The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration is my first work of art as a Christian. Twenty three days after the release of Compassie, on Silent Saturday 2021, I heard God’s voice for the very first time and my life changed radically as a result.
Compassie was a piece about sadness. It’s the classic pietà scene in which the Holy Virgin holds the dead body of her executed son. In virtual reality, you take her place. In front of you there is an ocean of darkness. Behind you a luscious landscape that forms the backdrop of a cross floating in mid air held somewhat ridiculously by four cherubs. He has risen! We are saved! But you turn back around and stare into the dark. Your son is dead. You are inconsolable.
I enjoyed how Compassie gave me a place where I could be sad. I remember enjoying how the VR goggles would hide my tears. I felt safe to let go in there, to silently endlessly cry about the sadness of life. I was certainly having personal problems at the time. But there was also the quite obviously desperate state of the world. Between the political polarization of society and the ecological crisis, I couldn’t see much hope.
Compassie was my tribute to this state of desperation. Christ became the symbol for the solution that everyone knows exists. But we killed Him, or we ignored Him and the promise made through His sacrifice. We know what a beautiful world looks like (just turn around!), we even know what it would take to get there (just turn around!). But somehow we find ourselves incapable of choosing that road and following it. We are stuck. Indulging in our misery. Too prideful to believe.
In hindsight, through the lens of my Christian faith, it is quite clear to see how Compassie was a subconscious “cry for help”. I was balancing on the edge of an abyss with nowhere to go that didn’t lead to destruction. I was ready for God. But I did not know that then. Until 23 days later.
For me, The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration expresses quite well how my new found faith makes me feel. Astounded by a beauty that borders on the surreal but remains framed within a long tradition. I feel loved, I am grateful, I bow down in awe for the glory of God. It feel lightheaded with joy. I am becoming myself, the one He created for Himself. Like millions of others that have now become my kin. And then with all that splendor in my heart, the lights go out. And I find myself alone with Him. His body and blood, soul and divinity, embedded in a simple disk of bread, exposed on the altar. In the dark of my closed eyes I smell the incense, I feel His warm hands around my heart, the stubble on his cheeks catching the tears on mine as he embraces me and whispers His breath of life into all of me.
I chose to release The Viriditas Chapel on the feast day of Saint John Paul II because my attitude towards his person illustrates an important transition. Like many of my secular leftist peers in the 1980s and 1990s, I hated this pope more than any other. Why? Well, that’s where the problem lies. Because I had vaguely heard something about him being very very conservative and forbidding the use of condoms while people where dying of AIDS. That, apart from his frequent appearances on tv, was the extent of my knowledge of this man.
This was not atypical. Most of my opinions as a progressive liberal where based on flimsy quotes overheard in cheerful conversations. Mind you, I did not see myself as shallow. It simply never occurred to me that I should investigate a little before judging along with my friends or agreeing with people who seemed sympathetic or smart.
The same applied to Christianity. Oddly so, because I have been interested in this topic for many years. And I read all sorts of things about Christian art and architecture, and in the Bible. I visited hundreds of churches all through Europe, even attending services as research. I had a lot of respect for believers to the point of being slightly invidious. But somehow it never occurred to me to investigate the core of Christianity: faith itself. The thought that I should maybe read one of the Church Fathers or watch a movie by Christians on YouTube never even briefly crossed my mind.
When I converted I started devouring information about the faith. It was all so fascinating! It felt like I was using my brain for the first time. And often I came across references to Pope John Paul II. Apparently the man I had hated with such indifference was a very important presence to my fellow Christians. People loved the guy! They even made him a saint. So I started reading his Theology of the Body and came across his Letter to Artists.
In preparation for the release I am praying a novena as atonement. Not just for Saint Pope John Paul II but for the injustice with which I have regarded the Catholic Church all my life. And as an expression of gratitude to the almighty Lord for receiving me into his flock in spite of my obvious unworthiness.
The Viriditas Chapel of Perpetual Adoration is the first work of art that I have created as a Christian. But this is far from the first time Christianity inspired me. In fact, the theme seems to have followed me throughout my creative life. God has been tirelessly knocking on that door and I kept wondering “What on earth is that noise?”
I grew up in an atheist household but I attended catholic schools. Hence my familiarity with Christian narratives. I have also long preferred old art. As a result Christian themes and iconography were no stranger to me. And as a designer of immersive spaces, I was drawn to churches for inspiration. I even regularly attended mass simply for the experience, to “see the machine performing the function it had been designed for.” But I did not believe.
1988 As a teenager I made clothes for myself. On one of my jackets I had sewn a bronze crucifix found at a flea market. But I did not believe.
1992 Right after school I created lots of art objects. I often used imagery from mass media and advertising. For one piece I mounted the logo of a brand of toilet paper in gold on a piece of black cardboard shaped like a baroque frame. The logo was a lamb. But I did not believe.
