Isaac Cohen. Enough. 2015. Screen Shot, 2016–04–06 at 6.02.40 PM. Virtual Reality, Digital Art.
For artists, the line between reality and the virtual has always been fine. In the age of immersive digital worlds, it is poised to disappear. Oakland-based artist Isaac Cohen is eager to close the gap. He develops interactive digital objects that move according to the physics we are familiar with but look as if they are out of this world — and they are. Rainbow membranes that reverberate like gelatin at the touch of a virtual finger and ethereal beings that swim like agile silver-scaled fish are a few of the wonders conjured in Cohen’s digital universe.
Isaac Cohen. Enough. Giphy 2. 2018.
Though he spends hours sculpting the virtual, Cohen’s presence in the real world is striking. He is tall and broad. Sitting across from me at Velo Rouge Cafe in San Francisco’s Richmond district, his voluminous blonde mane tamed into a bun at the nape of his neck, he speaks energetically, blue eyes flashing beneath confident brows. We are at the brink of a transformation, he assures me. Current technological interfaces are limited but there is a drive to completely rethink the capabilities of the black mirror. Virtual reality is the next step towards more intuitive, human-facing technology.
As I watch Cohen sip a cold brew, its sweaty beads dripping onto the metal table, the sun slips behind grey condominiums and I wonder at the desire to make the digital world mimic the real one. Why render the virtual organic when the latter exists just beyond your VR goggles? The answer, Cohen reveals, is that virtual reality is decidedly configurable. “You can manifest your will a lot better in that realm than you can in the physical,” he muses. The joy of digital experience is that it can be manipulated. At a time when many feel powerless, that is an appealing sell.
Isaac Cohen. Screen Shot 2015–02–19 at 7.42.02 PM. Virtual Reality, Digital Art.
“What’s so tight about our reality is that everything reacts to you,” says Cohen. “We can sit on the ground, we can stand, we can scare pigeons, we can move out of the way of cars — everything is us engaging with and having a relationship with the world around us.” As a rule, his digital creations honor this truth of the human condition. People learn by observing how the world responds to their actions, says the artist. The more a virtual space engages its viewer, the more revelatory that digital experience becomes. In Cohen’s mind, the purpose of art is to move a person from one perspective to another. In VR, this conversion happens immediately and viscerally.
One of Cohen’s most successful art objects is a digital storybook called Enough. In it, the viewer follows a lonely creature named Mani through a murky underwater terrain — though it could also be the cosmos — as she tries to find purpose and place. Mani’s constitution is sperm-like: an oblong head attached to a translucent tail that wags and glows. Swimming her digital path, Mani enters forests of psychedelic trees, fractal landscapes, and luminous sequin storms, until she discovers a giant undulating golden orb that represents the unifying light of all life. Here, Mani “understands herself as a single jewel in Indra’s net of the world where each object is infinitely reflected in everything else… it’s this beautiful tapestry that she is a part of,” explains Cohen.
Following Mani’s journey, you are easily captivated by the interactive elements of the scenery. Alien plants and crystals move or light up at your touch, even the words on the page react and flit away like fireflies. The background audio is ghostly and rhythmic, compelling you into a trance. From the plot to the experience’s visual and musical identity, Cohen crafted every aspect of Enough himself. “Gaming culture at large is obviously extremely masculine, extremely toxic; it has this power fetish,” he says, noting the contrast of Mani’s journey which — although containing some overtly masculine imagery — is introspective and spiritual. In the final scenes of the story, the golden spirit offers Mani eternal peace, but she refuses and stays in the world with her companion, Sol. Their time may be finite and painful, Mani concludes, but it will be enough.
The storybook’s esoteric tone can be traced directly to Cohen’s education. Having studied physics and religious studies at Occidental College, the artist says these divergent disciplines continually inspire and feed his creative output. His knowledge of physics is vital when determining how a digital object moves or breaks, “how is it technically implemented.” When he is crafting narratives, Cohen’s explorations of the divine dictate message and arc. In fact, the last line of Enough comes from the Sufi mystic, Rumi — Who could be so lucky? Who comes to the lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.
“There is this swirling, whirling, turbulent relationship between the two,” says Cohen of the scientific and religious contexts that frame his thinking; through his digital work he explores their fraught connection. Because virtual reality bears little consequence in the organic world and demands interaction — between creator and medium, and medium and viewer — it is a fine platform for this kind of contemplation, not only for Cohen, but anyone who jumps in.
The digital world’s most human aspect is the ability for people to experiment and play freely within it. According to Cohen, the potential in virtual reality for new and more complex understanding is immense. “As we move into art that utilizes the viewer,” he says, “the more we recognize that truth is not crystal — it’s percolating and amorphous.”