By – Rocco Bambace
Sutu Eats Flies is in the niche tribe of virtual reality artists working to activate the potential of the form. He’s collaborated with Google and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, designed pilot training programs for the Australian Defence Force, contributed his work to the Australian National Museum, and wrote and illustrated Nawlz, a 24 episode interactive cyberpunk comic. Saying that Sutu Eats Flies keeps himself busy would be a considerable understatement. We reached out to him via Skype to speak about virtual reality, its artistic potential, and whether the technology will ever reach a Matrix-like state.
Is VR the medium you work with most often?
I also draw printed comic books and I run an augmented reality company. We’ve made an app that’s sort of our own augmented reality technology, and we’re creating augmented reality products like comic books. We just finished our flagship product which is an augmented reality art book. I curated that book in collaboration with 45 artists from around the world. We’re about to launch it February 7th in Melbourne.
Tell us more about this AR book.
The book’s called Prosthetic Reality (see trailer here), and the concept was to add another “layer” to reality, so it’s playing on what augmented reality already means. It was a sort of introduction to the art form for all the artists invited to be involved in it. It was more about exploring how they could combine their own artistic styles and ideas with augmented reality, so a lot of the artwork that’s printed in the book transforms with an additional layer to give it a new dimension.
Some of my favourite pieces are those that have a bit of a narrative in them. There’s one section of the book set a hundred years ago showing slaves being auctioned off. When you look at that same image through the app, the illustration is transformed and it jumps to present day where four black men are in orange jumpsuits. The same slaves that were being auctioned off are in orange jumpsuits, and the judge is sending them to prison. That transformation shows something like the prison system in America being the modern day slave system. It was a really clever narrative showing before and after, which I thought was pretty impactful.
Another guy, he did a murder scene. When you look at it you initially see the bare scene, but when looking through the AR you see the sequence of events leading up to the murder. Because of the device, you can actually go pretty close to the images, so it’s like a magnifying glass that allows you to inspect the scene really close and take in all the details. You can compare the augmented reality layer and the printed layer. Between those two images, there’s a narrative emerging. This is just the starting point for that potential, I think.
That point between what’s printed and what’s being shown through the device is a point that traditional literature can’t reach. While I’m excited about VR, I’m also prematurely lamenting traditional art forms kind of dying, literature definitely among them. Do you see this AR/VR book form as where literature will be going?
I don’t think so. I’ve spent a lot of time in these virtual spaces, but at the same time, right now as I talk to you via Skype, I’m just doodling away in my sketchbook with my normal pen (laughs). I think it’ll probably be more important to ask a 5 year old. I’ve got a passion for reading books. Say, if you took someone like William S. Burroughs, who was playing around with these word experiments where he’d put two unusual word combinations together to create a whole new meaning, just looking at those sentence structures and word combinations can set your neurons alight. With VR and all these other things at our disposal that offer a kind of sensory overload, it’s pretty incredible and masterful that a dude can put a couple of words together and have such an impact.
Your web comic series is set in a future where VR is implemented and prominent. Can you tell us more about it?
It’s kind of where we’re headed right now, or at least where I’m headed personally. It’s about this cyber graffiti artist walking around his city, mapping the streets with his own artwork. It’s this combination of VR and AR working together to create a seamless overlay of the whole city. He could fill up the streets with volumetric effects and 3D animation that respects the physics and the dimensions of the buildings. He can pull information from the weather satellites to know where the sun is to make sure all his artwork is lit according to the sun. He can take all these natural variables and have them respect the virtual world that he’s created, if he wants it to. Otherwise he can completely ignore all that stuff and just create a crazy fantasy world that covers everything. In going through that process every night, some trippy, weird shit starts to happen.
That’s kind of where the story goes, where the reality of the fiction and the non-fiction blur. So he’s going in and exploring his world, and he enters into somebody else’s world and sees stuff that looks like it was plucked straight out of his brain, from his own memories. Then he starts to question how people can get in there, steal that information and project it out there as a sort of insult to him. That’s when he starts interacting with this other entity. It’s a little bit like how an AI can start to evolve, where it might get its inspiration from, and then what decisions it makes with all that information. A lot of it feels like the movie Clerks, if Clerks was projected into the future. A couple dudes just sitting around cracking jokes whilst getting their brains scanned, taking different drugs and watching their neural activity light up on the screen.
Have you seen ways that current AR and VR technology affect music production?
I’ve seen some dudes who create their own interfaces and perform them. I think that area is going to be fucking wild. I’ve been dreaming about it for ages, just the kind of performances you can deliver if you could move your body around these virtual interfaces that you design to suit your needs.
I imagine one interface as a piece of clay that you stretch. Maybe you stretch it out slowly to make a bass sound, then you have the option to duplicate that and double it up, changing the length of it a little to play with the frequency or tone. Maybe then you chop it in half and you’ve got a little break between it. There are so many little variables here, different pieces of clay that you assign some sound to, and that’s just to get the sound going. Then you can start throwing shit at it, or shaking it, or stretching it more or pushing it, maybe manipulating it to another shape altogether. Little skinny shapes would make higher frequencies, fatter and flatter shapes can emulate a sine wave. I think making a sound a tangible thing is something we haven’t really been able to do. Obviously we have instruments, but the instruments don’t look anything like the sounds they make.
I think a lot of people are looking at VR as the next step for art. What new form do you think will take VR’s place in the future?
