Darren Emerson interview w. TSOTA

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Will Baldwin-Pask 0:11

Thanks for joining us for another episode of the state of the arts podcast. This time we sit down with Darren Emerson of VR artists who has been working with the medium for years building artworks that are part film, part documentary, part interactive game, but very much original for their use of virtual reality technology. I interviewed Darren after I'd seen his VR artwork called in pursuit of repetitive BS, a piece about the acid house scene in Coventry, which takes audiences on a journey across the city for one night in 1999. Looking at the history and the experience of raving, the piece was published in 2021, and was exhibited at facts in Liverpool in 2023. Darren and I spoke about the state of virtual reality today, and how it could affect the future of art. We also chatted about the making of in pursuit of repetitive Bs, and what makes this piece so successful, I cannot recommend it enough. And you can read our full review of the artwork on the state of the arts website at the moment. This was another fantastic chat about where our culture is heading. And I hope you enjoy listening back.

See, I want to talk a little bit about VR and AR and some of the other things I left the piece thinking about which were profoundly about medium and experience and where this whole stuff is going. VR is maybe a little bit of a strange place at the moment with you know, meta feels like it's having like a midlife crisis, if that makes sense. It's like, there's layoffs, and there's uncertainty about what their kind of overall direction is. But there's also what are we getting the popularity in VR that maybe was expected or was even promised? I don't know, it feels to me, like, something still needs to happen. There still needs to be some breakthroughs. And I wonder if you think like, if you're optimistic about it, about VR, in general, but also as an artist, the potential it has for you.

Darren Emerson 2:35

Yeah, I mean, look, good question. I think I'm sort of sceptical at the moment about it sort of becoming really a staple of home entertainment.

Speaker 2 2:51

I mean, like to answer that previous question, like, No, I don't think it has sort of realised the promise that it had. But I think you'd have to look at, like what promises were made and why they were made. A lot of the promises were made, because people were investing in it. And it was like a kind of hype, sort of curve, you know, it's gonna be like, you know, millions in households or whatever, you know, you look at the kind of the numbers, and we were involved in VR back then in 2015 2016, when you know, and, you know, a lot has changed since then, I think, you know, and, you know, meta are laying off people and stuff like that, and, you know, and then there's also the PICO headset, you know, potentially Apple, we're going to be releasing something as well. There's still the Vive and at home stuff, but I think it's a smaller market, obviously. And but people were always kind of comparing it to, I don't know, okay, you're going to be doing it at home instead of watching TV or Netflix or whatever. And it just isn't that for me, for me, as an as an artist, I like it, I love the medium, but for it to really work. It has to be something that that is constructed for a particular audience. So sure, like, you know, I can play a game on it, and that's fine. And I can do that. But if it comes to the sort of stuff that I'm trying to make, which is I guess is a hybrid of like cinema, gaming and theatre and stuff like that. It's like a kind

