Other (understood as someone different, whether human or of another species), but it can also be a place, a state of consciousness, a mutation, and so on. In my work I have looked at multiple resources that science fiction uses to represent what we don’t know: visual effects, soundtracks, costumes… but you are right that in most of my work there is an important spatial component, an active interest in spaces of otherness.

Serafín Álvarez, A Full Empty. Installation view at CentroCentro, 2018, Photo: Roberto Ruiz

In your works you seek to create an experience, which becomes immersive by allowing the viewer to wander freely through the spaces and free themselves from the impositions of gameplay. How do the sculptural elements you create for exhibitions in physical spaces participate in this immersion?

My work is predominantly digital, but when I exhibit it I’m very interested in its physical dimension. I like sculpture very much and I try to incorporate in my own work that physical relationship between bodies that I enjoy so much when looking at physical objects in the real world. On the other hand, digital work can become a bit schizophrenic, because you can edit and polish details ad infinitum, try one thing, undo it and try another one endlessly. Working with matter is different, it allows me and encourages me to be more intuitive, to let myself go, to establish a less controlling relationship with the materials, and I personally think that brings very positive things to my work.

Serafín Álvarez, A Full Empty, 2018

You have distributed your work as downloadable files that the public can buy for whatever price they want, even for free. What has this kind of distribution meant for you? Do you see other ways of distribution that would be conducive to your work, particularly because of its identification with the language of videogames?

I have two pieces of interactive software on, an interesting platform for independent video games with a very active community. I usually work with physical exhibitions in mind, but distributing part of my work digitally has allowed me to reach other audiences; it has given me a certain autonomy to show and make my work known without having to depend exclusively on institutions, galleries and curators; and being attentive to digital platforms for art distribution has allowed me to get to know the work of a large number of very interesting artists who are active online although they may not have as much presence in the conventional channels of contemporary art.

Serafín Álvarez, Maze Walkthrough. Installation view at MACBA, 2014, Photo: David Mutiloa

It seems that Maze Walkthrough has been better understood in the field of videogames than in the contemporary art world. Do you think this is due more to the aesthetics or to its “navigability”?

I don’t know if better, but different. When I published Maze Walkthrough it was reviewed in some media outside the field of contemporary art and it was very well received. Many people wrote to me, many people commented and shared both the piece of software and the collection of corridors at that I made while conceiving the project. Audiences around science fiction and video games have always interested me, and that such audiences valued my work was something that filled me with joy. One of the things I liked most about that reception was to see people enjoying the piece in a different way than the contemporary art audiences I’m used to, which tend to look at the work in a reflexive way, pondering possible interpretations. I’m very interested in hermeneutics, but it was refreshing to also see people enjoying Maze Walkthrough more from experience than intellect.

Serafín Álvarez, Maze Walkthrough, 2014

A Full Empty, the video you presented as part of the artcast curated by Fabbula, shows a world in which nature has run its course after an industrial era that fell into decay. Do you see in this work an interest in dealing with environmental issues through simulation, or do you continue to explore spaces linked to science fiction narratives?

Both. This work is based on two fictional texts: Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker and, especially, the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers on which Tarkovsky based his film. Both texts are about a forbidden zone to which humans have restricted access and which develops its own ecology, and while making that video I found myself thinking about what the planet would be like once we are no longer here.

“Science fiction and video game audiences have always interested me. I like to see people enjoying the piece in a different way than the contemporary art audiences I’m used to.”

You are interested in freeing the viewer from the tyranny of the camera, but there’s actually an interesting aspect to the camera movement in your work. Normally it’s a forward traveling sequence, following the logic of video game exploration, but in A Full Empty it is, conversely, a backward traveling, which gives it a more cinematic character. Is this a conscious decision in the creation of this piece? Have you thought about working more with camera movements in future works?

Yes, of course it was a very conscious decision. In Roadside Picnic the scientists who study the forbidden zone explore it with great care, because it is full of deadly traps. They have developed hovering vehicles with a “route memorizer” system that, once they have finished an exploration journey into the zone, return them back on their steps in an automated way to reduce the danger, undoing on the way back the exact same route they did on the way out and therefore without falling into the traps already bypassed. The video is influenced by this automated journey of return after having entered a strange place in search of something.

I’m sure I’ll continue working with camera movements, it’s something that fascinates me. Right now I’m involved in developing live simulations that are much less cinematic than the video A Full Empty, but I still think and care a lot about camera movements, no matter how simple they are. Moving the camera is a wonderful expressive resource.

Serafín Álvarez, Now Gone, 2020

In Now Gone you adopt a different aesthetic, which resembles the point clouds created by 3D scanners, to show a mysterious cave inspired by the film Prometheus and the universe of H.R. Giger. What led you to this aesthetic and how would you link this piece to your other works?

The link with other works is a similar interest in the journey, in the passing from one place (or condition, or state…) to another. Also, the arrangement of “intertextual elements”, vestiges that refer to fictional stories as if they were a kind of archaeological objects… although it is true that the aesthetics of Now Gone is different from my previous works. Now Gone was born from an invitation to participate in a publication, Today is a Very Very Very Very Very Very Very Gummy Place by Pablo Serret de Ena and Ruja Press. They sent me a very ambiguous map and asked me to make something from it. My proposal was to build an environment with video game technology. Since the publication was going to be edited in black and white I started to try things using this limitation in a creative manner and, after several experiments, something that worked very well for what I wanted to achieve was to render the images using a 1-bit dither (a graphic technique in which there are only black or white pixels organized in such a way that it produces the illusion of grays, similarly to Ben Day dots in comics). I’m very pleased with the result, in fact I soon returned to a very similar aesthetic in a later work, A Weeping Wound Made by an Extremely Sharp Obsidian Knife, and I’m currently looking at different ways to develop it further in the future.

Serafín Álvarez, A Weeping Wound Made by an Extremely Sharp Obsidian Knife. Installation view at Galeria Estrany de la Mota, 2022, Photo: Roberto Ruiz

Fabbula specializes in curating Virtual Reality projects and immersive experiences. In relation to your work, how do you see the possibilities offered by current VR devices for the dissemination of digital artworks? 

At the moment I haven’t seriously started working with VR. As I mentioned in a previous question, I’m very interested in the relationship between the work, the viewer and the physical space, but generally speaking VR experiences tend to remove that physical space. I’m sure there are interesting ways to incorporate it, but for the moment I haven’t worked in that direction yet.

Lauren Moffatt on the intimacy of VR

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.

Niio @ Unpainted Art Fair ’16 (Munich, Germany)

Earlier this year, Niio Co-Founder Oren Moshe had an opportunity to visit and participate in UNPAINTED lab 3.0 in Munich, Germany, a unique art fair featuring 40 international digital artist organized by artistic director Annette Doms in collaboration with New York curator Nate Hitchcock,  Co-Founder of East Hampton Shed and former Co-Curator of Rhizome (NY).

Oren had the opportunity to join colleagues Chris Fitzpatrick (Director Kunstverein Munich), Nate Hitchcock (Co-Curator, UNPAINTED, New York), Ioannis Christoforakos (Collector, Athens) & VT ArtSalon (Taiwan) on the stage for a panel discussion about “The Impact of Digital Media on Our Real World.” 

Fair participants included international curators and thought leaders, art collectors, gallerists, and artists, as well as an interdisciplinary team, who understand the challenges of these new art forms. It’s fair to say that all were “united by a love of art, innovation and the changing times”. 

Some personal snaps from the weekend:

Unpainted 5
Susanne Rottenbacher

unpainted laptopsUnpainted 4Unpainted 3Unpainted Museum