Virtual reality pioneers Shaun Gladwell and Leo Faber talk Badfaith Collective
Australian artists Shaun Gladwell and Leo Faber are taking their creativity to a new level by founding a pioneering new collective focusing on virtual reality. Here they discuss the Badfaith Collective – an international group made up of artists based in London, LA and Australia that includes Tony Albert - and the idea behind merging art, film and experimental experiences such as their first project, the six-minute virtual reality film Orbital Vanitas, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Leo Faber: Describe Badfaith and the collective’s ethos
Shaun Gladwell: Well I think it’s kind of a two-part question, because the first-part question is what is Badfaith like as a term or a concept. It definitely comes from these two very famous French philosophers and social activists and just general you know, all round writers from Paris in the 20th century – Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – they came up with this concept that basically looked at behaviour which was too exaggerated – it was like movement that knew that it wasn’t real but it was taking place anywhere/way – a kind of like inauthentic sort of activity that was kind of described as a syndrome for the modern world, but once you know that and once you can sort of identify Badfaith then you have infinite options available to you to operate above, within and around it.
We really love the concept of Badfaith because it kind of mapped on to virtual reality, you enter virtual reality in Badfaith knowing that the spaces in which you are looking at are not real and that the movement that you have to navigate those spaces with is inauthentic, but actually the emotions and the experience that you’re getting from VR are real, and it starts to become a lot more complex and exciting once you start to know that, and we explore those ideas in Badfaith. We also take Badfaith as a kind of rock ethos as well. We’re not interested in just entering VR as these utopian kids who jump up and down thinking its just friggen amazing. We’re also really critical and we break it down just as much as we make this stuff. So the members of Badfaith, that’s definitely one of the aspects of our crew, is that we are interested in this kind of punk demolition as well as construction, and that the creative cycle is also incorporating the destructive and everything in between.
But we as a group all are interested in pushing the language of VR, we’ve all identified each other as artists or filmmakers, producers or inventors and presenters of VR, we’re all deeply in love with each others work, and we want to help each other in all aspects of our adventures into VR, whether that’s sharing contacts or passing through experiences and information or hardware or etc etc. It’s just a very beautiful network of kindred spirits heading into the architecture of the unknown.
LF: I think something else; Shaun put it really well, but something else. Our ethos is about trying to put creative at the forefront of everything we do, beyond the commercial. And we see VR because it’s such a nascent industry, because the rules are being created as we go and as the industry builds up, this is the perfect opportunity for an ethos to be born that actually prioritises the creative over the commercial. Yes, it still needs to be funded. Yes, we need to find ways to make money cause we’re artists, but at the same time, can’t that be through creating incredible work that is authentic and led by story and character and experience? And that’s the ethos that we all share as artists and that certainly propels us to continue to navigate this new and exciting world.
LF: The collective is made up of artists from around the world. How did it come about and how do you work together?
SG: I think from my perspective, it was definitely a series of relays. Leo introduced me to VR, I became a complete convert, I completely loved the idea of it as a space for experimentation, and then we went about developing a network that was based on our own interests and contacts. So Leo reached out to the filmmaking community and I looked at contemporary artists – we found other people like Dr Jordan who’s interested in inventing from a scientific perspective, and what we’ve ended up with is like a balance of people from all different creative backgrounds but who can all sort of share in a kind of network to try and move forward with this, like, incredibly new and exciting space in VR.
So it was really quite an organic process, we didn’t know how many members we’d end up with, we still don’t. It is actually also an international network, so I’m based in London, and we’ve got Samantha Mathews aka Blondtron from Ven Agency over in LA and we’re dealing with a lot of people in different continents and timezones in which to make work, which is a very exciting network to be in.
LF: And rudimentarily how we work together is that we talk, we Skype, we chat, we come up with ideas that we think would be really interesting to work on together, and when we have those ideas, sorry once we’ve solidified it, then we then start to put them into development and we develop those ideas up and look at funding models to be able to make those projects happen.
LF: Why VR?