1995 In the early days of the web there had been a bug in the Netscape browser that allowed defining the body tag more than once. Thanks to the slow speed of modems this could be used to created animations that were otherwise not yet possible. When that feature was removed I created a web site called The Church of the Multiple Body Tag in protest. It referenced the choice between Jesus and Barabbas and the number of the beast. But I did not believe.
1995 In my first net.art piece called Home I made a sort of crucifix of a framed portrait of Kate Moss, two guns for hands and an electrical socket for feet on a wallpaper background. And only now, almost 30 years later, I discover that in that image, the model is wearing a necklace with a cross. But back then, I did not believe.
1996 My last net.art piece with Group Z, Belgium was called I confess. It was an online confessional with a game interface that forced you to admit all the sins you had committed as an artist. But I did not believe.
1997 In the early web days I was involved in several collaborative projects. One of them was on the hell.com domain for which I created the web interface. But I did not believe.
1997 The website collaboration with Olia Lialina started when she said her plane had crashed and she was writing from paradise. So we named the site Heaven & Hell, after the internet connection we discovered between the two. But I did not believe.
1999 When I met the love of my life we were separated by an ocean. We started creating together the day after. We were so overwhelmed by our experience that we reached for the grandest thing we could think of to express our love in the wires: the Pentateuch. Our web site unfolded a love story inspired by the first five books of the Bible. We called the whole thing The Godlove Museum. But I did not believe.
1999 Genesis was about two souls meeting online. Our relationship was both amorous and creative. We represented ourselves as saints, used baroque ornaments and sacred music. But I did not believe.
1999 When farao let Auriea go after several dramatic plagues, we made a website called Exodus. But I did not believe.
2000 When dealing with immigration laws and learning the customs of a new land, we made a chapter of The Godlove Museum inspired by the Bible book of Leviticus. But I did not believe.
2001 In our first interactive 3D piece, Eden.Garden, we used scans of our own bodies to represent Adam and Eve in a Garden of Eden generated from the code from any web page. Genesis was quoted directly. But I did not believe.
2001 In preparation for our first experiments with 3D, Auriea and I had scanned ourselves kissing. With The Kiss we created an immersive environment inside of the mesh of our entwined bodies that shared one heart that was shaped like a cross. But I did not believe.
2001 We called a small web project Per omnia saecula saeculorum, referencing a well known trinitarian doxology, with music from Handel’s Messiah. But I did not believe.
2002 The attack by US president Bush on Afghanistan was accompanied by rhetoric that seemed to come straight from the Old Testament. Simultaneously Auriea and I realized how different our cultures really were. We mixed quotes from Bible and president and even Jesus made an appearance in Numbers. But I did not believe.
2003 Our first videogame creation attempt, simply called 8, was inspired by a fairy tale, not a biblical text. I did include a chapel in my design for the palace of Sleeping Beauty. And the music we had chosen before working with Gerry De Mol was Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. But I did not believe.
2005 When we figured out how to create and release a game, we made one in which deer would have glowing signs between their antlers, as in the legend of the conversion of Saint Hubert. At the launch of the project in the former abbey of Ename online players would convert visitors of the exhibition. And the central feature of this first phase of The Endless Forest was the ruin of a church. But I did not believe.
2006 Long after the previous chapter, when we had already given up on the web as an artistic medium, we created the last part of The Godlove Museum, Deuteronomy, in which we remixed the previous parts with Bible quotes about rules and regulations to express the sadness of not being able to enter the promised land. But I did not believe.
2008 In The Graveyard you play an old lady who visits a cemetery and listens to a song. It was inspired by my memories of the peaceful combination of solemn graves and lively nature in the cemetery of the small town where I spent my adolescent years. And by my grandmother who was still alive at the time and deeply catholic. I was profoundly struck by the cheerfulness with which she expressed her desire to join her husband who had died shortly before. But I did not believe.
2009 Fatale tells the story of the execution of John the Baptist. You play his ghost in his final night on earth, free to contemplate the love of Salome imagined by Oscar Wilde. Another biblical story. But I did not believe.
2010 When the first iPhone came out we created a Memento Mori for it the name of which, Vanitas, referred directly to the biblical basis of the concept from Ecclesiastes: “Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas.” But I did not believe.
2011 During a research project called Cncntric I explored my interest in sacred architecture and medieval cosmology. I was mesmerized by how the architecture of a church would lead the visitor from the square that represents earth to the circle that represents heaven. And the geocentric conception of the universe, while disproven by Copernicus, still made a lot of spiritual sense. I love the idea of our planet floating in the embrace of ever expanding spheres and finally by God Himself. But I did not believe.
2013 We named Luxuria Superbia, a game the simulates sexual pleasure in an abstract and playful way, after the Latin words for two mortal sins: lust and pride. But I did not believe.
