Even though it feels like I spent most of my time exploring my new faith in 2022, I also got a lot of other things done. I released software, wrote books, started a new online identity, studied music and languages, traveled, interacted with my family and improved my health.
My ongoing remake of Tale of Tales’ first game, The Endless Forest, saw three releases this year: an alpha and two beta’s. That’s right: the game is in beta stage now, which means that, after five years of work, the remake is complete, barring bugs and errors.
I made two books. Ex-Atheist is a series of confrontations of my thoughts on many subjects before and after my conversion to Catholicism. Some of these were published during advent. And Weekends in Gent is a book I made for my children with notes I had taken when they were young. I gave them a hard copy for Christmas.
In the beginning of 2022 I had serious doubts about playing music because I could not manage to free up the time required to reach the technical level I desired. But, also thanks to playing together with other people, I gradually accepted to just do what I can. This actually helped to improve my technique and culminated in a concert in January 2023. I also started studying a new instrument. Next to the viola da gamba, I’m trying to learn the cello. My guitars, however, have been a bit lonely this year.
I continued to study Italian, especially through online video conversations with two teachers. But I also read a bunch of Italian books. And I have started learning Latin too, to help me figure out what all those texts mean on buildings here in Rome and said during mass.
In total I spent almost three months alone this year as my partner traveled for work. On some of these occasions I visited my home country of Belgium to see my family. But we also traveled to Belgium together (for Christmas), and to Venice, Palermo, Firenze and even the nearby Eur, which we had never seen in person. All but one of these trips were made by train, which can be quite an adventure!
My daughter visited us in Rome in the beginning of the year. And we swapped houses with her mother in the summer. During an unexpected trip to Belgium because of a death in the family, I had the pleasant experience of reconnecting with several cousins. My son caught Covid on his birthday, my mother in summer and I soon after, in spite of three vaccinations. Hopefully that’s over now.
I continued Alexander technique lessons, this year finally without a face mask. Next to not smoking, not drinking alcohol and eating very little meat, this year I have stopped drinking coffee and quit watching pornography. I did manage to get a nasty cut in my thumb after it got caught between the front door and its frame. Going to bed early, getting up early and napping in the afternoon has been the perfect rhythm for me that I will continue in 2023.
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.
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.
Returning to the Virtual Reality Pietà after four months, while a bit daunted by the amount of production work remaining to be done, I took courage from the idea that the design of the piece was finished. All I needed to do now was to make an epic landscape that transitions over twelve thousand years. Daunting in terms of work, but simple in terms of concept.
But then I tried the prototype.
While aesthetically appealing, I didn’t understand why this scene of a mother holding her dead son required such a spectacular context. A simple transition from day to night in a mundane scene would suffice. I also felt weary about the lesson the piece seemed to be preaching with its manipulative albeit minimal interactivity: lift the dead body in a gently embrace to make the light shine. I felt that the “now is bad, then was good” mantra, or the “we ruined the Garden of Eden” rhetoric was a bit pedantic. And all those cheap glowy lights at night looked too much like cheesy science fiction. Maybe this “edgy contrast” between a traditional religious scene and high tech graphics would increase the appeal of the piece. But how would that interest me?
Two characters in a small garden area would be sufficiently poetic and dramatic. This is how the pietà scene was always depicted in the renaissance and baroque art that I admire. That is how it is done. The strength of a pietà is its simple familiarity. It’s a modest tragic scene. The dramatic consequences should happen in the mind of the viewer, not be expressed by the art.
This is not a deposition
I had always considered this piece to include aspects of both the traditional Deposition scene (taking the dead body down from the cross, a scene that often involves many characters) and the Pietà proper (just a mother and her dead son). In the months away from the project I had developed an idea for a Deposition piece. And so i decided to separate the two. This one needs to focus on the Pietà itself.
It’s all about her sadness, it’s all about her tears. She’s cradling her dead son like a baby.
Any modern invention I might add to the pietà (and it’s easy, and seductive, to come up with ideas) does not improve the scene. We think we’re being clever as contemporary artists, but anything we would add would only reduce the impact of the work. Of course, before modernity, many artists have added new elements to the pietà scene. But, as far as I can tell, this was always done with a sincerity that contemporary artists, including myself, seem virtually incapable of. The old masters always created in service of the scene, of the meaning of the scene, even when they were showing off their skills. As opposed to today’s desire for personal original ideas that “criticize” or “subvert” or in whatever manner add something to the scene that doesn’t belong to it. Or is it just that this is the easy thing to do? The safe thing to do? To make a crude joke about a mother crying over her murdered son is safer now than expressing compassion and grief and allowing that pain to silently exist and grow in meaning.
