On the creation of virtual spaces with their own temporality
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Ali Eslami in conversation with Davood Madadpoor and Katharina Ehrl (Sumac Space) on the occasion of the exhibition The Tellers at Villa Romana.
I am assuming you are thinking a lot about futures by engaging on such a lengthy project, False Mirror, which began in 2017. As an extension of that, I say you are thinking about every detail of this future. As you mentioned, the primary motivation for this project is wondering if humans would ever be supposed to live in a virtual world and how we would do so. What about this future intrigues you? What is it about this that compels you to devote all of your time to it?
I think that is how I saw it initially, as a pre-construction of a future that could happen, but the more time I spent building it, the more it became intertwined with the present and my daily experiences in life. So it is kind of hard to think of False Mirror as a future world at the moment, but for me it implies a space that contains its temporality in which I respond to it by contributing my time to this parallel world.
The concept of expansion, engineering of a new reality, this whole process has remained the core of my practice for a long time. The more I tend to model every detail and function within this world, the more complex and sometimes out of control it gets. It has become a sandbox reality that I can rebuild, grow, modify, archive, and play with all at once.
To a great extent it is similar to a kid in a playground playing with modular toys (Lego); the tools at hand and building blocks can be reshaped through imagination. They can be torn apart, destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded.
As a practice, this engineering of other worlds brings a lot of exciting methods and reflections to the reality of life itself. So it functions almost like a feedback loop between the real and unreal. And I think that is the main reason it remains an exciting parallel world to work on and approach as a process that's always ongoing rather than a project with an end goal.
Besides, it is pretty amazing and fun at times to see different aspects of the world that become incompatible and cause various bugs and glitches, which can be quite inspiring when it happens! That is something I have learned by making this world: that it always has certain unstable corners /moments in which things fall apart and get loose, and I find it quite fascinating and surprising when it happens.
For example, two years ago, I encountered this glitch (because of an error in my programming) that would load different spaces all together overlapping each other (instead of unloading the previous ones), resulting in multiplied spaces that in VR was a magnificent experience in itself!
In False Mirror, not only is the world expanding, the body is also evolving, acquiring skills, becoming more capable and becoming more alienated. Do you believe that this new identity – or as we will refer to it, this new virtual identity – is needed to escape reality? Can we not just be ourselves in this fictitious world?
I think the whole idea of the body, at least in my work, is an element that gets explored in relation to its virtual surroundings. So these bodies we talk about have the role of a pawn. They are vessels that allow anyone to embody and navigate the new world through them. Almost like what a car is for us. We drive the car, and as driver, we become one with the vehicle itself.
When I put the VR headset on and start an experience in False Mirror through a modular posthumous body, I am indeed still my (real) self, but the mechanics of my body has been replaced by a new form. I am curious how these virtual bodies that we take over can merge with those who inhabit them. Identity becomes a question mark when anyone can embody a character in False Mirror.
This aspect of virtual identities sometimes gets overblown in the mainstream digital culture, where it is mainly being advertised as a space to freely be yourself. However, this does not take into account how much of your new body, which represents you in these worlds, shapes who you are and, to some extent, blurs with your own identity.
The future is derived from what was and what is. How are memories connected to these alternate realities you create? Or what role do they play?
The fact is that the project has been growing since 2017. I have always had a tendency to record and archive as much as I can because having an archive of memories of a world in expansion is a fantastic tool for thinking and reflecting back on quite deep levels and layers of the ground reality that is being shaped around you.
In fact, in this video performance I show in The Tellers, I explore the memory within the context of False Mirror. The sandbox notion of this world allows us to rethink what memory can be like. For instance, throughout my walkthrough video I reveal some memories of things that never happened or have a chance of happening in the future!
Another way of playing with it is that memories in this example are pinned to virtual zones within spaces, and they can only be seen /revisited by navigating to those zones. This makes me think about what a world might look like if we could only access our memories based on our location in the world. In that world, would we keep moving from place to place to access more memories or the other way around?
No matter how ridiculous it might sound, one can speculate about it in a virtual world like False Mirror.
You stated that reality becomes more fictional as your artistic practice develops; I am curious as to where you wake up in the morning. In the False Mirror or your Amsterdam apartment?
I think the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is itself a human construct. What we call non-fiction or ground truth is based on a lot of things we take for granted.