2015 Sunset takes place in San Bavón, the capital of an imaginary South-American country. For couleur locale, the dates in the game were accompanied by the mention of the Christian saint or feast of that day. But I did not believe.
2016 LOCK was a simple game structured along a gigantic geocentric universe. The name was an abbreviation of Loci Omnes Caelesistis Kyries which means something like “All Places of the Heavenly Lord”. But I did not believe.
2016 Liberated from the pressure of making commercial videogames, I found myself free to explore my life-long passion for Christian iconography en symbolism in old art and architecture. This culminated in a giant umbrella project called Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. I wanted to create opportunities for contemplation inspired by Christian narratives that I felt should be considered equally valuable to modern culture as Greco-Roman mythology. Backed by a successful crowdsourcing campaign and inspired by visits to numerous cathedrals in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and Poland we created a prototype for a virtual reality cathedral. And the project even lead me to leave my country and move to Rome, around the corner of the Vatican of all places. But I did not believe.
2018 Cricoterie is a Virtual Reality program inspired by the Theater of Death of Polish theater make Tadeusz Kantor. As such it addressed the theme of religion and featured crosses and a priest. I relished the opportunity to deal with completely serious subject matter. But did not believe.
2021 After several rejected proposals for Christian themed dioramas -which turned out to be the most controversial subject of my already somewhat defiant career- including a tribute to Saint Ambrose, a chapel for Saint Anthony and a virtual sculpture of Adam and Eve, I managed to create a pietà in Virtual Reality. In Compassie I have the user take the place of the Holy Virgin sitting at the bottom of the cross with the dead body of her son on her lap. But I did not believe.
More than five years after the crowdsourcing campaign we’re happy to announce that the remake of The Endless Forest is finally complete! It has taken us a lot longer than expected to recreate in its entirety the multiplayer game in Unreal Engine. But the first beta release is ready for all backers to be downloaded and tested. And we’re already looking forward to continue expanding the forest -after the necessary bug fixing, of course.
If you have backed the project and you have not received an email with a download link, please let us know!
If still you want to support the project, play the beta and acquire some of the perks, please do so now because the campaign will be closed soon. The donation page is here.
The work on the remake began in earnest early 2017. The Endless Forest had been the first game we released, in 2005. At that time we had not fully developed a system for archiving data. On top of that, the old engine, Quest3D, used file formats for 3D models and textures that had become obsolete. And to make matters worse, the file server on which most files were stored had crashed and we had to painstakingly restore the files hidden on it.
Both Unreal Engine and Quest3D have visual interfaces to programming. This is essential for us, visual artists, to be creative with expressing logic. The paradigms of both engines, however, are extremely different. So more than translating the logic into another language, a lot of it had to be rethought within the new framework.
Since The Endless Forest is a multiplayer game, one of the first things we had to figure out was how to program networking in the new engine. Unreal Engine is set up quite well for match-based networked play with a limited amount of players of whom one acts as the server. This model, however, is unsuitable for a massively multiplayer game like The Endless Forest. We needed a server to be available at all times and no limitation the the amount of players that could log on. Sadly, the process of creating such a thing, is quite cumbersome in Unreal Engine and not very well documented. After a lot of trial and error that involved compiling Unreal from source code and converting our game to C++ we figured out how to do it. But it remains a complicated task, each time we want to release an update. Add to this the limited ways in which networking logic can be tested within the editor, requiring that this tedious compilation process must be followed simply for testing and debugging many network-related issues.
That being said, Unreal’s visual programming system, called Blueprints, is a joy to work with. And the editor contains wonderful tools, paradigms and interfaces to make many tasks easier to do, once one figures out how to use them.
In this early stage, we also implemented the endlessness of The Endless Forest, which means that the game world wraps around itself. This is quite tricky, especially in a multiplayer context. Unable to re-use the logic from the old game, we came up with a new system that works quite well.
Next we implemented controls so we could actually play the game. That was encouraging. Followed by new activities and animations of the avatar.
The Endless Forest, while extremely important, was not the only thing that we did in our artistic lives. We were also invited for art residencies in Poland and Rome, during which we worked on other projects. This of course slowed down the work on the remake.
But by the end of 2017 we did manage to add Forest Magic to the remake, a major feature by which players can change each other’s avatars’ appearance. This feature was finished when we came back home in early 2018
In 2018, work was interrupted several times by an invitation to present at the Freeplay festival in Melbourne, by participation in the Videogames exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, by the presentation of our VR theater Cricoterie in Warsaw, by an award at Indiecade in Paris and a panel presentation about The Endless Forest in Dundee.
Nevertheless, in the summer we made a spectacular step forward simply by adding the floor model and textures of the first phase of the game. Suddenly the remake started looking a lot more like The Endless Forest! So far we had been working on flat floors with symbolic colors. It was nice to feel that forest atmosphere a little.
