I have been dragging my feet about writing about precedents and wondering why I am doing so. I think there are two key factors:
I am nervous about people finding my writing about their projects, and for them to feel that I have not done the project justice
Writing about something that is not written is more difficult for me than writing about writing. Converting information across mediums takes me a little longer to figure out and it takes a while to get into the groove of "seeing" in a way that produces analysis.
Anyway. Let's get into it. Some of these I've held close since my honours year (2018) so they feel cozy and familiar, while others are new and only just encountered. I'm sure whatever my angle of analysis or major take-away is right now will change later too.
Virtual Drag (2016)
By Alison Bennet, Megan Beckwith & Mark Payne
[images are screenshots from the 360 video]
Available here as 360 video
They've also produced a video essay available here
I've been able to experience the 360 video but not the whole set-up at a film festival; at showings they've had the viewing area set up with make-up vanities, mirrors, feather boas and so on (I wish I could find pictures of this or identify which film festival it was for... but I remember seeing it. promise!) This sort of design of the "onboarding zone" of where the participant puts on the VR headset is something that is really essential to VR experiences in general, and playing around with how this can extend the narrative or world-building found in the vr experience is something that I always enjoy encountering. From memory, Neurospeculative Afrofuturism (2016) also took a similar approach with having a hairdressing seat and "mirror" in front of the participant, although this more closely reflected (lol) the internal vr experience of being at a beauty salon.
Back to Virtual Drag - the experience consists of 360 video of fantastical landscapes populated by photogrammetry scans of drag queens and kings, duplicated and animated. The visual style embraces low-poly rendering and the glitchy textures that come from photogrammetry processes rather than attempting faithful reproduction of "reality". This embracing of the material qualities of digitisation and VR as a whole reflects the argument put forth in their accompanying video - that the virtuality and performative nature of digital spaces such as VR are conceptually interwined and compatible with performative understandings of gender. This sort of queer methodology where queering is a way to reconsider the material and instrumental applications of digital media (what does it look like and feel like, what does it do) is so valuable and exciting to me! I think this sense of instrumentalisation(? for lack of a better word) is really vital to me, rather than using queerness as only a metaphor... I haven't fully nailed down what I mean by this difference, but I can sense it, so i'm going to keep poking at it.
This precedent is really core to me for my understanding of digital medias and virtual reality in particular, especially the dedication to troubling distinctions between "real" and "virtual". It makes me really want to try out photogrammetry. Two things I'm keeping track of with precedents is 1) how interaction is integrated and 2) what forms "bodies" take (since my whole thing is all about..... embodiment.)
Virtual drag has minimal, if any, interaction from the participant; I don't know how it was set up at festivals but it's largely an experience of looking around as the world moves past you. This spectatorship works well in this sort of environment I think (considering the content is drag queens and kings, which already brings with it a particular performer-audience relationship) but interaction is something that I'd like to think more about for my own meaning-making strategies. The participant doesn't have an avatar or form, and as I've mentioned, the drag queens and kings are somewhat glitchy forms, with sparkly edges where polys have gotten a little sketchy and rudimentary animations. The mannequinness of moving limbs and still faces is sooooo cool and feels very.... entwined in the spectatorship of witnessing drag queens and kings, too, somehow? like I said, the whole piece has layers and layers of negotiation and play around "realness", and I think the obviousness of the puppetry at hand is an enrichment rather than a limitation.
These forms are duplicated throughout the environments at different scales, sometimes with empty chunks, or sometimes rendered as shiny bubbles or huge gray monoliths on the horizon, or layered and joined in one big mass... I love the play with the structural and conceptual integrity of "the body" in digital reproduction that's going on here. Especially repitition of image; I think ideas of duplication/quality/value are soooo essential to Digital Medias and how this plays out with images or constructions of bodies is really interesting.
Overall I love this project because it's so intent on embracing the idiosyncracies and unique affordances of VR for queer purposes. It takes all the things that most developers see as bugs or issues and sees them as opportunities to create meaning and ENJOYMENT! and the fun and joy of the piece is really important too!
Queering The map (2017- ongoing)
by Lucas LaRochelle
The One <3 The Only <3 ... this was going viral right as I was starting my honours work in 2018 and it really shaped my thinking then and is STILL very important to me. Queering the Map is a geographical database of queer moments, anecdotes, histories, all shared anonymously; anyone on the website can drop a pin and write an entry on the map. I had the joy of watching LaRochelle speak about it recently at the H.O.R.I.Z.O.N Launch.