SG: Why not? I mean it seemed like it was a pretty exciting development within this series of I guess technological developments from photography, so you have like people like Eadweard Muybridge who basically takes the photograph and then starts to animate it into what we now understand as cinema. Then you get like major developments within the history of cinema that we will always love, like say the introduction of sound and then there becomes the talkies, the introduction of colour, the introduction of stereoscopic technology and surround screens which become like 3D Imax.
But from those first huge inventions, from Muybridge and Gustave Moreau, right through to the development of sound and colour, this is the next big stage, of the image actually losing its frame. So I can’t think of why I wouldn’t want to experiment in a space so exciting as VR.
LF: It’s just a moment in time that most filmmakers and creatives don’t get to experience, the birth of a new medium. Imagine being able to be back in time you know, when the first frames of Horse were being bounced around and just blowing people away – you know this is just, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to really really be part of something super exciting.
LF: Your first project, Orbital Vanitas, premiered at Sundance. How was it received?
SG: It’s been really great. I guess in terms of like, the different ways its been received, its for me always great to see the reviews coming through which is kind of, like, I guess the media reception that’s being driven by critics, and as an artist I’ve always been interested in that process – how do like say professional critics deal with the work and that’s been fantastic, we’ve had a really great response from like international media.
But for me as an artist, it’s always really important for me to be on the ground next to the installation at Sundance and watch people coming out of the experience, and that’s a huge thing for me because I get to see what kind of range of emotions these people went through or what kind of philosophical conundrum they had to like deal with being in my work, and that’s really exciting for me as an artist and uh, director of VR experiences to check out. And on both fronts, it’s been great.
LF: Hey Shaun, tell me about the fact that you also saw people, you were actually at the work yesterday and you saw people sort of lining up saying “hey, we’re looking for the skull project or whatever”
SG: Yeah I think there’s also like a thrill to know that like the experience is being sort of talked about and passed on as something to see at Sundance, that’s also a thrill of course. There are a lot of VR experiences here, there’s a lot of film going on here, no one can see anything. Well, even if there’s fifteen across a few venues its nice to know that people are chasing my experience and it stands out for people who want to be in outer orbit and fly through a human skull, its awesome.
LF: Describe Orbital Vanitas – is it a film, art, multi-media, all of the above?
SG: I think I’d just go for all of the above because it’s probably not the best time to start trying to categorise VR experiences. I feel like a VR experience is going to draw upon all of those former ways of working, but for me the idea was best developed in Virtual Reality, because I’d sort of worked on the concept before as a sculpture, as a series of drawings, and every time I work in a different medium it’s great to see the concept live in that as a sketch or as a sculpture or whatever. But for me, this particular version of my research into human skulls was just like, really compelling as a VR experience because for the first time instead of like representing the surface of the human skull, I could actually ask people to hang on for the ride and actually be inside the skull.
There’s also other aspects of VR that are really exciting, like I could affect the scale crisis where people already know how big their body is in relation to what they’re seeing, and in VR you can really exploit that and you can make objects that are usually, well in this case, skull size, which would be like the size of a planetoid or an asteroid or a moon or whatever. So the experience definitely takes inspiration from science fiction cinema and experimental cinema but it also looks at, like, painting, and it looks at medical technology like MRI scans and it just keeps going on and on and it can all be happily collapsed into VR and all of those components can then kind of operate together as being a very powerful holistic experience, I would hope.
LF: Orbital Vanitas places the individual in the Earth’s orbit. Did you have to do any scientific research for this?
SG: Yeah yeah, always everything that I do is always research based, so like I came into Orbital Vanitas after pretty much being obsessed with skulls since I was a kid and I came through skate culture so I was always really interested in skulls whether they be tattooed, slammed on skateboard graphics, or on T-Shirts or whatever. Then I got into art school, completely got obsessed with skulls in art history. So I’m like basically just a skull freak. And that’s kind of not exactly scientific research but then at a certain point I started mucking around with sticking endoscopes into skulls and seeing what, like, a medical camera would do even though the endoscope was developed for research into pathology, and that’s like, you know obviously live bodies with diseases and the endoscope’s trying to find something to keep a body healthy or alive, where I was kind of interested in using a medical piece of equipment like the endoscope to search around a body that’s already gone, already dead, a form without life. And that was pretty exciting for me.