By the end of 2018 (in October, November and December) we had implemented the buttons and animations for emotions and activities such as dancing, the trees and bushes and flowers of Phase One and the elements that make up the area of the ruin. And as a crowning achievement, we managed to compile a server for the game so that we were able to release a first playable version of the remake as a Christmas gift to all backers.
In January 2019, we finished the first phase of the Endless Forest, the area around the ruin and in February we implemented weather changes. In March, then, the new game was connected to the database of the old game which allowed players to login with their own accounts. Thanks to this, we were able to hand out the first perks to the backers in an Easter release that included a whole new outfit to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the game that triggered the crowdsourcing campaign for a Second Decade of the game.
After this, work gets interrupted again by presentations of Cricoterie in the Foksal gallery in Warsaw (our first solo gallery show!), the Tinguely Museum in Basel and the Game Happens festival in Genova. Simultaneously, we also organized our move from Belgium to Italy, which was accompanied by a lot of hard work and stress.
Once settled in a little in Rome, at the end of 2019, we added the second phase of The Endless Forest, the area with the pond, which we continue working on in the beginning of 2020. In February, after finishing Phase Two, we release another playable build for the backers.
After this I started working on a completely new project, a VR piece called Compassie, that I had been fortunate enough to get funding for in Belgium. By this time, the money from the crowdsourcing campaign had completely run out and we needed other sources of income.
I then returned to Compassie and continued to work on it until its release in April 2021.
After this break, I dove back into the Forest, so that in the summer of 2021 we were able to release a second alpha build of the remake that includes the fawn character for beginning players and lots of interface additions.
To support ourselves further, I accepted a commission from an old client for an interactive museum exhibit. This project dominated the second half of 2021.
In early 2022, I implemented a lot of the Abiogenesis systems that we use for doing live performances in the game. And even though the results of this are not immediately visible to the players, we did release a third alpha build, in order to test these features on the network.
I dedicated the lent period of 2022 to the remake of The Endless Forest. In an effort to release a first beta version of the game (meaning the game is complete except for bugs) by Easter, the day of the Resurrection, I removed all other activities from my agenda. So in the meditative atmosphere of a life of fasting, with no Italian lessons nor playing music, I managed to stick to the schedule almost perfectly. Backers can now download and play the first beta of the remake of The Endless Forest! While this is a major milestone, it doesn’t mean that the project is finished. There’s lots of known bugs that still need to be fixed and undoubtedly many new problems will come up during this testing phase. But the finish is in sight!
In the third alpha release of the remake of The Endless Forest we have concentrated on a number of special features such as the seasonal environment changes and Abiogenesis technology. So these may not be immediately visible unless you catch us testing. The idea is to evaluate these features before we proceed with the next step. And as mentioned with the previous alpha, testing server-client interaction is not fully possible in the Unreal Editor.
If all goes well enough, this will be the the final alpha release. The next release should be a beta version. So this version is still incomplete. But we’re getting there.
Work on this release was interrupted for a while by a client commission the proceeds of which were invested into The Endless Forest. And by a long overdue trip to my homeland Belgium. I had not seen my parents and brother in two years because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Some time was also lost by attempting to upgrade to a newer version of Unreal Engine but failing to compile the editor from its source code. So we’re still using version 4.25.1 at the moment.
The remake of The Endless Forest is taking a lot longer than expected. So we’re happy to see that the current game is still running and that the player community is as enthusiastic as ever. We’re grateful for all the moral and financial support and are looking forward to seeing you in The Forest!
Thank you all and see you soon!
PS: If you backed the game on Indiegogo or via PayPal and you have not received an email with a link to download the alpha 3 build of the game, please email us!
A second alpha build of The Endless Forest Second Decade has just been released. Backers should have received a download link. It contains almost all features of the original game. The biggest chunk missing now is the Abiogenesis effects. But there’s also a lot of bugs remaining. I wish I could fix them already but I have to interrupt the work for another project now. We are compensating for our hopeless underestimation of the budget collected through crowd sourcing with income generated by such other projects. This delays things a little more but we are getting closer!
Lots of things have been implemented since the first alpha release of October.
The loading of saved data (for the avatar’s appearance, among others) was restructured. This is particularly complicated because we’re combining local saving and online saving.
The Action Bar display was tweaked a little and a slider was added to the menu to change the size of the buttons. Many other items were added to the menu to the point where it can be considered complete for the remake. Several things from the old game were omitted because they are not relevant anymore. And new options were and will be added.
An option was added to invert camera zoom and to change camera rotation speed and direction. And a switch was added to put the camera behind the avatar
Joystick control of the avatar and of the Action Bar was added as well.
A system for localization of the menu language was implemented, starting with English to Flemish. But it doesn’t seem to work in the build yet.
