The Emergence of Digital Reality on the Polish Scene
I will attempt to outline a juxtaposition of contemporary Polish activities and artistic projects which combine the use of current tools such as 3D, photogrammetry gaming engines, virtual and augmented reality, in the context of the search for authorial aesthetic values, new ways of building storytelling and development of immersion media. In the study I will skip the development of software and 3D environments, it has been thoroughly researched and described – the road from the first tests to the current trends has been an interesting and steadily accelerating story. Not much time has passed since the first Oculus Kickstarter campaign (2012, consumer Head-mounted display Htc vive – 2016), but this period is a huge leap forward in terms of quality and quantity in artistic projects adapting these tools.
The systems were quickly implemented in the film and entertainment industry, and after time and art (I have deliberately skipped VR projects created in the 20th century, as they were not implemented in the area of Polish art). Apart from the realizations presented in galleries and festivals (which in the era of the Covid 19 pandemic become the main platforms for 360 – 3dof content distribution) in Oculus Store and Steam there is a range of VR content marked as art projects and actually – some of them have this weight. Most of them use proven real-time 3D development platforms – including Unity and Unreal Engine.
As a starting point, in the theme of mechanics, narrative and aesthetics, Björk’s experience can be pointed out -her Vulnicura Virtual Reality Album has become an immersive portfolio of the artist. It consists of: designed exhibition space, 360 films, 3dof and 6dof experience. Vulnicura is a space/platform which, despite its template architecture (in the system, the world visited linearly, intersected by stops with events) can convince the audience to a new way of exploring their creativity. Björk has introduced a new kind of digital aesthetics in the visual setting of her concerts and music videos, which differs significantly from the dominant post-internet activities.
Marta Nawrot (@xenaa66) and Jagoda Wójtowicz (@flore_404) are developing and evolving a similar way of imaging, in duet, solo and collectively as Pussymantra. They represent an attitude in which the range of issues raised results from the visuality used, and the aesthetics determines the narrative and the narrative tensions built by the artists. Their realizations based on photogrammetric scans, 3D sculptures (modeled in software as well as created directly in VR space) and realizations in gaming engines, are complemented by colorful music sets, visualizations and performances. Anthropocentric-apocalyptic musical events in the happyhardcore current are interwoven with performative, post-internet lectures, circulating around the use and status of neural networks.
The scope of their activities also fits into the contemporary trends of open source and free learning cooperation by organizing a community around the group Main Chakram. Their aesthetics is based, on the one hand, on reality capture (Androgenia VR – Virtual Reality trip) oscillating around 3D scans (Kinect) – using the captured texture of the recorded characters and on fluid, space-reflective light materials, implemented on crafted 3D models. They use such components in passive projects (I use this name to define visualizations, renderings and animations) and interactive experiences. The desktop Selfburning !@$$$$ anti-human AI simulation Nawrot is extremely engaging. Simulation in real time using AI implemented in the Unity game engine is described as, “Global catastrophe.
The world is slowly self-immolating in response to the destructive activities of man. Rebellion of animals, plants, arthropods and machinery // we are here to kill the humans and save the planet.” In a schematic cut of the jungle, herds of animals (mammals + prehistoric reptiles), humans, groups of shrubs and plants are in constant chaotic motion, moving through a system of artificial intelligence, position detection, and analysis of relationships between objects. The mess and panic on the stage brings to mind the clusters of characters from the paintings of Bosch. Between the explosions, or visual representations of shock waves, there appear glitched organisms moved by other beings, some running without changing their position. The only interaction that can be performed by the recipient/player is the change of point of view from the parallel representation of the surface to the plane, to the tracked camera, to the face/portrait of a running human being – a participant running between the thicket of explosions and animals who are panicked or taking control. This minimalistic confluence is a phenomenal way to divert attention from the topology of the scene and enables a quite oppressive assembly in the A-B system. Interacting with the project, I had associations with the concepts of the Film Form Workshop and a thorough analysis of the medium chosen by the artist. During her artistic practice the artists were associated with the DAS group.
Collective Actions – Obtaining Subjectivity and the Formation of New Environmental Organisms
In DAS – a digital studio of Krzysztof Garbaczewski, Navrot and Wójtowicz realized the Rozkwit festival (a VR experience, video, and performance, music and DJ sets oscillating between Virtual Reality / Interaction / Video Art / Sound Art / Performance / Witch House / Acid Techno / Harsh Noise / Ambient / Experimental / Transgender / Queer / Non-sexual were presented there) and the experience of Excersense – one of the more engaging multiplayer productions based on combining several VR positions and allowing participants to interact directly in virtual space. The project, which premiered in 2019, has become an example of building new artistic tools that actively bring participants into a new reality, creating from the participants not only recipients, integrators and players, but also specific “immersers” (original term “zanurzency” used and introduced by Dorota Błaszczak, Phd | UMFC).