Something LaRochelle discussed in their talk was the differentiation of "gay and lesbian" vs "heterosexual" space - as fairly fixed, subject-oriented concepts that tend to see gay and lesbian spaces as designated and marginalised areas, vs a conceptualisation of queering space, which instead is an in flux designation centred on action and use of space, which can be done anywhere. Critical geography (queer or otherwise) is not something I'm familiar with so I'm interested in unpacking this more. Part of this understanding of queering space (apart from the performative/action focused lens rather than identity) also comes with a more critical view of representation/invisibility discourses, which can be seen in the design of the map itself.
Ok it's hard to stay concise because the talk was soooo dense with interesting, interrelated ideas. My following chatter is mostly me trying to process and integrate knowledge, please do yourself the favour of just listening to the talk <3. I'm excited to rewatch it! They covered Sara Ahmed's queer phenomology (<333) and how it provides a spatialised understanding of sexual orientation, as well as Esteban Munoz's (<333) theorisation of performance as being something that leaves traces.... the traces being what queering the map records and re-articulates for others. LaRochelle clarified that QTM is queer on the level of content - i.e the stories that people share are queer - but also on the level of form, which is relevant and exciting for me in thinking through digital medias and queerness. Even the fact that QTM is a database rather than a linear narrative! aah. So much to talk about and think about. Let me focus.
QUEERING INTERFACE: the map has no search function. You can zoom in and out, and drag yourself around, but there is no suggested viewing order. There is no content stream! This is exciting. It is an expansive offering of content that encourages individual agency when exploring, while also showing the enormity of the community contributions.
There is also no identified "user" - in that there is no user profile attached to you as a browser or as a contributor. This anonymity is really important in what it allows for queer participants, in that it doesn't require coming out to participate in storytelling and history sharing. The anonymity also makes stories "unverifiable" and there's plenty of storytelling in the map that might be more fantasy than actual experience. This is cool! This is exciting. It's so interesting how the form of the interface and the decisions regarding anonymity have led to particular experiments and playing around from users, and also the breadth of experiences it has enabled people to share.
There's no representation of bodies in QTM other than textual.. and there are many textual representations of bodies. QTM can really be seen to be making virtual space for queer bodies to inhabit, or at least the stories of queer bodies. QTM functions as an archive in that it collects "real world" stories and makes them visible - so it is queering those physical spaces - but it is also queering digital space with its interaction design and prioritisation of particular experiences. I really like this back and forth and interrelation between physical and virtual, the way that even though the only integration of the two is via static map illustrations, there's a real dynamism to how the spaces interact.
This feels like a scattered overview but I think this project just has so many interesting facets and valuable insights. I think in more formal analysis I will have to be careful to specify what particular angle of approach I am taking so that I feel like I can just focus on that one element, instead of trying to point at everything that is interesting. Eg. The fact it got attacked with trumpbots, required protection, and still has to be moderated by people (namely LaRochelle)... the labour of moderation (particularly in this instance) is something I'm really interested in, since this very human work of care and attention becomes the only way the digital platform can even function. There's so much going on!
This project was sooo key to my first initial understandings of how interface itself is a meaning-maker. It's also really key for thinking through queer histories and approaches to representing them. Something I have been thinking about recently is the loneliness of VR, especially in non-networked experiences, where you're kind of vacuum sealed off into this other world. Which has its own benefits, but I want to think more about void/fullness, and also consider how I can bring in connections/community/multiplicity into a vr space.
AKA Habitat One: Regenerative Interactive Zone of Nurture, produced by the Institute of Queer Ecology
[images from IQECO website]
This is a "participatory artwork" that you can download and run around in :) it's fairly representational, since it's an island with discrete areas like the kitchen, cabins, a "stage" / ampitheatre where the talks were screened. The IQECO website has some framing copy that positions it as a community in the not-too-distant-future, as "a prototype for the kind of world that once seemed impossible. Ours is a community formed through sym-poiesis, where science and speculation, fact and fable comingle in profound and productive ways."
Guggenheim and IQECO position H.O.R.I.Z.O.N as an open library/digital commune sort of space. I'm really interested in the approach of representing a to-scale-ish island and emulating i guess an equivalent of a "real world" commune (or maybe more accurately, ideas of "real world" communes). I need to do more reading about small communities and little utopian societies.... paging thea...
At each area of the island you can access files that other users have uploaded, and you can open the chat anywhere to start talking. It has a real early 2000s video game feeling (as a non.... gamer.... lol). It's so second-lifey! I say as someone with only very passing familiarity with second life. I'm interested in what comes from having this space be recognisable in this way, and what comes from seeing the space as analogous to a physical environment, even if it's idealised and stylised. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, in me at least, for early internet fun with friends, and the kind of utopian rose-tinted-glasses hope that coloured those experiences where Anything Seemed Possible Through The Joys Of The Internet. A little touch of internet age hauntology at play. At the same time, I think there's something really interesting in having a simulated physical space that is leaning into the artificiality like this.... obviously this is partly due to production constraints, but it makes me wonder about how this sort of experience can encourage a "how would i make this happen IRL"/"where do I find this IRL?" line of thought in a way that a non-simulatey, non-representational interface can.