The screensaver feature was also added: now the camera turns around the sleeping deer. And the option to observe other players in this rest mode was added as well.
A big feature is the implementation of the fawn avatar that new players use in their initial month. It turned out to be impossible to import the original files used in the current game correctly. But thanks to Blender we managed to put the fawn back together and even succeeded in having the adult deer and the fawn share animations. Then all the fawn’s textures and antler meshes where excavated from our less than perfect archives. And finally all the ways in which the fawn logic differs from the adult deer were implemented (magic that times out, for instance).
The game menu was further expanded with toggles for pictograms visibility, morphing (used for blinking and roaring), Abiogenesis performance camera and sound. Volume sliders were added for ambient sound, sound effects and music. The credits were added to the menu, including the names of the backers of the crowdsourcing campaign.
An exciting new feature was added too: a slider to increase the density of the forest, which may now be feasible on fast computers.
A lot of research was done in the Abiogenesis system, especially with respect to initializing semi-permanent changes (such as time of day, weather, huge crocuses, confetti, etc.). Different approaches were implemented in this alpha to test which work best. So that we can finalize the system in the next phase of development and add all the Abiogenesis content. After which the remake should be complete and ready for a beta release.
This project is taking a lot more time than expected. We are grateful for the patience of the players and also for the fact that, against our fears, the current game is still running, despite of the ongoing evolution of technology. Hopefully it will continue to do so until the remake is done. Soon!
A big thanks to all the backers for their support!
Compassie is the work that I wanted to create. I made it so it would exist. Even if just for a brief moment in time. A whisper in the wind. I knew that from the start. I made it with that intention.
But that doesn’t stop the doubts from pouring in. What am I doing working in a medium that has no future? Why do I choose the most unpopular of themes? Is distributing Compassie for free the wisest decision? Who am I to imagine walking in the footsteps of the old masters? Why don’t I just make my life easy an create contemporary art like everybody else? Or videogames for that matter?
The death wish of technology
When is the last time I have been enthusiastic about a computers? As technology production stagnates around a very small number of monopolies, invention is reduced to the absolute minimum required to ensure survival. And every invention stands or falls by that tiny thread. Virtual Reality is no exception.
Virtual Reality is amazing and I’m happy to have been able to discover it as a creator thanks to a revival of the idea in our times. But since this technology is controlled by large corporations, it does not have a future. These corporations have no real interest in VR, let alone in its artistic potential. They have no vision either because in the current stage of capitalism, vision is a liability. The question is not whether VR has a future but when it will die.
It seems fitting therefore to create a pietà in a moribund medium. It adds to the sadness and the feeling of loss to know that this miraculous technology that allows us to experience fictional worlds in such a wondrous way is destined to die. When you experience Compassie you don’t even know if you will be able to experience it again. Tomorrow, yes, probably. But next year? Maybe. Five years form now? Probably not.
There’s a romantically heroic aspect to this suicidal form of artistic creation. And it pleases like a form of revenge to embrace this medium against all reason and pour an enormous amount of effort into the creation of a wonder that will be blown away by a breeze tomorrow. Like setting yourself on fire in protest. But without anybody paying attention.
The temptation of the present
The logical essence of creativity is doing something that is uncommon, something that others are not doing. Creativity implies originality. Making something that already exists is not creative. I consider art to be a creative act. So art creation implies taking risks, requires doing things that are uncommon, at least in one’s context.
So I decided to be serious. To make a work of art that is sincere and modest. To resist the temptation of the modern age to make light of everything or to overwhelm with spectacle. But I had underestimated how difficult it would be to not make contemporary art.
It would have been easy to add a flashy sci-fi element to my pietà scene, or to contrast the traditional inspiration with hard contemporary irony. And while from the very beginning I knew I didn’t want to do that, the temptation remained great throughout the process. Certainly because to appear edgy or cool would reap more likes on social media 1. But also because I know how to do that. It comes natural to any 21st century Westerner. We love having fun. We loving making fun. For Compassie I had to go against not only the spirit of the time but also against my own nature.
A pietà offers us introspection into sadness. We rarely get the opportunity to be sad, even if we all seem to be depressed all the time. I could offer something here. In Virtual Reality I could create a private space where the user could indulge in their desire to abandon themselves to the sadness to is a constantly looming presence in our lives. A valuable gift for those who take the time, the few minutes required to allow the endless blackness of virtual space to wash over them.
After a long period of prototyping and experimenting with many failing ideas, Compassie ended up being a very easy piece. All it takes is a bit of sensitivity, a bit of stillness. I’m simply asking you to not blow your nose during a theater performance, to not shout in a museum, to not jump around in a church. To give yourself this moment. Two minutes of your life. Give yourself these two minutes.