Dream Adoption Society “is a digital lab focused on new technologies and the use of virtual and augmented reality in the context of performance, theatre and contemporary art. The members of the company have vast experience in theatre, film, animation, software development, interactive storytelling and digital art.” The collective, whose initiator and founder is director Krzysztof Garbaczewski, transferred the experience of theatrical and dramaturgical practices into the area of research on virtual space, both in individual and collective experiences – the DAS became the first organism actively exploring the problem of embodiment, quality research and the problem of presence in virtual space by experimenting with the narrativity of the medium on the Polish stage, giving artists a space for free artistic expression and experimentation with the medium.
DAS works are characterized by technical advancement and bold narrative experiments, asking questions about a new paradigm combining aesthetics and contemporary forms of presence. During the cooperation within the framework of DAS, Garbaczewski joined the activities of many artists and creators, as the description says: “DREAM ADOPTION SOCIETY are Nastia Vorobiova, Marta Nawrot, Jagoda Wójtowicz, Sandra Korzeniak, Iza Szostak, Danusia Trevino, Krzysztof Garbaczewski, Jan Duszyński, Robert Mleczko Rilk Mob, Wojtek Markowski, Sebastian Krysiak, Jonathan Shawn Caouette, Jim Fletcher, Andrzej Serafin and You.”
The activities of the multiplayer trend (Nietota, among others), which take the form of theatrical performances, in which the subjectivity of relations is polarized on equal rights, take place in both physical and virtual space. They deserve attention: Locus Solus to which the full gameplay was created, A Courageous Heart taking place on several planes of reality, virtuality and by extension, Aporia, The City is The City (part of the main program of the Prague Quadriennal 2019) and The Artist is (all but) present. “The project is an AR (augmented reality) performance in which the “spectator” meets and collaborates with Leron Miszek – an avatar (live/real-time 3D scan) of Miron Białoszewski to create his/her own piece of ephemeral, playful word poetry. The piece is performed using Microsoft hololens glasses which the “user” wears while communicating with Leron Miszek through an intercom set-up. Presented in Warsaw at Komuna Warszawa and New York at The Performing Garage”.
As part of the physical space of the DAS, numerous reviews, exhibitions and events took place, including: exhibition :: ignorance :: Leonard Acorn – Ignorance x Dream Adoption Society with the participation of Bypass and Migekkoncert as part of the Bypass Fest; conversations with activists from groups, among others: Youth Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion Poland, Camp for Climate and the World Catholic Movement for the Environment; “BRUDDAS” – Virtual Reality Exhibition / Augmented Reality / 360 Video / sound installation with the involved artists: BRUD and the Dream Adoption Society collective and the event Death in VR – opening of the Dream Adoption Society gallery – presentations of works in the field of virtual reality and video art, discussions and performance.
After the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic, the collective moved their activities into virtual space, identifying themselves as a group that realizes cycles of performance and meditative activities in virtual space, including VR Chat, exploring the subject of embodiment, transferring the movements of performers directly into digital space, presented as Live Streams. Noteworthy is Exegesis – a live VR meditation produced by Dream Adoption Society in cooperation with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and CultureHub available for viewing live in VRChat“. Garbaczewski made the original specification of the term VR theatre: “A specially designed, computer-generated virtual space is a meeting place for actors, the director, choreographer, composer, cinematographer and other people who are part of the team. Each of them has a digital body in the form of an avatar so that they can move, gesture, touch and move three-dimensional objects. Thanks to cyber rehearsals, the team prepares performances, which are finally broadcast live on the web”, and the nature of the recording: “The camera operator livestreams the spectacle from within virtual reality. The image from his camera is transmitted to the channel on selected platforms.” DAS sees the uniqueness of DAS as a consistent opening to external factors and introducing the character of cooperatives in their real and virtual relationships.