(But also I am thinking about what a non-simulatory, non-representational interface for a similar commune/library would achieve. What sort of movements and spaces could exist beyond "running" to "buildings"... what could exist in a digital environment that did not simulate a physical referent, or, maybe, simulated a different physical referent? like bugs, or clouds. or slime. hehe. )
Individual participants in H.O.R.I.Z.O.N all have the same IQECO jumpsuit form with glowy, drippy pink heads and hands <3 i loveeee ghostly gloopy body forms. There's something interesting in having a "default" form that everyone is given, and to have everyone resemble one another, both in physical form and movement pattern. Kind of like, why does my pink goop have to be contained rn! I'm sure there's a huge body of research and commentary on default video game avatars and what they assume about a user, so I will likely end up looking into that.... I think the blobby ghostly pink head and hands are working to allay some of the issues but I'd like to see what other approaches can be taken (other than, say, infinitely customisable character creation screens).
Animal Massage (2016)
Multisensory artwork/experience/performance by Seanna Musgrave
[images from Seanna Musgrave's website]
There's not a lot of documentation online so I'm largely relying on Bonnie Ruberg's coverage in The The Queer Games Avant-Garde (2020). It's also on itichio for 10$ so I'm going to give it a go soon, although it won't have the performance aspects. During the experience the participant lies down while wearing a VR headset (! which I've never tried doing!?) and when they see things in their environment, Musgrave touches the participant using different textured objects.
I'm seriously obsessed with this work. I am really, really into the threshold of VR as an edge of vulnerability and potential, and it's amazing to see someone work with it so sensitively. Anyone who has been in VR before and had someone poke them or push them or anything knows how weird it is. Don't do that! It's awful! It feels like an intrusion from another world, because in that moment it is. It's so disturbing. For Musgrave to work with that vulnerability-potential-intensity to create enjoyment and pleasure is so interesting and cool. Musgrave does use textures and objects that emulate what people see in the environment (feathers when seeing birds), which probably helps it to feel concordant rather than disturbing. Which is an interesting flip; the physical world simulating the virtual, rather than the other way around.
Both interface and bodily experience are really core to this work. The user doesn't "do" anything, but what is done to them works in a particular way to make their boundaries present - rather than an experience where someone is a spectator in a virtual world being zoomed around, feeling like a floating disembodied viewer, the introduction of touch keeps the participant aware of their skin and physical presence. Their bodily form in the vr world is a stock mannequin, bald and clothes free; a kind of obviously-not-you stand-in. The interview in The Queer Games Avante Garde has soooo many interesting insights from Musgrave about the design decisions; even simple things like: "When you play a vr game at a conference, most of the time you wait in a long line, they put a headset on you, you play for a minute, and it’s amazing, because all vr stuff is amazing, but for everyone around you it’s weirdly dystopian to watch. I wanted to make something that was interesting to see happening." (pg 148.)
Duh!!!! there's so much care and intricate attention for all of the aspects of experiencing VR, it's great. Musgrave talks a lot about prioritising intimacy, tactility and, basically, feeling, which sounds simple, but considering the primacy of "looking and listening to cool stuff" as a design rubric for vr, it's really groundbreaking to have someone articulate their methodology in this way. The work is about but also primarily consists of the relationship between the participant and the artist, and Musgrave identifies this approach as informed by both her queerness and transness. Musgrave's approach to relating across the juncture of the physical world and virtual environment shows a really lovely queer ethos of care and intimacy, and I think it'll be nice to tease some of this out more (probably via Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.....).
Ruberg has a lot of great writing on queer video games that I will be getting into more deeply as I keep going, but mostly I'm so glad I got to hear about this project and investigate it more, and like I said, I'm excited to give it a go :)
This is obviously only a couple of projects.... I really want to try and find some in depth documentation of Jacolby Satterwhite's work, and spend time really unpacking the work of Micha Cárdenas and Zach Blas (who I got to see in convo w/ Legacy Russell as part of the horizon launch as well!!!). I've found sooo many cool and interesting things over the last week and it's kind of overwhelming to try and think about categorising and annotating them!! Since I obviously have a lot to say lol. I've also been enjoying E-Flux's screening of artists' films; I particularly enjoyed Sondra Perry's piece about her brother's experience in NCAA basketball, where his likeness was used by EA Games without his permission or any compensation. I have a lot to say about how interesting it is but i will save it for another time. Hehe.