To maximize the impact of the work, I need to not only trust my own sincerity, but also rely on the tradition of depicting this scene. My own judgement does not suffice. When I imitate, I speak with the voice of thousands. This work requires modesty and respect.
The eye does not see itself
I was also again troubled by the viewpoint in Virtual Reality. Since you do not see yourself, the environment becomes what you look at, when you are cast as the protagonist in the scene. Hence my attention to the landscape that surrounds the scene. But the fact that you don’t see yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t know which role you play! It’s not only about the environment, it’s also about who you are and who you are with.
Once you realize that the viewpoint is reversed in VR other art becomes a lot less useful as inspiration. What does a scene look like from the viewpoint of its subject? Despite of the sculptural nature of realtime 3D I’m more inspired by paintings than by statues. Because they represent worlds. But when I browse through pictures of the pietàs that have been made over the centuries I’m confused about what I am supposed to think about what I am making. I’m not making a painting, I’m making the scene that is represented in the painting. But I’m obviously not creating reality. I could consider this scene a sculpture if the spectator would be positioned outside of it. A virtual sculpture. Okay. But in this case, the spectator is the subject of the sculpture, or they are positioned in the exact place of the subject, playing its role. So is this a form of theater? Only if the actor is their own audience. And while the scene is fictional, the spectator is not. Maybe it’s like a novel written in the first person? Virtual Reality may be too real, insufficiently artificial for me to think of it in artistic terms. And yet the experience, the emotional effect, is very similar to the experience of art.
What changes when a Pietà is no longer a display to be witnessed but a scene to be experienced? There’s no need for Mary to express her grief visibly anymore. You are Mary. Your grief is that of the mother, not for the mother. You compassion is for the son, not the mother. And you think of the son as your own son, but also as the son of God, and how his death, his sacrifice means the salvation of mankind. His death is the foundation of Christianity, the philosophy that would impact Western culture more than anything. Your grief is minor in this context, and it adds an eighth sword of pain that pierces your heart.
There’s an additional dimension to a contemporary image of the Pietà. Because God, famously, has been declared dead in our era. Not just the Son, but also the Father and the Holy Ghost. And according to some, they died for the same reason: as a sacrifice for the salvation of humanity. We have sacrificed God again, this time in order to be saved by science and technology, by what we now consider truth.
The best answer is often nothing
When instead of looking at the virgin, we inhabit her body and look through her eyes, what do we see? Fortunately this is not just an aesthetic or logistical problem. What does a person holding a dead child look at? Nothing much, I presume, it’s not important, the world out there does not matter in this moment.
The way in which Caravaggio submerges his scenes in darkness came to mind.
So there would be nothing to see but the corpse in your arms? The infinite void of an empty scene in VR is impressive. There is nothing there, as far as the eye can see. I was drawn to the radical character of this idea. Although I do love being immersed in an elaborate 3D world. There could be visible objects in the immediate vicinity of the scene: the throne, the floor, plants, some objects. This would satisfy my desire to see real things in VR.
I briefly considered filling the black void with abstract decorations, perhaps expressing, supporting the feelings. But can any decoration express these better than darkness? I tried adding contemporary visuals, to express the mood, to demonstrate the vastness of the endless emptiness in which the mourning mother finds herself. But it all feels corny and out of place. I thought the contrast would be interesting but it just reduces the gravity of the piece.
I was still thinking about the simple garden scene. But after some experimentation I realized that anything out there would capture the gaze of the user. They will look at it and that will become the work of art. So I need to avoid that. Because I don’t want to “express” the emotions in the scene. Art should offer context and stimulus for the spectator’s own emotions and is not an opportunity for the artist to manipulate or impose.
What they see out there should guide them inwards. Not just towards looking down at Jesus on their lap. But towards introspection, towards being not seeing. Perhaps my goal/hope should be for the user to close their eyes. After all, a VR headset feels a bit like a blindfold. Instead of entering another world, the VR headset could enable you to enter yourself.
What would a baroque artist do with VR?
Maybe I have been seduced by power of the Northern Renaissance again, into a problem that cannot be solved in the current age. On the one hand because I obviously lack the artistic skill and on the other because we live in a time in which religious faith is not only sparse but also heavily criticized, and by no means supported universally by society. This reminds more of the Baroque times of Counter-Reformation than of the pious context in which the Flemish Primitives were active.