Two minutes with the dead body of God. Or in fact only one minute because it disappears simply to make its absence more tangible. To turn the knife around in the wound. Because there is pleasure in finally feeling the pain that you knew had been there all the time. Finally realizing that something is missing. The body of Jesus is extremely important. It’s crucial because it demonstrates that God was manifested on Earth in corporeal form. Alive or dead is a detail in this respect.
The beauty of the past
There’s a certain quality of beauty in Renaissance paintings that inspires me greatly. It’s not just the charm of their narratives. There’s also an incredible balance of shapes and colors. A certain fullness, maybe abundance that keeps the eye fluttering about without ever tiring. An abundance that is never exhausted and to which one can only respond with a sort of resignation: alright, I’m here, I’ll stop thinking, immerse me. And one allows the wave of pleasure to happen. I think this effect is achieved by the weight of meaning imbued in the elements in the scene. This tickles the brain into a rational activity that contrasts with the desire to simply enjoy while simultaneously pleasing us that we’re not just enjoying, that we’re involved in something greater, spiritual. We let go, yes, but in a warm and secure embrace.
When I compare those paintings to what I did in Compassie, it’s safe to say that I have failed 2. But that doesn’t embarrass me. It’s like starting to study music when already middle aged: there is no hope that one will ever reach the level of conservatory students. If I’m honest I don’t see any value in my creating art. There is already so much beautiful art in the world. We can just go and look at it and be perfectly satisfied. I know I am.
But I am stimulated by the existence of new technologies that have not been used for the kind of artistic experience that I enjoy. So my work is one of research: can I create a computer program that offers its user an experience that is similar to that offered to me by an old master painting? And I tell myself that perhaps the use of this technology will help my contemporaries to reach this pleasure. And when I’m feeling vain, I imagine that this technology may even be more suitable for it than pigments smeared on wooden panels.
But overall I want to affirm this link of familiarity that I feel with old art. The modern age feels alien to me. I do not understand Picasso, Pollock or Hirst. But Cranach, Van der Weyden and Perugino I get. I know what those guys are talking about. I feel it too. As an art lover, but also as a creator. There’s a direct connection between older art practices and the digital that skips over photography and most modern concepts that erupted in its wake. Because just as the old masters we create realities, and not pictures of realities. We create spaces and characters that live in our world, not pictures of things that happened elsewhere a long time ago. We celebrate existence, we wonder at its miracle, we enjoy its mystery.
The presence of interactivity
In the end Compassie was a simple piece to create. It just took a lot of experimentation and prototyping to discover this simplicity 3. But I think I have learned something now. My plans for the next diorama are very straightforward.
The prototyping phase of Compassie has been a deep experiment with interactivity: a long path to arrive at almost nothing. Motivated by the delicacy with which I felt a dead body should be handled. But with results that are applicable beyond that. In the first prototypes, attention was focused on the body of Christ. Inspired by the handling the ambiguous bodies in Cricoterie, I wanted to make a simulation of holding a body that was explicitly dead, in a context that demands respect and reverence. I assumed that the awkwardness of interacting with objects in VR would have an interesting emotional effect. But it didn’t. So I spend a lot of time figuring out how to remove or hide all the ways in which such interaction could go wrong. A second phase was started with the realization that when the user plays the role of the principal character, the attention must go to the environment, since we do not see ourselves. So I invented an elaborate landscape machine that would change in response to how you treated the body: the landscape would shift through thousands of years of human history when you lift the head of the Son of Man. After a few months, however, it suddenly disappointed me that all the attention went to something not directly related to the theme. In the end, after the body and the environment, I decided to focus on nothing (which I think turns the user’s gaze inwards).
During the experimentation with the cause and effect structures that interactivity implies, I was troubled by how interactivity often feels didactic 4. Rewarding certain actions, even by as little as responding visually to input, stimulates a certain behavior. I don’t want to tell people how to behave or how to feel. Not so much for moral reasons but for aesthetic ones: the pleasure will be greater when the user arrives at it through their own choices and actions. I did cower away a little from this idea. In principle I want to leave it up to the user to play whatever song they want on the instrument that I am offering: it is their own responsibility to extract pleasure from the activity. But I couldn’t bear the idea of Jesus’ dead body being mistreated. So I did my best to limit the possibilities to do so. If safe, I’m not sure if it was the right choice. There’s a problem with freedom in interactive art: there are no customs and there’s no social context. When we know we should not spit at a painting or shout at an actor, we have not really established how digital objects should be treated.
A big part of interactivity in VR is simply presence. What is interesting from an artistic and emotional point of view is not so much what you do with your hands, but how you behave in the virtual space. In Compassie, for example, the direction in which you look is important. It may not be not much in terms of mechanical interactivity, but it can make for an enormous impact. And that’s what matters: the effect on the user.
