Published on ocula.com, October 2016.
Hell. It looks like fun. Below my feet is a writhing mass of naked bodies, a sinful orgy of flesh and fire. Heavy metal rockers, a cyborg, and one of the nihilists from The Big Lebowski run by with a pair of giant scissors. Before me Julie Andrews pops up amongst rolling green hills and rainbows, alive with the sound of music, while behind her Wonka’s world and the Yellow Brick Road materialise and disappear like Brigadoon. I am weightlessly floating in the middle of the spiraling vortex of creation, a silent spectator witnessing the damnation (and what looks like a great party) below my feet in hell; earthly delights before me; and as I tilt my head upwards, I see heaven, all fluffy clouds, bubbles and Jesus. I am overcome by a sense of vertigo and sensory overload. ‘You’re the first person to ever see this work in virtual reality’, says artist Marco Brambilla. Around me Simon Lee Gallery is still in a state of chaotic installation, but behind the heavy VR visor and earphones is an entirely different world. I’m transported to another place, beyond time and space, into a fantastical hedonistic visual whirlpool.
2016 has been the year of virtual reality with advancements in its use in medical simulation, gaming, culture, and military training. Art too moves forward with and embraces the prevailing technology. VR films have turned up in Sundance, and VR artworks have made their way into galleries, museums and biennales. Some projects have been a mere toe-dip in the waters of what VR can offer, others are pushing the envelope and exploiting the full potential and advantages of the medium. Berlin and New York-based artist, Marco Brambilla recognised the potential of VR to not only tell a story, but to create spectacle, that much sought after high found in Hollywood blockbusters. Brambilla, a former Hollywood filmmaker, who directed sci-fi box office hit Demolition Man (1993), and meme fodder Kanye West’s video clip Power (2010), should know a thing or two about manufacturing spectacle.
Experiencing his 2012 work Creation in VR is like taking an emotionally intense and visually gluttonous Ayahuasca trip into the digital realm. It is both a utopia and dystopia, informed by Brueghel and Bosch’s visual cornucopias. A seductive and hypnotising choreographed moving collage set against Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella Waltz, Creation is one of three in the ‘Megaplex’ series created by Brambilla. The story of biblical creation—of heaven and hell—is told through totemic symbols that have informed our imaginations, plundered from Hollywood cinema, that most potent of tool of contemporary Western culture and capitalism. Here (as in real life), religion is replaced by consumerism. Visuals are culled from over 400 films, and drip fed to us on a loop set within a spiralling DNA helix, referencing Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 film, The Powers of Ten. Brambilla’s films are sieves of our collective pop-cultural consciousness, filtering and then layering visual imagery into micro narratives. They serve to liberate our imaginations and provide escapism—allowing us to choose from a plurality of images—and confine us to our pop-culture addiction, feeding us the visual distraction we crave and which underpins a capitalist society stimulated by images and entertainment.
These seemingly mad and joyous moving collages are not all they seem. The artist is deeply critical of the film industry he left behind and the rampant consumerism it feeds off and inspires. In the ‘Megaplex’ trilogy, Brambilla creates an elaborate symbolic language that both celebrates and satirises film, and our visually saturated consumerist culture.
What of course initially struck me was the sheer number of visual references from films in your work. How do you source all the imagery? And how much of this referencing and culling relies on memory?
A lot of it is memory because when I was very young I used to watch maybe two or three films a day. So what I remember is not always what it was, there’s a lot of exploration that’s going on. I made three of these video collages and each one has between 400 and 600 film clips. It almost becomes a stream of consciousness exercise.
Do you have an idea in mind and sit down scouring films and references that fit the idea?
I know what the signposts will be and what kind of story I’m telling. So the first one would be more of a religious tableau, the second one is more a chronology and third one is like a pop culture spiritual journey. I come up with what the landmarks in that journey would be. In the first one there would be five characters in the whole canvas to start with and then all the connections in between and the journey is filled in from memory.
The first step is really working on it as a Photoshop documenter, and with physical paper cut outs on the floor of my studio. I just start moving things around and see what develops during that process, but I have a very clear idea in mind about what the story is at the beginning. The format the story will take changes substantially during the course of making it. It’s all sampled so I have no control over what the source material will be.
You left Hollywood filmmaking because you said you wanted to do more personal fulfilling works. You considered the world of film more about marketing than creating.