of like an art form in itself, I guess, that uses multi sensory techniques and, and all of that. You know, for me, the best way to show that is in a location based sort of entertainment sense is like, you know, I'm going to build it so that you can come and buy a ticket as you did. And then in terms of the quality of the experience, you're going to be led into that experience. And, and, you know, we're doing everything to guarantee that it works in the way that it should, to kind of almost show the capabilities of the medium. Because I think I think VR is in terms of exhibition is quite sort of mired in basically Bad, bad, exhibiting protocols like bad onboarding, bad, like off boarding, you know, people that don't really understand the tech putting headsets on you, or like, they haven't updated it, or there's so many things in terms of terms of exhibiting it that can go wrong, it's kind of you know, even you know, beats, you know, there's a very fine line between, like running seamlessly and completely crashing and being crap. And the pressure is, you know, when you're at home and something doesn't work, you can just, like, take it off, reboot it, do whatever, like, you can't do that, if you're, if everyone's coming in every hour, and they've bought tickets for it. So you have to kind of work out systems to really, like, mitigate against that kind of stuff could because it because it can be a problem, you know, things still obviously happen. But it's like, you know, for instance, like meta did an update this week, that that is broken. And if you update all the headsets, it's not going to play, it's going to leave artefacts on the graphical artefacts. So, you know, there's a known problem, but all the headsets auto update, you know, and then we've got all the headsets, that fact like off the internet, so they're not updating, because you have to keep keep it almost isolated off the internet. So yeah, it's difficult. But I do believe that the future of VR, as far as I'm concerned, is creating experiences that are an appointment to view where I can say you've got this space, you've got the fans, you've got the sub pack, you've got all the lighting, and all that kind of stuff, and to really take you into something and make it a really quality experience. At home, it's more difficult, it's more difficult because of space is more difficult because of life. You know, it's hard to, as we discussed earlier, like the one of the one of the beautiful things about VR is locking yourself into it. And being like, right, I'm discarding everything else, I'm just doing this, there is, in a world where we are sort of kind of bombarded with stuff all the time and messages in this than the other, it's like there's something almost sort of there's something almost, you know, a sense of almost mental well being to be able to kind of just focus on one thing for once. And it's very hard to do that at home, I think you know, so. So I think that's why it struggled, it struggled because you don't want to put something on your head at home that stops you from kind of being able to do other stuff. In the same way, it's like people always like compare it to 3d TVs, like, right, the beginning, or is it not the 3d TV? You know, and the problem with 3d TVs was always like, it's more hassle. If it's more hassle to watch a 3d TV than to watch a TV then then why would you do it for that advantage? You know, if it means that you can't actually look at your phone while you're watching something, you know, and, you know, because that's what people do. So yeah, in terms of like industry and headsets and where metal going, I mean, your guess is as good as mine, in that, they don't really say very much. And they're very hard to, you know, we find them very hard to contact. And it's hard to get them to actually watch content, as well. They're very focused on selling headsets. And, and that's it, and they're very sort of focused on sort of gaming, sort of community and, and it's a little bit of a walled garden, really, I would say like the the meta sort of ecosystem in terms of getting work like this on to the onto their system, you know, and it's frustrating,

because we'd love to be on it. But yeah, there are platforms.

Will Baldwin-Pask 9:09

I guess that was one of the things that I felt really strongly from going see your work was someone who'd experienced VR for, I think only really, for gaming purposes. Previously, I don't think I'd ever experienced, you know, a sort of artistic documented piece like that. It really washed away some scepticism I had, and I can imagine people who are unsure about you know what VR can do or maybe they really understand how it works. They can go and experience your work and similar pieces of art, and it can maybe make something click in their heads. Do you feel like this approach to designing are using this medium, really harnessing VR to make these experiences for people actually, you can progress, the, you know, the VR art form and can make it, I don't know, more popular and give it the breakthroughs that the at home stuff isn't doing. Like it could be a more accepted way of experiencing just life and culture. If we have more stuff, like what you've put together? Yeah, I

Darren Emerson 10:25

fix that. Yeah, I genuinely do think so i think i think the nature of how pizza is designed in terms of its free roaming elements means that there isn't really a sort of kind of barrier as much to entry to it, it's very simple in many ways, because you know, how to move around a space. And you know, and the only real sort of kind of thing is like picking stuff up, which is just a trigger, so it's quite easy. In fact, you know, we made the piece fully accessible. So you can do it sitting down in a wheelchair, you know, you can use the controls to move around the space. And, you know, kind of, ironically, the more accessible version that we made, is actually in a way less accessible to the, to the average person, because you have to teach them how to use a teleport function, which is like, you know, it's a gaming kind of thing, you know, it's just like, see, if you get somebody, you know, be like, kind of trying to sit somebody down in front of a PlayStation go, Okay, well, this is how you do this, and just expecting them to get it really quick. So. So I feel like, you know, free roaming is really important. And there are limits to that in terms of being able the headset being able to track in space, you know, but you know, one of the one of the main issues, you know, from an artistic point of view, and developing the medium is getting the funding to do it. You know, it's it's ever changing landscape, things like, you know, metal laying off people is a problem. And we've seen lots of people come into the industry and leave the industry because of the lack of funding, or the lack of audience and stuff like that. And so there are a lot of actually really good VR makers, artists in the UK, making work, people like marshmallow laser PCED anagram are another really like, amazing group of makers. And I guess the thing about them, and us as well, like myself and EC films, is that we've stuck out it. And we're still doing it eight years later. And trying to get sort of beyond this idea that it's just a new medium. And so, like in terms of funding, it should always go to like new voices in in the, in the medium, who inevitably, you know, that is important, but but also, they're always going to start from the beginning, again, you know, like, what does this medium do? Like ask the same questions that we asked eight years ago. And I think what you see in beats, in pursuit, repetitive beats is a is somebody that's been working in the medium for a while now. And that has sort of kind of answered a lot of those questions around how to design an experience, a narrative experience that works in a certain way. And so sure, like the next thing that I do, like, every time I get