Developing Your Own Language of Expression
During the opening of the stationary Dream Society Gallery located in the Zygmunt Hübner Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw, the exhibition Death in VR inaugurated Mateusz Kowalczyk’s performance Fungal_Responses (Htc Vive | 6 dof | 360 audio | vive trackers, 2019). Performance is an introduction to the meditative experience, taking place simultaneously for the recipient in reality as well as in virtual reality. Through the objects that are found in real space, with the help of Vive Tracker sensors, are built the interpretations of the mushroom forms, from which is constructed the figure of the performer. Based on objects and 3D scans, music and a monologue from a hip hop piece, the experience becomes a space open to interact with the performer and intervention in the surroundings in real time, without the need to use controllers.
Mateusz Kowalczyk is this year’s graduate of the Faculty of Media Art of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. During the 5-year period of his studies, he was actively involved in projects beyond the walls of the academy (including excellent performative activities within the Polish Shaman, 2018-2020). His artistic strategy was appreciated, among others, with the 2nd prize in the 18th edition of Hestia’s Artistic Journey, during which, apart from participation in the finalists’ collective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, there was a monthly artistic residency at the Rupert Art and Education Centre in Vilnius. Noteworthy is his work Wyspa Śmie[r]ci – exploring the subject of anthropocene and postnaturalism – which initially took the form of a 360 narrative in which camera movement was added to the digitally built environment – render 360 built an oneiric kind of free flight. The artist, developing his practical knowledge of VR experience design programs, decided to continue the plot, creating a second version of the work based on a gaming engine, photogrammetric scans and Htc VIVE system with a wireless transmission module connected – TP Cast. The participants of the experience, thanks to the mapping of the space, could experience free (by getting rid of the cabling) exploration of the title island, examining the scans placed in it, creating narrative tensions, audible points, and animations.
Kowalczyk is an artist who is consciously experimenting, having the ease of building characteristic tensions that combine the extensibility in space with the new quality of using 3D environments. He belongs to the youngest group of artists who, growing up in the era of ubiquitous technology and media domination, treats virtual reality projects as a native and natural medium of artistic expression. Between 2018 and 2020 he was a student of the 3D Studio and Virtual Occurrences II (ASP, WSM, WWA – Wróblewski, Danowski, Isakov) in which he started experimenting with 360, VR 6 DOF experiences and photogrammetry.
Education | Research | Implementation
The aforementioned 3D and Virtual Occurrences II Studio, which Kowalczyk completed with an interactive performance, Droga Szczura, realized on the Mozilla Hubs platform from 2020, consists of Jakub Wróblewski, Przemysław Danowski and Andrei Isakov, who, apart from education, work for the Inexsistens collective. They are an interdisciplinary team creating contemporary, immersive artistic projects. They have technological research, academic and production experience in the scope of specifying, implementing and displaying VR projects. They focus on interactive solutions using six degrees of freedom by experimenting with immersive storytelling, spatial sound and an innovative approach to the aesthetics, without avoiding experimentation with other contemporary forms of artistic expression. They are a team of active artists and lecturers at the most important Polish universities – Fine Arts Academy in Warsaw, Fryderyk Chopin University of Music and Lodz Film School. They translate their creative experience into the academic teaching process.
In their work, Bardo, they refer to the Tibetan bar-do, that is, “what is between the two, the intermediate space, the in-between state, and the gap” (TBOD), explore the inner space of an individual who dies (performs an act of self-liberation) and has not yet entered a new form of existence. According to the six stages of the bar-do cycle in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the virtual space is divided into stages that cannot be explored autonomously – their character and purpose are based on a journey in a certain direction. The experience is based on The Psychedelic Experience (Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert). The immersion space is divided into six parts – levels built using six degrees of freedom (6dof). The creators also focus on audio interaction, creating environments – instruments that respond to the position of the performer and the audience.
Connexion (virtual reality performance, spatial sound, unreal engine, 6dof Connexion is an audiovisual music performance for VR), “The performer uses a 3D interface to control the granular synthesis and spatial positioning of sounds within the auditorium. The visual representation gives the performer clues about the characteristics of sound, also being an indicator of the spatial propagation of sound.” This gives the performer an actual feeling of performing with their gestures and movements as one has with the material instruments. The form of the interface itself is digital artwork. The sound is rendered into the speaker system of the surrounding auditorium. The spatial sound is rendered via an ambisonics bus. Connexion was created using Unreal Engine 4. It employs granular synthesis as the modulator of the precomposed music and uses a spatial listener for audio. The performer moves the sounds with his hands (which are the sound emitters) around the large round object, which is called “monad”. The movement makes the sound flow around the soundfield. The hand positions also change the parameters of the synthesis – sound emission time and granularity. This gives control over dramatic aspects of music. One can use different precomposed tracks and use Connexion as an instrument or perform on an original piece composed for it.