Maybe I should try to imagine what a baroque artist would do with this technology. How would they deal with the endlessness of simulated space? I’m attracted to baroque art because it contains a certain playfulness and spectacle that seems to fit the digital realm with its abundance, ambiguity and focus on the spectator’s experience. As opposed to the grave and solemn nature of the Northern Renaissance that was the starting point of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds and remains an important reference for the Pietà as well. How would a Baroque artist present a 15th century Pietà in 21st century VR?
To do or not to do
I still had the interaction to consider. In the previous design lifting up the body would transition the world from dark present day to bright paradise. Now I was thinking of a simple transition between day and night. Or a sort of focus: when you lift up the body, only its immediate surroundings would be lit. But the dynamics of cause and effect trouble me. I want to create endless environments, not linear stories. I want to create a context in which the spectator can explore their own thoughts and sentiments. I do not want to guide this process towards what I think is interesting. That would be a waste of opportunity and an unnecessary limitation. But I worry that if there is very little to do that causes a change the experience will feel shallow and short. If, on the other hand, there’s is nothing to do that causes any changes, it can feel endless.
I don’t remember exactly when it happened. I was prototyping all sorts of ideas and at some point I ended up in a scene completely empty and dark in front of me but with a bright landscape behind me. I had recreated the situation of the paintings: the mother with her son on her lap sitting in front of a landscape. We do not know what is in front of the protagonists. It is not depicted. But in the physical context of the museum or a church we are it, the spectators. It feels a bit like being on a theater stage with the actor peering into the darkness where the audience is. You can still lift up the body but nothing happens in the scene when you do. It should happen inside of you. You can look behind you, at the landscape, but it’s very uncomfortable, when sitting down. But it feels good to know that there is a whole world behind you while you are staring into the void of your sorrow.
I’m trying to avoid the undignified effect of errors in both human use as machine function. But errors and clumsiness were in part what attracted me to this theme. Holding a dead body is awkward. It is difficult physically. Especially for a (older) woman to hold the body of a grown man. And it is odd mentally, because we feel we owe this corpse an enormous amount of respect while it cannot respond and we are in control of its motions.
But while I am quite sure anybody would handle this situation gloriously in real life holding a real dead body, the same is not true in VR. In a simulation we know things are fake. We’re in a magic circle where we can experiment with irreverence. The opportunity to interact with a human body beyond the repercussions of every day society is alluring. Moreover we love interaction as such, we are fascinated by machines responding to what we do. We want to see what happens when we do something or other. There is no way that a work of art can demand the same reverence as a dead body. Art is play. Even when it deals with serious themes. Art functions only when we play. We enter the art through play. We have to participate.
While sculptures, paintings, films and poems completely ignore whether or not you’re playing them right, an interactive work of art can actually know if you are. And we can make it respond to this data. So there is a temptation to attempt to force a proper experience. But is that wise? Other art forms leave it up to the player. And the only judging that happens is social. If you burst out laughing in front of a crucifix, a Rothko or and photograph of a starving child, you can expect a reaction from people around you. But the work of art does not change.
In a simulation, however, the art can be changed. The player’s interaction could create a grotesque situation in the virtual space, one that may in fact be humorous. Ideally, in my general philosophy, this should be accepted. Real-time art is for exploration and the creator should not prescribe too much or expect anything specific. If the player decides to fool around, it’s their loss. The problem is that this seems to apply to most players. Maybe interactive art is really only suitable for lighthearted entertainment. And even if the player would devote themselves earnestly to the exploration, there still remains the computer that makes mistakes all the time. Accidents happen. The simulation starts freaking out, often causing a horrific effect that we can only protect ourselves against through laughter.
I decided to abandon my initial inspiration of clumsiness. I figured I should remain flexible and respond to what happens during creation. After all, this is still a very new art form, and definitely very new to me. Just because a simulation can be interactive doesn’t mean it needs to be. There’s a lot of unique value to realtime art outside of interactivity. The only thing that matters is giving the player an experience of beauty. There is nothing to prove. No statement to make. No debt owed to technology. No pride or arrogance or purity.
The player plays the role of Virgin Mary. The corpse of her adult son Jesus is on her lap. She can move her arms to lift up the body by the shoulders with the right hand and by the knees with the left. When I simplified the interaction radically to lifting the right arm very slowly up and down over a distance of about 40 centimeters I felt exhilarated. It feels pleasantly naughty to design such minimal interaction in a medium of which interactivity is often considered its pivotal component. But the thing that made it really work for me was slowing down the response. The body is not lifted up with your moving hand, instead it follows the hand very slowly. This encourages one to slow down one’s own movement. And this slowness of motion gives a feeling of weight, solving that other problem. I’m calling this ambient controls.