Then also there’s the concept of the MRI scan which led to the animation asset which we used which is the skull, which is an anatomically correct skull. So I’m just a total geek, I fly off and then start making references to anatomy, like the hole that you enter the skull is the Foramen Magnum. The big cliff that you fall off in the skull is called the Salidas Sphenoid. The Sphenoid bone is like really complex, its like a series of Stalagmites and Stalactites then you fall through the eye socket which in anatomical Latin is called the Orbit, so you’re actually in a double orbit and all of that was referencing different fields of medical technology, whether it’s the endoscope or if it’s anatomy, so I love the research, that’s most of the project is the research.
LF: How important is it to keep pushing the boundaries in art, especially with VR?
SG: Well I think that VR is like what Sundance is calling it, a new frontier. And I think it’s extremely important to keep pushing it and for me, to be at this moment in time where it is actually just unfolding before us is like, incredible. We want to not just accept the medium for what’s already out there and what people have already done, but to push it in our own ways. Like for me as an artist, to keep kind of pulling it apart and having a look at how it works and reassemble it as a kind of creative Frankenstein every time I go into a new project, that’s really exciting.
It seems like the space is so new because a lot of us haven’t even spent that much time in VR yet, and that’s really exciting. It’s exciting to think that we don’t even know what the medium’s possible of yet, and along with a whole community of people just pushing as hard as we can into that new space. So yeah it’s pretty exciting.
LF: Can you just give 20 seconds about how exciting it is to witness other people’s work as well and feed on that?
SG: Yeah, I mean whenever I go to these events, it’s also in the art world, if I’m exhibiting somewhere or in this case being a contributor to the VR palace here at Sundance, I’m also like a viewer of other peoples work and that’s like really exciting because everyone’s got a different angle on it. Some people are really tech-based, some people are more into the kind of aesthetics and the look and don’t worry about the tech, and within that range of ways of dealing with VR, some really powerful experiences. So yeah I’ve been feeding my eyeballs up on VR since I’ve been here.
LF: Even standard tourist government organisations such as the Sydney Opera House are getting involved with VR. Do you see it as the future of artistic mediums?
SG: Look, I don’t know about it being the future of artistic mediums, it’s just one of the most exciting artistic mediums that’s out there right now. And it feels like the future in the sense that that’s where all the technological advancements are taking place for me in VR or AR exactly, with pieces of hardware like the HoloLens.
And I feel like there’ll be other ways of representing the world beyond VR and AR as well, you know like the idea of like unsupported holography will be incredible or, like biotechnology where its going to incorporated into our bodies. I mean the sky’s the limit with this stuff. But for me at the moment, VR and AR just present incredible opportunities to push the language of art and cinema, whether its abstract or narrative, it just seems to be one of the more exciting mediums out there. I’m pretty happy to be humbly smashing into it.
LF: How does VR fit into your project, Storm Rider?
SG: Well, it’s not like VR fitting into my project Storm Rider; it’s more of a case of how I always thought of it as VR, that Storm Rider was already a part of my thinking around VR. It was a like a perfect match in the sense that I’m not really interested in making a standard documentary where you look one way and you just passively experience a documentary. I want people to be like really a part of this woman’s life and her energy and her movement through different cities and it was a really great way for me to think about placing someone right in the middle of the action.
No longer are they sitting in a proscenium looking at a stage of the action or sitting in a cinema chair and looking at a really big widescreen of the action. They are right in there with Chadney and her ability to balance her faith, which is Islam, and her connection to a local mosque in East London, and her practice of skateboarding and also her love of basketball and everything that the modern world is offering in East London. So it’s a very dynamic way of not even just representing her life but immersing people in this incredible woman’s day-to-day life. So yeah, it was always meant to be a VR piece.