The second iteration of the Connexion project is focused on enriching the performance’s environment with interactivity between multiple users. They are looking for an installation with on-location based online access. The performance will be available for the viewers on VR and XR compatible platforms. People will manipulate objects in a virtual environment, which will create an evolving, endless visual and sonic composition. An experience created by users. Re: Connexion is still in progress.
Lovestory is an interactive virtual reality experience. Its main idea is the transfer of a participant’s body into a virtual body and then a simulation of that presence in said body. The main emphasis of the action is a motion-captured intercourse between real people which builds up the experience. The creators identify the idea of acquiring the body and taking over another being with the Tulpa, present in Tibetan mysticism, sometimes used as a synonym of “magical vanity”, “apparition” or “thought-shape”.
The concept behind the script for the experience is derived from the interest in early film adaptations of SF cinema. They represented VR at the time and the transhumanist idea of feelings being virtually connected between two people alongside body structure studies and a possibility of expressing its motor skills through specific aesthetics. The project is a response to the current health situation – the limitation of interpersonal contacts caused by the pandemic and, as a result, causing social contacts to shadow into virtual space. Artists made two kinds of recordings of Motion Capture sessions. The first was a simulated intercourse registration – in standard mocap costumes. The second was registered in costumes specifically created for this project, which allowed two people to perform a real lovemaking act – and it is precisely this new documentary and naturalistic act of registered co-existence that is based on this project. The Group has just received the support of the prestigious Transformation Grant awarded by Kaleidoscope for the implementation of the Lovestory experience.
Experienced Creators of New Aesthetics and Original Concepts of Interaction
Piotr Kopik – one of the veterans and initiators of Polish post-internet art for over 10 years has been experimenting with virtual worlds (e.g. Second Life), and since 2018 with virtual reality. He created projects-experiences: Rubberman / Man Gum (VR experience, HTC Vive, 2019), Błogobzbzbzstan (VR experience, part of exhibition at BWA Zielona Góra, 2019) and Angelhair (Oculus Quest, interactive experience, rubber, 2020). Its non-narrative spaces are a field for reflection on the presence of the participant in the process of adaptation to the virtual body, and the relationship with digital characters, animated by motion capture technology. Kopik is not interested in the tempting and unlimited formativity of space – he gives up such visuality in favour of examining the attention and reactions of participants in sterile whitespace, deprived of time and literalness.
What is interesting is the consistency of his graphics and drawings with the aesthetics of the VR experience, in which he maintains shortcuts, simplification and formal conciseness. Most of VR and 360’s realizations are produced by artists who have grown out of their film experience – learning how to build tensions and space without always relying on their own concept of interaction, space, aesthetics and storytelling needed to achieve immersion. Kopik successively researches the subject of embodiment and avatar using, among others, motion capture systems. He intercepts the actual movement in order to connect it to digital representations in the gaming engine.
A critical look at the VR technology and the visual side of the devices itself is also worth noting. At the Avatar exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum, Avatar expanded the VR experience by installing a system of over one meter long rubber cables for HMD. This procedure lifted the headset to the role of a fetish object as well as introduced haptical values – the elements rubbing against the participants’ bodies engage the sense of touch on a par with the illusions produced in the perception of VR, referring to the visuo-tactile multisensory simulation studied by Kokkinar and Slater in 2014. Kopik runs the 3D and Virtual Occurrences Studio I at the Faculty of Media Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where from the second year of his studies his students carry out artistic projects based on new 3D technologies, VR and Motion Capture systems.
Their original language of expression does not only assume the adaptation of media to the worked out topic, but is built on the native emergence of a concept based on technology combined with critical analysis and following the latest cultural, civilization and artistic trends. Since the establishment of the Studio in 2017, young artists who treat virtual space as a natural means of expression have left the walls of the Media Art Department. While experimenting with the study of the interaction based on grove engines, Kopik created an interesting realization with Rafał Dominik – Ehh hahah – the horse game @ U A, Warsaw from 2019.
Rafał Dominik is a creator who does not work directly in VR space, but his works are an interesting example of searching for unique, authorial aesthetics in a 3D environment. The artist – a graduate of the Faculty of Painting at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, creates graphics – as he writes on his website – using iPad Procreate and 3D renders in Blender.
