Healing virtual realities

Eric Mason interviews virtual reality performance artist Vincent Vincent

North American artist Vincent Vincent was in Perth recently (February 28 to March 5) for a series of lectures and performances. I caught up with him following a demonstration of his company’s Mandala Systems technology at the Alexander Library Theatre.

EM Your visit to Perth was organised by Revelation magazine and the Department of Commerce and Trade. What was Revelation’s interest in your work?

VV They probably connected with one of the things we occasionally do and which has become popular—live link-ups in the Rave scene. We have sold Mandala Systems specifically for this. Within the techno community or the Rave community, there’s a real sense of global community. Often organisers will try to link up Raves between two places with teleconferencing or See You See Me or whatever they can basically get hold of. Mandala systems are starting to be used in Raves really as a sort of play-toy in this way.

EM How would you describe the Mandala Systems technology developed by the Vivid group?

VV It’s a new form of interface for the computer, a very hands-off kind of interface because you’re just stepping in front of the video camera and then you’re inside the computer world with which you can interact. The fact that we chroma-key people in means they’re able to put themselves in context with a surrounding world and treat it like a reality in the computer whilst trying to make the interaction as natural and as smooth as possible—whether that’s an art performance, a sports simulation or a business presentation. By allowing the computer to know where the body is and letting the person actually be a part of a live environment, we’re able to allow the person to interact with the graphics, control them and play with them.

EM During your seminar you were saying that you originally devised the technology for use in performance art.

VV My first thoughts of doing something with computers really came about from being involved in dance, music and visual arts and being a psychotherapist in art therapy. I just happened to be lucky enough to be at a university where people were thinking about computers. This was before multimedia computers showed up. The first idea was to be a dancer and create the music from my dancing, because when I was dancing I would hear a lot of additional music in my head and that would make me want to pick up an instrument and play that music out.

I teamed up with my partner Francis McDougal and we came up with a solution that was fairly lightweight in terms of hardware, versus my original ideas which involved huge plates with infra-red beams, light shows and stuff. First we had to get it down into the computer and create graphical worlds that we could step into. That let it be a bridge technology for performance art which involved being a computer artist in the computer while I was performing. I could be a juggler, or a mime artist or an actor or a dancer or a musician just by choosing which environment I wanted to go into. It was the idea of having complete control over the computer’s data base of worlds that would allow it to be a performance medium. Then of course it was a matter of creating all those worlds and then being able to string them together in performance.

EM What will your performances in Perth involve?

VV They will be half hour performances employing the Mandala Systems technology and then a live link up to Toronto where someone there will step into the environment with me and we’ll do stuff together. After that the link up worlds will be there and the public will be invited to play inside them. The performance will be a combination of juggling, stick twirling, dancing and playing guitar, both in the real world and in the virtual world. The main idea behind the performance is to heighten the idea of your own body in a space and to do this by taking you into a virtual world.

EM The worlds we saw were static and two dimensional. Do you have any plans to expand these environments into 3D moving ‘scapes that you can actually go into and explore?

VV The system we have here is Amiga system and its very old and it’s unfortunate that this is the one we were constrained to bring on tour. We actually work on Silicon Graphics machines now which are dramatically different but the Amiga travels better! As the company has evolved the focus has been games and public installations, so we haven’t had the time to build up more sophisticated performance worlds on the PC and SGIs. These new worlds are very much 3-D worlds you can travel into. Part of this work is happening in partnership with Intel and this is the way we are headed now.

EM What sort thematic concerns do you concentrate on in your performance work?

VV It’s very much like a dreamscape in that a lot of the imagery evokes this sense. It was one of the original ideas and one that I am sticking with. I like the idea that you can create a dreamscape and have people step into it and use it therapeutically. The metaphorical images and transitions through time and space when you are dreaming are very interesting to me. It’s like travelling from world to world, going through either obvious portals or just quick changes of entire scenes.

EM So that’s an experience you’d like to impart to your audience.

VV Yes. Over time there have been other themes, like we do a lot of environmental work in Canada. We run the Earth Day for the City of Toronto where they put on very large concerts and for that we’ll create songs or worlds that have environmental messages in them about solar power or something. For the most part it’s very much a journey through the unconscious and little themes and snippets of time space scenarios appear. For example, the idea of jumping back and forth in time and space or taking imagery from daVinci and then something from Easter Island and then a 2001 theme where we play it out. We emphasise time-space trajectories—when your in this dream world you can be jump between these very quickly. Therefore we have a lot of space imagery, a lot of travelling through corridors where you get the sense of being lost, and then arriving someplace.

EM Some of the new media art’s use of technology is attacked from other areas of art and performance art as being techno gimmickry—techno people playing with toys.

VV It’s true for the most part, but I’ve always been of the view, and this comes from my background as a creative therapist, that everyone is creative and that everybody is an artist. It’s been quite an interesting trip being on a lot of panels with artists and art aficionados who are very much into the idea that the artist must be maintained as a separate entity. The genius notion. To me this is the greatest time we’ve ever had because there is so much opportunity for everyone to find some way to be creative. Multimedia is accessible to more people and especially to technologists who are traditionally not seen as creative but in fact are immensely creative within their own realm. It’s the visualisation of each other’s creativity that’s the important thing. I learned that from my partner Francis who is the brains behind the computer aspect of what we do.

EM Have you had much to do with the Banff New Media Centre which is reasonably well known in Australia?

VV No, not really. In the beginning, yes, but they moved into headset related areas of virtual reality with SGIs and we didn’t have that kind of gear or focus. At the moment they seem to be in a phase of retraction with a withdrawal of a lot of their government support. It’s a good centre and they have done a lot of exploratory work and pieces there. One piece by Brenda Laurel, who works for Intervol but is well known in the virtual reality community as a spokesperson for the social consciousness of technology. She was doing a project creating a world based on the themes of indigenous peoples and animal spirits. It was very much a performance piece where two people travelled through a very large virtual world of low resolution graphics. It was a very good experimental example of the use of head mounted displays in a performance piece. Jargon Lanner is the only other person I’ve seen do a virtual reality based performance piece. He’s like the father of VR and was the big spokesman for it when it started out in 1989/90 through his company PL. He’s a master musician with over one hundred instruments from around the world and plays them all in performance and on albums. He also integrates into his performances SIG head mounted worlds which he enters to play weird virtual instruments he’s also invented.

RealTime issue #12 April-May 1996 pg. 26

© Eric Mason; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 1996