Absolutely. I think it was changing when I left Los Angeles. It used to be a director’s medium, and then it became a producer’s medium. And now it’s a marketing medium. The marketing department of the studios basically tells the producers and the directors who to cast and what to show. I think it has become unimaginative, and for a creative person it’s very limiting. Of course, there’s independent film, which is great and there’s interesting things going on there, but for mainstream cinema … it has become completely different to the ‘70s when I grew up watching films.
Don’t you think there are parallels between that world and the art world today?
Of course, particularly in the last 10 years. But the advantage of an art practice is that you’re not relying on the same support of funding that you would be forced to rely on in a film. In a film if you’re spending 100 million dollars, there will obviously be many people involved in the decision making process. In an art practice ultimately it’s not so much a collaboration with anyone. You’re expressing what you want to express.
The production of my work can be expensive but it’s manageable. It’s not like I have to go out and fundraise and have distribution for the work, as long as I’m not concerned about the art market, which I find very distracting. I know a lot of artists that are very concerned with the art market and they have a strategic approach to their work, but I came from that background being a filmmaker and saw that destroy the film business, so for me, I make what I want to make and there’s very little strategy or marketing involved in what I do. Fortunately, it sells well and I’m able to make more work, but it’s never a precondition of making a body of work the way it would be if you were making a film.
Your goal is to create an all-encompassing sensorial experience, and VR allows you to do that better than any other medium so far. But what are some of the limitations of the medium?
I was working on a 20 minute film for VR, and I realised it’s very difficult to tell a story in VR. It’s more of an experience medium; more about spectatorship and putting you in an environment you wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable being put in. Someone did an interesting piece about an Ebola clinic in Africa and a refugee camp where you’re aware that you’re in an environment that might not be accessible. It’s about the fantastic and the inaccessible. It’s great for documentaries, but for conventional story telling I don’t think it’s a very good tool because you want to have POV and cut back and forth. When you remove all those tools you have to make a very specific story that takes advantage of the technology.
It forces you to renegotiate and also revolutionise the idea of what story telling can be.
Yes, and it’s very much in synch with the way we communicate culturally through social media, through the immersiveness of our connected world. Although it’s not a visual thing, it’s an emotional thing. We feel more connected in more places, able to experience more points of view, tastes, friendships, more of everything. And VR is everything all the time. You put on the visor and you’re literally inside an interface that can be used for anything.
I think some of the more interesting ways of using it will be more behavioural and more about connectivity. I guess that’s why Facebook bought Oculus. Essentially it will be a way for me to sit with you while you’re in Hong Kong and I’m in Berlin, and we’ll be having this interview with these avatars.
It’s ironic because it allows you to have more connectivity, but at the same time it’s isolating because you are shut off from the real world around you. You have the visor on and earphones, and you’re seeing a different world behind those lenses, experiencing things removed from your ordinary experience.
That’s what my work is all about, even the first piece I did, Cyclorama, where I shot simultaneous sunrises in nine revolving restaurants across America. In the actual installation you walk into a cylindrical room and you’re able to witness the sunrise and the movement of each the restaurants in all of these cities. You’re everywhere at once, but it’s a very empty experience because there’s no focus or emotional connection. And that was machine-age technology, in a physical revolving restaurant. So if you look at the rough line, in 2002 I made a piece about video games—a massive multi-layer video game called Half Life—and I shot kids playing these games in cyber-cafes in California where they actually had gang violence related to what they were doing. We spent a week there shooting and looking into monitors. This idea of dislocation and violence going on inside the game compared to what you were seeing was really shocking at the time. And now the technology has gotten even better. So, I think that all of this connectivity, which is not biological, essentially takes you further from the experience, while bringing you closer. But it does push you further away from the emotional experience.
I think it was director Mike Figgis who once said that film is largely driven by music; it’s sound and music manipulating our emotional response. You’re very particular about the music you choose, like Prokofiev. You use music as symbolically as you do the visuals.
Well, Prokofiev had such great satire. So cynical but so beautiful and theatrical. I wanted to find something that would celebrate and satirise what you’re watching, So when you see Julie Andrews singing the sound of music, but to Prokofiev, it reduces everything to a gesture and spectacle that has a hollow sense to it. That’s what this piece is about. On one level I can watch it and revel in the cartoons and the 3D superimposition, but on another level you’re really at a distance from everything and the characters are like they’re trapped in amber. They’re not able to break free of the narrative so you’re in this vortex, which can be quite overwhelming and quite alienating at the same time and that’s exactly the intention of the piece.