His realizations are characterized by incredible consistency and a recognizable, individual style, resulting from the areas he studied. Referred to as aturbo-colorist, Dominik perversely believes that the disco-polo culture should be promoted because it’s homely and can be a different face of patriotism. Therefore, in his artistic strategy he uses the cultural codes associated with it and the visual elements resulting from it, combining them with his interest in games and pop culture. As Maurycy Gomulicki writes: He moves freely in virtual space, treating it as an integral element of reality. When realizing his works, he focuses primarily on a radically determined aesthetic concept, the medium in which it will be realized, treating it in an open way – depending on the specific objectives, it can be an object, a drawing, a video or an ambience. For me it is important to work out a new canon of characters – from a synthetic round shape based on sign and conventionality, to a unique representation of a distinctive type of a character – looking at the visualization it is impossible to confuse it with another creator. This is important – because a 3D environment with limited tools often limits the creators to work with unified geometry and aesthetics. Dominik treats modeling of figures as similar to making objects out of clay: heavy, massive and clumsy bodies evoking associations with the canon of socialist realism and the subjective perception of its values. The models ideally correspond to the attributes of sportswear, hairstyles, jewelry and other cultural attributes they wear.
Sebastian Sebulec further defines the aesthetic tensions of his works referring to the retro traces from the beginnings of computer visualization creation, playing with the imperfection of the tool and simplification resulting from its character. He builds his renderings, animations, simulations and interactive experiences consciously using nostalgia for early visualizations created through computer interfaces. At the exhibition at the Gallery of Human Death in February 2019, Sebulec presented a game based on Unreal engine – Blue (Alpha Release Blue 1.0 was placed on Google Drive with the possibility of free download by users). The game in Third Person Point of View mode allows you to explore a slice of the world through the view of the figure of a blue alien from the video Eiffel 65 – Blue (Da Ba Dee) from 1998. Words of the song: ‘Yo, listen up here’s a story/ About a little guy/ That lives in a blue world/ And all day and all night/ And everything he sees is just blue/ Like him inside and outside/ Blue his house/ With a blue little window/ And a blue Corvette/ And everything is blue for him/ And himself and everybody around/ ‘Cause he ain’t got nobody to listen.”, define the atmosphere and narrative scope of the game (included in a Game play teaser).
The retro inspirations can also be seen in animations and videos such as Bella Ćwir PASSION 3D music, Huang Huang (the official video for the song from the third single from the band’s debut album Cudowne Lata “Kółko i Krzyżyk” 2019) or the newer LE JOURNAL SECRET (produced by the Body/Mind Foundation, concept, choreography and dance: Iza Szostak 2019). Sebulec also explores binary themes by creating the Cyber Warrior (Created to protect all cyber xeno nonbinary human queer AI hybrids) presented in Cyber Pussy Zin. Sebulec also runs a website † Poland 3d † where he provides animations, collages and graphics referring to the climate of oldschool RPGs using characteristic motifs from Polish reality in a funny and intelligent way. Visually, I’m certainly strongly inspired by the first games made in turn-of-the-century 3D, both the realistic ones like Gothic II, TES, GTA 3, as well as cute adventure-style platformers. Sometimes I just enjoy watching ugly 3D food models. There are a lot of such artifacts, old sites where you can find very beautiful ugly things (Vice Poland).
It is worth mentioning the virtual spaces ready to present projects based on engines – such a platform has become Gallery 01 dealing with the construction of exhibitions created in a virtual 3D environment. As the creators (Łukasz Stylec, Dominik Urbański and Robert Kowalski) write: “the form of space, which is not limited by walls, allows the artist to finalize demanding concepts, while not requiring knowledge of technology, as all projects are created in collaboration with Team 0“.
Polish XR projects, despite the lockdown, are developing, gaining momentum and limitations are becoming a driving force for action. I have not managed to touch upon the internationally active PussyKrew, the works of Justyna Górowskie and other groups, artists working within immersion projects, the list will be the subject of a wider publication.
About the author
Jakub Wroblewski – An interdisciplinary artist, film director and DOP. Ph.D, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Media Art Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He deals with video, interactive film, audiovisual narrative, film theory, graphic narrative structures, immersive storytelling and art and science projects. He runs a 3D and Virtual Occurrences II – diploma studio at the Academy. A co-founder of Open Lab Narration Systems, lecturer at Speakers Avenue Training Institute. Creator of visual grammar in Jaśmina Wójcik’s film – Symphony of the Ursus Factory (Film Award of the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw and Polish Film Institute). Scholarship holder of the Young Poland Award (National Center for Culture, program of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage), a tutor in the Gaude Polonia (NCK) program, Grand Prix Multimedia Szajna Festival.
In collaboration with Adam Mickiewicz Institute
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