the opportunity to make something or get funding to make something, I have to put it all, I have to go all in, you know, it's like, everything that I think, like I'm trying to do, or I've learned is going into that piece of work. And then the next time is like, Okay, how much further can I go? Like, like, where, what worked? What didn't work? Where do we where do we take it, and I think that's really, really important, but it's obviously quite challenging, given sort of the arts funding landscape, and, and how competitive that is. And also, you know, there isn't a great deal of money out there to make these sort of kinds of pieces really. The other thing is, you know, you'll see, obviously, at the moment, in terms of immersive events, you know, the the amount of immersive things that are on are the, there's loads, but a lot of it is projection, mapping and stuff like that, you know, like the Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo and stuff like that. And, you know, that's really, because that can be mass audience, whereas VR can't it just inherently can't be there. And, and so that's a problem that we're sort of kind of dealing with, and I think actually having made beats the way that we made it, we are learning through exhibiting it, like what are the commercial limits of it as well. So, you know, so part of me is like, Okay, I'm just an artist, and I want to make something in this medium is all about medium. And then you get to the end of that and you try to put it into the gallery, and they're like, Well, we're going to give you the space for like a month and but only eight people can do it at a time and so suddenly you're faced with the kind of commercial sort of problems about, yeah, and then that starts to feed back into your art sort of practice. So you start to think, Well, okay, how do I make something where? I don't know, instead? 25 people can do it at the same time. But what will what will it lose as an art form? If that happens, if you know? Or how do you protect the art form by by by realising that there is a, there is a need to make it? At least a little bit more sort of kind of? Communal? I guess? Yeah, lots of questions. You know, it's like, you know, we're constantly talking about this, constantly thinking about it. And also trying to then devise new work that is that is of interest to me, you know, often. Often, like, you know, people as I said, at the beginning, people were saying, Well, you know, what, what's music genres? Can you do this, I don't necessarily go from one piece of work and go, right, I've done rave music. Now, I'm going to do you know, I don't know, like, punk or now I'm gonna go and do like a reggae piece away. You know, it's, that's not how really I work. Like, I want to do something, I kind of find projects in different ways, like the project before beats was about regeneration on the on the largest housing estate in, in Europe. So it's completely different. But like, musics actually still played quite a big role in it. So in terms of some sequences and stuff like that, so it's, yeah, it's an interesting problem, but it's a good problem to have in the sense of, like, you know, I feel good that I've stuck at it, you know, and, and, and that's great.

Will Baldwin-Pask 16:41

I think one of one of the things you can't help but think about as an audience member, when you're in when you're watching him pursue repetitive beats, and I guess people who have experienced your previous work feel the same way is how these things come to be. Because you can tell when you're, you know, without without ruining the story too much, you know, you're going you're moving through different spaces that represent actual real life spaces. But then you're also going through more abstract spaces that are kind of imagined, imagined and are more like symbolic of, you know, rave feeling and music and they go into like that i Tron style, nether regions at points, then you're also experiencing the testimonials of real

people. It via very creative ways. And you can't help with it. Right. So there's been a lot of research, there's obviously been a lot of like, design work, and there would have been actors involved. And there's been shots done in cars. I just was wondering the scale of it, the time that went into it, the number of people that go into it, how do you, you know, how do you make something like that come to be?

Well, it's certainly the biggest project that we've done to date in terms of the scale of the production and the people involved. I think Yeah. I mean, the research is the major thing for me, like I get really sort of into that and designing staff and working with a creative technologist company called all sing I called Ali Lindsay, who we just get on very, very well in terms of we're both into kind of similar things. So you know, we'll spend ages looking at what we you know, what type of shoes should be in the bedroom and in the corner, you know, Reebok classics, but then, you know, I discovered that there are two different types of souls recall, we Reebok classes and I wanted these particular ones. And what the, what the stereo is going to be was based on the technic stereo that I had, and like so all these kinds of different things. You know, there's even like hidden sort of nods in there. The fact that it's like a Peugeot 205 is actually a nod to Coventry's industrial past because they because Coventry was the place where Persia was built in the UK, you know, so that's why it's supposed to and not a Volvo or like a Ford Escort. Stuff like that. You know, you mentioned like the kind of Tron sort of kind of stuff. It's actually that whole scene is based on flyer artwork. So you're in the dreamscape flyer, which is the green grid, there's so those flyers are outside in the in the exhibition, so you know, when you're passing through people that's that's from that's from a flyer and stuff like that. So people that really sort of love that stuff, you know that for me that that's the joy of love, like making stuff like that and going right I'm going to do this whole this whole piece about getting to the to the to the Raven, a convoy is going to be set in flyer artwork, you know? And then and then you go off and kind of like kind of make that. So everything in there has been sort of, let's say, painstakingly researched, I would like to a nerdy, stupid degree really