Technically, my approach to interactivity may have become extremely modest, perhaps reductionist in terms of design. But conceptually it’s not modest at all: it moves much of the responsibility to the user. They have to make it work, they are responsible for their own experience. In this sense my work requires a much greater activity than blindly following instructions. After all, art always happens between the spectator and the work and does not simply reside within the work.
The trouble with music
Music has been a difficult issue. First in terms of decision and later in terms of production. I generally like working with a composer to compose new music for a piece. And I enjoy adapting the atmosphere of my work to what the music evokes. But I couldn’t think of any living composer for Compassie. The music that seemed right to me was music from the baroque era. I did look into contemporary composers who attempt to work in this style but while I found some interesting experiments, nothing seemed suitable. It also feels a bit disingenuous to compose baroque music now. It’s always going to be fake, right?
I have also developed a problem with enjoying recorded music, which has only become more acute due to the lack of concerts during the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m an amateur musician myself. I play the classical guitar and the viola da gamba. And even though I am not very good at it, I enjoy the feeling in my body of sound produced by an acoustic instrument in a physical space. Likewise I enjoy attending concerts, preferably on the first row, almost surrounded by the orchestra. To be present in that universe of sound is so much more than just listening to music. But in my medium, the computer, I am forced to used recorded or generated sounds that will be reproduced through speakers. It hurts me to have to do this to music, to sound. Especially, I think, because of the contrast with how I feel about the experience of my art: the diorama is a living environment, and experiencing it is a sort of performance, a unique event. When developing the original ideas for Compassie, presenting the work as a physical installation was an important part of the concept. And in such situations, I would have the experience of the user be accompanied by live music on the viola da gamba (the resonant and mournful sound of which fits a pietà splendidly). But the Coronavirus pandemic ruined that idea. Even when we will all have been vaccinated and live events become normal again, I don’t know how we will feel about sharing VR goggles in public places.
Around that time, I was studying the intro of Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi on viola da gamba. A piece, by the way, that I discovered when looking for music for the very first Tale of Tales game that was never released. It has a very compelling bass line for cello that was easy enough to play on the viol. I especially enjoyed playing it an octave lower on my 7-string instrument. So I started experimenting with that little piece of music in the Compassie prototypes, initially only using samples of bell sounds, because I fondly remember the intricate effect of them in the first prototype of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. Since I couldn’t have a musician be present, I chose the next best thing: I created a software musician.
When I experimented with a fixed soundtrack it felt too flat, compared to the giant space the event took place in. So I developed a system that would play each note at a random location in space, different every time. Basically a little sequencer programmed to play one beat of the music every x seconds.
Later I took advantage of the silence of the Coronavirus lockdown to record all the notes for the bass line on viola da gamba. But I kept the bells for the high voices. They sound strangely disconnected without the bass line, almost random, and that fit perfectly with the feeling of staring into the void.
The choice for obscurity
I stopped making commercial videogames six years ago with the purpose of making things like Compassie. I would never have been able to make Compassie if I had thought about it as a game that would be offered for sale. There’s too many cooks in the kitchen of my head when that is the case. All I wanted for Compassie was to be something that deserved to exist.
A side effect of giving art away for free is that it is ignored. We learned this in the game industry early on. Few people noticed our first release, The Endless Forest in 2005, which is still available for free. So for our second game, The Graveyard, we experimented with commerce for the first time. And suddenly the games press paid attention. The situation in the art world is different but somehow most discussions about contemporary art tend to center around money too, the current wave of non-fungible tokens being no exception whatsoever.
So I knew from the start that creating a piece that was going to be distributed for free meant that it was going to be ignored. But I tried thinking of that as a good thing 5. My desire was to simply create this work. I had no desire whatsoever to promote it. And frankly there would be no point. Things get attention in as far as they are conventional. Maybe after the pandemic when I can present Compassie as an art installation in a museum, somebody will care. But the thing is: Compassie moves me. No other work that I have made has had such an impact on me.
I am reminded of the previous piece that I made just for myself, ten years ago. While creating Bientôt l’été I was torn between the desire to appeal to an audience (of gamers) and the desire to explore the aspects of the medium that fascinated me. That doubt is gone now. If only because I wouldn’t even know who the audience for VR is.
“Working in a popular medium as videogames where serious cultural consideration is rather scarce, I’m always torn between the desire to do the work I know I should be doing and to make things that are easier to enjoy for the existing audience of said medium.”
After Bientôt l’été, I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed about the self-indulgence. And I decided that I would stop making such selfish things. But a decade later here we are again. I’m not embarrassed this time. But I do wonder if it makes sense to make art that nobody sees. On good days I think of it as a prayer. God sees everything and that should be enough. Even for a non-believer. I think Compassie is beautiful. Can that be enough? Can I simply make things that I find beautiful?