What comes first, the music or the visuals?
It’s always the music. For these three pieces it’s always been the music first. For the last one I had (Soviet composer) Khachaturian originally, and that was the inspiration for the vortex, but it didn’t work; the music didn’t have the structure to carry the visuals forward. But then I finally found the Prokofiev piece at the very end. It had a similar feeling … the first one was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the second was Prokofiev which I think is the most effective and bombastic march. Always the Russians.
I’ve noticed that. Prokofiev wove subversive themes and symbols into his work. There was an anti-authoritarian streak to it despite him being politically conformist on the surface to evade persecution.
It’s also anti-commercialism. For some reason the music has that spirit. Whether it’s anti-authoritarian, anti-conformity. The biggest battle right now is conformity. We’re the most conformed the world has ever been. Everywhere you go, every bar looks the same, every shop. I went back to Milan recently—I was born in Milan and grew up there until I was 12 – and it was always the most grey dingy city, no good hotels, very particularly Italian, not like Rome or Florence. Milan’s completely transformed in the last 10 years. Every hotel looks like a hotel in New York. The bars look like the bars in Williamsburg. I was really disappointed because I thought globalisation has completely erased its character. For me Milan was always this place where you found the wrong type of marble; it was always interesting.
In Berlin when I got there eight years ago I remember thinking this is exactly what I like about New York and not what I don’t like. I was there again with a good friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, and we found ourselves in this brand-sponsored party. I thought Berlin of all places is so anti this, and now on all the invitations everything is branded. So, you’re living inside this advertisement. Globalisation and the Internet have made everything the same.
Its flattened the world. Has access to all this information before even seeing things in person also flattened our experience of them? Do you think there’s any more intellectual or emotional interaction with films?
Well, we don’t allow it. Now we’re destroying photography too with things like Instagram. Pretty soon if you’re required to look at a large-scale photograph in a museum you wonder will people actually spend the time to be moved by a photograph. If most of our interaction with photography is swiping on a 3-inch screen, then that becomes our daily interaction; do you still have the capacity to be moved by something that requires more time? It’s a cultural thing that is constantly changing.
Do you see yourself as a pioneer at the intersection of art and technology?
No, I just use technology to make a point and try to adopt whatever methods a certain type of media is using. So in the case of ‘Megaplex’, I adopted the methods of Hollywood using really expensive 3D software and incredible density to make a point and hopefully be subversive at the same time. The technology allows you a point of entry where you can be subversive and make a point by exaggerating it and making it do more than what it’s supposed to do. And hopefully people pick up on what I want them to feel which is this may not be a good thing. This is alienating rather than connecting you. This is not a spiritual thing, this is superficial. In a lot of ways, my art deals with the concept of superficiality through technology.
Where do you think the relationship of tech and art is heading?
Technology and art is also a distribution platform. You’ve got so many ways of experiencing art. Many people will not go to a show until they’ve seen it on a laptop or phone. It immediately reduces that experience to something you’re not going to be surprised by. It changes not just the production of it … I think the production is great because it allows you to see things in ways and things we could only dream of. It can visualise anything. But in its distribution it has removed a lot of the magic and sense of discovery and the sense of the sublime, the sense of emotion and poetry. It’s not everyone’s responsibility to appreciate art in the way people talk about it; if you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter.
Sublime is a word you don’t hear much anymore in the context of contemporary art.
Well, that’s what artists are supposed to do, art is supposed to trigger that feeling. There is still a lot of work that does that, but there’s less and less of it with each generation.
I was just reading a piece by Anthony Burgess on J.G. Ballard before meeting you.
I was just rereading A Clockwork Orange.
Burgess comes to mind when I look at your works, both because of Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange, which I’m sure was an influence, and in your creation of a symbolic dystopian visual landscape, which Burgess (and of course Ballard too) himself does with words.
JG Ballard and Burgess are two of my favourite writers. I was once trying to make a film about High-Rise. That new film…they killed it. We worked on it for four years. I thought it was going to be really great, but we couldn’t get any financing for it. It was too unusual. And the saddest thing is, what they ended up making much later with different people could have been anything, but it was made so badly. They ruined it!
If Ballard and Burgess wrote those books again, you wonder, would people spend the time to understand the lexicon and rhythm of it? Maybe not.