The same concept applies to a virtual world. The more time spent, the more presence, makes it more accurate, and of course it becomes more real to someone like me – who spent lots of time creating and, at the same time, experiencing it – than to a person who has only spent one hour in there.
Another way to look at it is by comparison with how social media feels like a world of its own. When I scroll through Instagram while I am on a train ride, I get sucked completely into its world and, whether I like it or not, my brain functions and even feels things differently in those states. And in effect we constantly shift between these micro realities in our routine daily life.
How do you perceive False Mirror's position as an artwork? I came to this question through the intersection of several concepts; in one sense, if you have a title such as Virtual Reality Developer, it implies that others might wonder whether False Mirror is a game. Additionally, during our discussions about putting together the exhibition The Tellers, we came across the need for additional technology and skills to show how virtual reality works, even though I was doubtful that we have the necessary infrastructure to do so?
I think the process of world-building in general, whatever the medium, is an artistic practice. It requires the involvement of so many different disciplines such as architecture, game design, sound, system design, cybernetics, and so forth. As a result, all these come together and merge with the power of imagination.
But speaking of media – in my case VR as an emerging technology – I am aware of how demanding presentation of the work can be technically. This makes the presentation of the work to a large extent inaccessible. And that is what I found challenging in my artistic practice. And in response I realized that my outcomes /results do not have to stay in the VR headset waiting to be experienced. My source of work remains in VR, but the outcome can become manifest in different media such as live performance in video format, text, films, or even a physical installation.
Of course, the final experience of the work itself is radically different when it is being watched instead of experiencing hands-on VR. But at the same time, there are things that one can express in a video format that are not possible in VR, and I try to respond to these constraints in a way that, as far as possible, does not compromise the core conceptual intentions within the work.
During our conversation, you said that you are shifting to narrative video. You mentioned trying to deal with the untranslatability of various aspects of reality when attempting to incorporate it into a False Mirror world, both technically and emotionally. Could you elaborate on this and discuss your new approach?
As I said, the core of my practice remains in VR (where the world is being built). But video, which is a new field for me, opens up a lot of great potential for storytelling and narrative, which I can't express otherwise.
The notion of editing and how you can play with time fragments is almost inaccessible in VR. In a VR experience, everything happens in real time and moment to moment. In a video, temporality is more liquid and can be shaped to tell a broader narrative.
On the other hand, I've also been working with VR for seven years already and I feel this shift can be quite refreshing and there are a lot of amazing things to learn that I can grow further with.
Meanwhile, making a physical installation that carries the video work is another thing I'm exploring that adds a new dimension to the creative process. Some aspects of the narrative and world-building can be maintained in the real world or emphasized using tangible physical objects that respond to the overarching narrative of the film.
Katharina Ehrl holds B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from Munich University. Currently, Katharina is part of the curatorial team of the Museum für Neue Kunst in Freiburg, DE. As a curator and researcher, her present interests, which she also pursues within the framework of Sumac Space, are concerned with alternate realities in contemporary art from the Middle East and its different forms of artistic expression. Katharina also researches on documentarism in the Arab world and the broader interactions between society and audio-visual art.
Ali Eslami is an artist and engineer from Iran based in Amsterdam who has been active and experimenting with virtual reality since 2014. His work involves long-term research projects that build up and grow over time through speculations and world-building by carefully observing the nature of reality, the human condition, and constructs that are taken for granted, and trying to push it further to extreme or twisted thresholds. An obsession with cybernetics deriving from his engineering background leads to creating worlds in aspects of both form and function. These experiences manifest as realities that blur fictional and non-fictional narratives, striving to articulate possible futures while questioning the restraints of space, time, and body. In 2016, his VR project won the IDFA DocLab Award for Best Immersive non-fiction and in 2020 the Golden Calf for Best interactive at the Nederlands Film Festival (Nerd_Funk). Aside he is co-curator at STRP Festival and programme advisor at IDFA Doclab.
Davood Madadpoor, born and raised in Tehran, is co-founder and curator of Sumac Space, a digital platform devoted to contemporary art in the Middle East through exhibitions, critical writing and research. As a curator he explores tensions between everyday objects and events and a socio-political landscape in flux, through different narrations, story-telling and fictions which reconstruct the contemporary day-to-day as a mixture of origin, transition and an unknowable future. He currently also works as project coordinator at Villa Romana, Florence.