I don’t want to not care about my work. I want to tell the world about it and give everybody the opportunity to experience it. I love hearing the thoughts of people about my work. But I don’t want any feedback in terms of numbers. Knowing how many, or rather always how few because no number is ever high enough, is detrimental to my spirit and my motivation. For me Compassie is already a success: I finished it, it’s beautiful and it makes me feel things. That is my only goal. I get frustrated when people tell me that my work should be more well known. I agree. But should that be my responsibility when activity towards that has such a negative impact on my creative ability?
Compassion for the sad
Compassie is the first piece I made on my own in a very long time. I mean without Auriea Harvey with whom I have collaborated for almost two decades. I’m happy to have found three wonderful artists to collaborate with on Compassie (Jessica Palmer, Moné Sisoukraj and Zoe McCarthy). I like collaborating. I don’t like being the only author of a piece. I’m not an individualist. I’m a product of space and time. And for a while I was able to dissolve in a union with a partner. But Tale of Tales is dead. Song of Songs is a fitting new name: a poem about separation and longing. In part, the sadness that Compassie indulges in, is sadness for this loss. The god that we once were is dead. Though I doubt that this sacrifice will save humanity.
But Compassie is much more than that. It’s not really about sadness, it doesn’t generate sadness. It’s a place where you can bring the sadness that’s already inside of you, any sadness. Maybe in the end the beauty of Compassie is that it gives compassion to you, the user. More so perhaps than demanding it from you for its subject, as the traditional pietà might. By allowing you to indulge in your sadness, it expresses compassion. It’s alright to be sad here. You have plenty to be sad about. There is no shame here, no guilt. You are sad. Come here, and be sad. Just, be sad.
(1) We live in a time of numbers. And the numbers make us feel like failures. Because there’s always something that gets higher numbers. And it is invariably something that doesn’t seem as interesting as your own. To the point where we almost have to consider quantity to be diametrically opposed to quality: the more popular, the worse the art. If this is childish then it fits perfectly with the spirit of social media which turn us all into envious teenagers trying hard to seem cool.
(2) In my stubborn devotion to sincerity I may have fallen into the trap of austerity. I may have fallen in love with the void too much and forgotten about the sensations of sensuality that pervade even the most terrifying works of the old masters. I may have made it too easy for the user to be satisfied, to be fulfilled. There’s not enough unanswered questions. Literally: not enough. In my next piece I will pay attention to quantity. It’s more important than I thought.
(3) It seems normal that a new creative technology would invite a lot of artistic research. But in the current social economic climate this is just not the case. We have seen this in web design, in videogames and now it’s happening in virtual reality. Or rather not happening. Most of what we use new technology for is trying to do the same thing we did with slightly older technology. So we make books in websites, board games in videogames, and videogames in VR. To the point where it seems like every time we may be discovering something interesting in a some technology they make it obsolete by inventing something that allows us to start back from zero, where we feel more comfortable.
(4) I consider art with a message to be propaganda. And I do not have a high esteem for propaganda. I consider more valuable an art that allows me to explore myself and the world, and the ideas that connect the two. For that reason the artist needs to refrain from communicating too much.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me, psychologically, for not wanting to be successful. Is this fear? Am I a coward, afraid of failure? But my real problem is that I actually do have a desire to please people but that I’m simply not very good at it. And what makes matters worse, and unacceptable, is that my art suffers under my attempts to please. I can only make things like Compassie when I devote myself to the work. When my only goal is beauty. This is my sacrifice. I nail my vanity to the cross. And I weep. And I pray.
The models in this version have a smaller number of polygons, lower resolution textures, simpler materials and static (baked) lighting. And there is no sound and no interactivity or animation apart from rotating and zooming the view. But it offers a different way of experiencing the scene accessible even on cell phones.
On Holy Saturday 3 April 2021, Compassie was released.
Compassie delights me more than anything I’ve made before. Because it gives me an opportunity to be sad. Hiding behind the VR headset. Where no-one can see me cry. It feels so luxurious to be able to be sad! Just sad, just to be filled with this enormous feeling of failure and desperation, to let it expand and take over my world, with nobody telling me to cheer up or look at the bright side or to relax or fix myself. Just sitting there in the dark, in the absolute, endless darkness of empty cyberspace.
I’m extremely pleased with the result. Please have a look the Compassie webpage to learn more about the project or to download it and try it yourself, if you have access to VR equipment.
For the third year in a row I did not tweet a single thing on @MeneerSamyn. Instead I have gathered my oh-so clever thoughts in a little book that you can read or download in PDF format or purchase in print on Blurb.
Quest’anno ho deciso di scrivere il libro in italiano. Per esercitarmi nell’apprendimento della lingua ma anche per diminuire ancora la quantità di lettori. In un’epoca in cui tutti sono famosi per 15 persone, considero un atto di eroismo scegliere la modestia. Eh sì: sono un eroe.