I suppose the next migration will be where all these VR interfaces start integrating more with the potential of augmented reality. Augmented reality has been kind of limited; it’s really hard to make augmented reality graphics look good over physical reality, making it seamless while respecting natural light and all these other variables. As soon as you bring these into the equation, it looks shit most of the time. VR is helping us take control of 3D space using our full bodies, and all the interfaces being designed in VR are going to migrate into the augmented reality space in the future. We’ll be doing all those things in AR, or what they’re calling ‘mixed reality’, whatever term you want to use.
I think that will be the next immediate art explosion. VR’s going through a pretty big revolution right now. AR mixed reality stuff is currently limited by a lot of factors. For example, our smart devices struggle to process all necessary information. The majority of available cameras aren’t depth cameras, so they can’t see the distance between the lens and the surrounding objects. Google’s Project Tango is an example of a software that works with depth cameras. There’s a device that’s come out recently called the Phab 2, and that’s got a depth camera which allows your camera and your smartphone to process space. It basically draws a matrix of the physical world. For example, it sees that there’s a chair and a desk there, and it can see the top of the desk. Then, when you have virtual objects falling from the roof for example, it can see the roof, and it draws a hole on the roof which the virtual objects fall through. They then bounce on that real desk surface because the device has already drawn this virtual matrix of the room. All those things help to make that experience feel more real and respect real world circumstances.
I’d like to get your take on a quote from Char Davies: “If we create a model of a bird to fly around in virtual space, the most this bird can ever be is the sum of our (very limited) knowledge about birds – it has no “otherness”, no mysterious being, no autonomous life. What concerns me is that one day our culture may consider the simulated bird (that obeys our command) to be enough and perhaps even superior to the real entity. In doing so we will be impoverishing ourselves, trading mystery for certainty and living beings for symbols. We might well become oblivious to the plunder going on around us as we construct a disembodied, desacralized world in ‘man’s’ own image.” What do you think about that?
She articulates it a lot better than I would (laughs). I think it’s just hilarious that when I share a VR video on Instagram, the majority of people that follow my work won’t actually be able to get into the VR artwork to experience it the way it’s even supposed to be experienced, since they don’t have access to a Vive. But they’re happy — they watch these videos and they’re told that this was made entirely in VR. From a 3D art point of view it’s pretty lo-fi, but because they know it was made in VR, that’s enough for them to go, “Hey, wow, that was fucking crazy! That was made in VR! Look, that was painted by hand!” But actually, I want them to get in there and walk around, and look at it as I saw it.
We’re already at that point she’s describing where we’re accepting the simulacrum of what something actually is. That’s enough for us, because then we just scroll down our Instagram feeds onto the next meme or whatever’s there, whatever’s waiting in line. The amount of media that we’re exposing ourselves to on a daily basis is having the same effect. So we might have a nice experience in VR then forget about it the next day because we’ve just jumped into 10 other experiences.
Out of the four rooms you created for Google, which do you spend the most time in? I like the one with the man on the bench.
I guess it depends on my mood. I jump around. I know why I like that room as well. It’s kind of a deliberate take on a familiar thing, like the daily comics you have in the newspaper. The magic is that it’s a familiar style, but when you go in there and you can actually walk around that character, you’re like “This isn’t the world I knew. This isn’t that world anymore.” And that’s a lovely feeling.
When Tilt Brush released their scale function, which is where you can scale the world bigger or make it very miniature, the first thing I did was go into that room and I scaled it right up so I was just the size of a can of Coke, standing underneath his foot, looking up at him.
No fucking way!
Yeah, and that was such an exciting feeling for me. I was like, “We just hit another level!” I told the Google guys, “You just opened up my mind to where this could go.” The whole virtual reality painting thing has been about being inside your artwork and then walking through it and seeing your artwork from all these different angles. And as you go on that little walk, it’s like your neurons are just firing, and you’re going “Oh, I can do this, and I can do that. Oh, I gotta fix that up, oh that looks fucked from this angle, people are going to see it from this angle, I gotta fix that up.” It’s this constant tidying up of your artwork from all these perspectives, which is a crazy experience.
Do you think VR will ever reach the point where the user experience is as convincing as real life perspective?
You’re talking about this Matrix kind of idea. I don’t know, there’s a lot of shit going on. So many variables that you’ve got to replicate. I’ve read a lot of sci-fis about this kind of thing, the technological singularity where all this research and study meets at a point where the exponential curve goes straight up for a long time. Ray Kurzweil talks about that kind of stuff. If you try to break down reality and you start to process all the things that are going on just in one scenario, it’s hard to even think about everything that has to be replicated. And not even like…
Today I was listening to a podcast about this kind of stuff. Say you’re in an argument with your girlfriend, and suddenly in the middle of the argument you touch her arm. At that point, because you’re in an argument, that touch is received as being a total insult, like you’re entering her space and it’s not welcome. Then, if you aren’t in an argument, and you’re just having a relaxing evening watching a show or whatever, you touch her arm with the same velocity and pressure, it’s welcomed and received favorably. Her brain interprets it completely different. So much is going on just in those two little moments.
Collectively there will be scientists and researchers that are all working on these little independent projects, and all of those independent projects meet at a certain point to get pulled in to this vacuum that becomes the technological singularity of progress or whatever. I don’t know, it feels like a long way away. Then again, 25 years ago no one could have predicted Ebay or Amazon, and those were the lead-ins to changing the whole global economy, where everyone can sell to anyone across the net. Maybe something else will happen that will just be totally mind-boggling to us.
There will be a retrospective exhibition of Sutu Eats Flies’ work in Montréal on March 23 for the Festival International des Films sur l’Art de Montréal. His work will also be shown at the Montréal Comic Con from July 7 to July 9.