Will Baldwin-Pask 20:10 was one of my favourite bits of it was. And yeah, without without ruining it too much like, you end up in a rave around lots of people and there weren't, there weren't like stock characters bouncing at the same time doing the same thing. You look around, and everyone's doing their own thing. Like it's a real, like, you're in a real room that was around dancing.

Darren Emerson 20:33

Yeah, that was real. I mean, that was a real decision that was made as well, like I wanted, I wanted that randomness, I wanted it to feel like that. I mean, one of the things that we did to test, you do a lot of testing and iterations, and one of the things that we did was, we actually, we made a free 60 version of that, of that in that space, in video. And we did get some like Shutterstock, or like, Pong five, like silhouette party stock footage, you know, so it was just a silhouette. And it's like, their scene, you know, we put it in there just to see what you know, just to see what would happen and see what it looked like. And, you know, one of the first things that stood out to me was like, like the repeating of moves, so it was just like someone sticking

their arm in the air, and it's like, whoa, like that, and then it would come back again. And you see, as you see something that that is repeated and same way, you know, instantly. So, so the way that we did that piece, and this is in the making of as well. And the second part is that we did a motion capture session with two dancers. And I had I sent them lots of archive of people dancing raves, in the in the late 80s, and the 90s. And we looked at these different dance moves, and then we recorded motion capture them doing about 10 different dance intensity. So intensity, 123, and, you know, intensity one was like, you know, just a bit like wasted and I'm just kind of bobbing my head and I'm still kind of you know, so intensity 10, which is like really going for it like throwing like arms in the air and just kind of like really, but also kind of making sure that we were doing it to them right music's we were playing the music in the session, as well. And we did that both in an asymmetrical way. And a symmetrical, so a dance moves for a male dancer and a female dancer. And then from that I selected probably about six or seven or maybe more like loops. And then we put that into that scene and let those characters that all those models in there, like access those different loops, kind of randomised sort of pattern. So that the effect is is that you feel like, oh, everyone's just kind of like doing their own thing, which is what I remember, you know that scene I you know, I think what I said is that when I was doing that stuff, I remember not really seeing very clearly anything, you would see like bits of arm and legs or like a strobe would go off. And you would like you just see like kind of fragments of people. And that's the effect I wanted. And sometimes actually, the more that you show in VR, the worse it is. There's this idea that even in the bedroom at the beginning, you know, the more sort of realistic, we made it in terms of graphics, the less real it felt. And then when we decided actually let's bring it back let's we put like a kind of like a VHS or kind of filter over stuff, which is really hard to do in 3d. Because you have to get a slight offset on things, that it started to feel more realistic, because it felt more like your memory of what that place was, was like, it was kind of trying to get to an aesthetic that if I went up into my loft, now and got pictures out of, you know, old pictures out of a box of me and my mate sitting around in my make Tom's house, which is the house that we always went to his bedroom sofa, you know, you know, splits and all that kind of stuff and PlayStation ones, you know, that's the kind of deal that it would have. So I want it and that's why those people that we captured volumetrically are frozen in time that sort of tableaus if we'd like to make them moving. Firstly, there's a cost implication of there are really quite a high cost implication of doing volumetric video. Secondly, once you do volumetric video, there is a sort of like, uncanny valley vibe to it. It's kind of like, oh, you know, so having people sort of kind of posed in a sort of vignette, or a tableau of like position, kind of almost speaks more of what was, you know, captures more of the essence of what I was trying to go for, which is like it's a memory, it's kind of warm feeling. So it's like, there's a whole kind of suite of different sort of kinds of techniques that you can use, but then you're kind of then refining it to go to go for the ones that you thought going to best represent what you're trying to say. And sometimes going for the most expensive, the most, the best, you know, thinking is not the right way to go really, you know,