Part of the initial design of this project is that the environment changes along with your behavior. So the world would become bright when you lift up the head towards your own and dark when you allow the body to fall back into your lap passively.
But with the radically simple interaction came an in hindsight obvious realization. When you cast the viewer in the role of the subject of a scene, the environment around them becomes more important than the main character. The latter in fact becomes as invisible as the viewer’s own body is to themselves. Suddenly my attention shifted to the environment that surrounds this scene.
Now I want this simple gesture of moving your arms 40 centimeters up or down to take you through the 12000 years of human civilization. From the electric darkness of the Anthropocene to the sunlit harmony of the Garden of Eden. I was inspired by how Timothy Morton in Dark Ecology points out that Genesis can be read as a justification for (or lamentation of) agricultural civilization. And the side effects of the Corona virus crisis gave us all a glimpse of what the planet could be like without the impact of industry. It was like traveling through centuries in just a few weeks.
As I was dealing with such dramatic content, I felt drawn once again towards the Flemish Primitives, the artists whose works initially inspired the Cathedral-in-the-Clouds project. Especially Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of the whole of human history from creation to apocalypse. So I made this desktop wallpaper based on the top of the left panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights, which represents the Garden of Eden. Since the panel is vertical and my monitor horizontal I decided to mirror the tiles to make a continuous picture.
Two things came out of this.
First I noticed Bosch’s use of perspective. As in many Northern Renaissance paintings, the landscape seems to be depicted from above while the objects and characters are seen from the side or the front. It only feels weird when you start noticing it. The picture still immerses despite of this lack of realism.
I had been bothered a bit by how the naturalism of a horizon on eye height in VR caused half of the scene to consist of sky. And there’s nothing happening in the sky. Everything happens on the ground. Bosch’s solution is genius: put the horizon at the top of the image so you can show all the things happening on the land. I can achieve a similar effect if my ground in VR is in fact a hollow hemisphere in which the viewer is positioned quite low. In combination with some scaling of the elements drawn on this hollow ground a rather pleasant fake sort of perspective appears.
I never thought of the environment in this piece as being a naturalistic. Instead I wanted something ornamental, as one can often see in early paintings and tapestries.
My desktop wallpaper suggested a method of creating decorative patterns out of figurative elements: through repeating and mirroring. As a bonus I would only need to produce one segment of a world and then simply repeat it.
Of course, in the sphere of computer creation there is no such thing as simple. All this technology barely works if you try to do anything other than what its unimaginative creators want you to make. Which in this case would be static environments. But my world needed to be highly dynamic: I want to browse through 12000 years in the lift of an arm. From my previous experiments with dynamic objects I had learned that in 2020 computers still can’t handle a few thousand of them simultaneously on screen. Except, I realized, for particle systems! Originally presumably invented for simulating explosions, smoke and fire, particle systems could do all sorts of things these days.
As it turned out a new particle system technology, called Niagara, was being added to Unreal Engine. Since I did not want my work to disappear when they phase out the current technology, I started learning how to use it. It’s quite a powerful system with a reasonably adequate interface. But I did run into some problems, even a bug, that hopefully will be resolved soon.
To aid in my experiments I needed some assets. I figured cubes and spheres would not help me make aesthetic decisions. So I imported some of the models and textures created by Mary Lazar based on concept drawings by Vicki Wong for our sadly cancelled project An Empty World. An Empty World is also structured along a transition from natural to cultural and industrial landscapes.
To end this little report, please enjoy some screenshots of the current state of the project taken in the Unreal editor, because the aforementioned bug causes none of this to show up in an executable build.
Providing the technical issues are resolved, I consider the design of Compassie done. Can’t wait to start production and bring it all together!
Most of the past month was spent in Coronavirus quarantaine. The eternal city was silent as its citizens were forbidden to leave their neighborhoods. Not being able to visit churches and museums as I’m used to was tough at times. But I did not let this stop me from beginning the work on our new VR project. After all, isn’t this what we do: create virtual projects from the comfort of our homes?
Compassie is the working title for a new Virtual Reality diorama in the context of Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. The theme of the diorama is the pietà, that is the Holy Virgin Maria holding her deceased son in her lap. It’s one of the great classic themes of Western art history, and as such often parodied in contemporary art.