Will Baldwin-Pask 25:10 you meant you said nostalgia on this tower earlier. And I think that was the thing I was really, really surprised by was, as someone who wasn't living through that time wasn't old enough to go to. I wasn't born, to be honest. And I'd said, I also am not

from Coventry. And to be able to feel a sense of such deep empathy with the people in the virtual people in that piece, but also the real people whose stories are anecdotally told within the peace and to feel like I was yearning for this time that I never got to experience myself was really, really, really powerful. And I felt like, there was something about the medium that was allowing me to hit those that emotional register, I guess, when you are watching a film, maybe something in your head tells you that, you know, it's still it's a screen or it's something that's been, it's been recorded elsewhere. But when you are sort of like, look, people looking you in the eyes, when you're in your VR headset in and you kind of can turn away or you can look at them it it's much harder to avoid, like the emotional depths, I think you're being you've been thrown into. And I wondered if you felt like VR and rave, were kind of destined to sort of form this, this collaboration in this piece will only work with that kind of genre music or you think that this is something that like, it's a very tactile experience, going to rave and dance music is very get the base hits you quite deep. Do you think that you could you know, talk about other musical scenes or moments? Through the same medium? Is that something about VR? Yeah,

Darren Emerson 27:04

yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, I mean, we're talking at the moment about doing like, people keep asking me, you know, like, what genre you're gonna do next kind of thing, what moment you're going to do next. I think it's important, though, that there is some sort of journey in it, like, you know, there's a pilgrimage of some sort. And that doesn't necessarily mean like, literally, like, you know, we're going to Woodstock or whatever it's like, there has to be something that, that encapsulate a time, an environment, a sense of what was special about that time and place, and you set the story within that, you know, and, and then so within that you can kind of explore so many different sort of cultures, music, genres, all sorts of different things. I think one of the reasons that I love the medium, and VR, and I've been working on it for about eight years now, since about 2015 20, to 2014 is that I do love the sort of the way that you can tell a story and you can really connect emotionally with it, I think that is something really, I think to do with them with the medium itself. And actually, some of the things that again, are sometimes sticks to beat it with are like, you know, it's a little bit sort of, you know, you've got to kind of as an audience member, you have to kind of commit, really, you know, you go in, you're asked to put on a vest, you're asked to put on a headset, headphones, all this stuff, you know, and there is a bit of written, you know, a bit of rigmarole to actually get going. But once you're going you kind of cut yourself off from everything else. And you've and that sort of kind of isolation within the experience itself, I think means that audience members end up giving more of themselves to it. And that sort of connection that you have is kind of a subjective narrative that you start to kind of bring into the experience, you start to kind of relate the stories to your own life or and you've because I feel that you feel like a deeper connection, you don't have the outside world sort of feeding you with, I don't know, like social media, or tweets, or news or whatever, you're just you in that space. And I think that's really important. There's also in terms of like, the immersive nature of it, and the fidelity of the environments, the fact that you can pick up stuff and that you can, that things are responsive, I think gives you a sense of memory from it, you know, instead of just like, Oh, I remember watching that. I remember doing that is what VR does. I remember picking that up. I remember walking across the radio tuner and tuning and so those interactions have a quality to them that they

That gives that kind of rewards you a little bit, it's like, Oh, I've discovered this thing and I get, I get a little burst of like, you know, endorphin. Yeah. And I have a memory of it. And it kind of, it's almost like, you know, it's like a montage of, of memory moments within a with an experience. So I think it kind of like, really deepens that connection for audience members. You know, when it's done correctly, there's so many things, making VR that can really pull people out of the experience. And so part of the, I guess, the, the creative process, and the directorial process of it, is trying to make sure that all the elements that you're putting in there are going to work and give people a experience that they can get lost in, I think, for me, like, I often say this to people, it's just like, me, it's like, and I've done lots of VR, and other loads of VR festivals and stuff, you know, and often, VR can be quite disappointing. And, you know, but and, but once you put on the headset, you sort of almost walk through a door into an experience. And for me, if you still two minutes in feel like, or five minutes into my experience feel like you still can know where that door is that you walked into, then it's sort of like failed, why want you to do is like walk through that door and and get completely lost in it. So you don't know where you are anymore. And you're just there. You know? So it's like, if you just feel that you can take off the headset at any point, you know, or just press pause, then, then it's not really working. So, you know, it's, yeah, so I think, you know, to answer your question, but I think the, the medium itself is very much one that, that allows audiences to connect to a deeper sort of emotional resonance really.

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