And even though as a 21st century person I cannot avoid being a contemporary artist, parody could not be further from my artistic goals. To be honest I find it hard to understand how one can be so cynical as to make fun of a scene in which a mother mourns her murdered child, not to mention the divine nature of this child.
I was inspired by our own piece Cricoterie in which you move life-size ball-jointed mannequins around on a theater stage. Playing Cricoterie, I started to imagine what it would be like to hold a body that represents the dead Christ in Virtual Reality. I imagined it could be a very powerful experience. And I adore the idea of working with traditional artistic and mystical themes in computer technology. In this technology I find encouragement to return to the sincerity and the beauty of the art from before the modern era.
Since Virtual Reality hardware and the fast computers it requires are not widespread commodities, from the start I thought of Compassie as an installation. I started prototyping by sketching the setup in 3D.
The player would sit on a large throne-like structure while wearing the VR headset and holding the two controllers. In the real world this structure would look very bare bones. But in VR very detailed and ornate. This throne in fact references many depictions of the parallel traditional scene of the holy mother with her infant son on her lap.
When experiencing this scene in VR I was immediately confronted with an unwelcome problem: it’s very difficult to manipulate bodies in a physics simulation in VR without things getting out of hand. In this case quite literally: it was very easy to have Jesus slip from your lap and fall on the floor in a must undignified manner. This is where the static arts of painting and sculpture have an advantage.
There is a traditional scene in Western art that is very closely related to the pietà: the deposition, or the scene in which Jesus’ corpse is taken off the cross before it is given to Mary.
A form of deposition had always been how I imagined the start of the VR experience: a host puts the body into the hands of the player.
One thing that fascinates about many depictions of the Deposition of Christ is the number of hands that support the body of Christ. It’s always a group activity that involves several people. This allows for the maneuvering of the body to happen in a serene, dignified fashion. This got me thinking: what if the player in VR has more than two hands? What if there’s a hand for each limb of the body but they are all controlled by the two real hands simultaneously. And what if a few of these hands are cherubs?
I did some research into such controls and was relatively pleased with the result. But even though a severely limited the freedom of movement, it was still far too easy to put the body in awkward positions.
I radically simplified the controls by turning the players hands into large cylinders that could not rotate.
I liked this restriction, it felt good in VR, even if the real hands and virtual hands did not correspond completely, since rotation of the hands was ignored. But it suddenly struck me that this dead body feels very light in VR. To solve both problems I imagine I could mount each controller in a relatively heavy sphere that the player needs to balance on the palm of each hand. Such “input devices” would allow the player to feel the weight of the body, ensure a certain slowness and dignity in motion (lest they drop the spheres in reality) while creating better correspondence between real and VR motion.
The simplicity of this prototype also confronted me with a problem that affects many interactive art pieces. When an art work allows you to impact it by doing something, people definitely will do that thing, all the time. Even when the work is more beautiful when you don’t touch it or only once in a while or only in a certain way. No, people will jump up and down, dance like clowns, wave their hands, and so on, in order to see the reaction of the machine. So much so that they forget to even contemplate the art, they’re just playing, moving their body. Not exactly the goal I have in mind.
The original concept included a sort of reward system: if you hold the body gently and still, beautiful things would start happening. Lately I have been a bit annoyed by these types of structures of cause and effect, so I neglected this idea. But now it seemed like such a mechanic could prevention the problem with interactivity described above: Jesus would only appear when you hold your hands still in the right position.
Initial experiments with fading the body in and out were disappointing. It made Jesus seem like a ghost and the mechanic of hold-still-for-display felt a bit too prescriptive, too simple.
Instead of making the body appear from thin air, I want to compose it from elements that are already floating around in the environment. Most of these elements would be undefined fragments but some could be cherubs, or flowers, or ornaments with certain animations. This idea matches up with my original vision of a garden that surrounds the player and starts blooming when they are properly contemplating.
So that’s where I am at now. The first experiements have been a bit disappointing in terms of performance. A few thousand individual pieces with their own behavior still bring a very powerful workstation to its knees. Story of my life: in the twenty years that I have been using computers for creating art, they have never been fast enough to run my imaginations.
But luckily for my mood I have developed this theory that art happens where artists fail to achieve what they really wanted. When they need artifice to compensate for shortcomings in technology or technique, magic appears. So I hope I find some tricks to replace the original idea that ultimately make the piece better. Wish me luck.