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g2gp 17-01-2009
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Creating and Using Virtual Reality: a Guide for the Arts and Humanities #

Virtual Reality Case Study Library#

Case Study 2: Exorcising the Flesh#

Kate Allen

This case study is a personal account by the artist, Kate Allen, of the ideas and processes involved in creating VRML art installations and of audience reactions to them.

I began to combine photographic representations with physical objects, manipulating fashion models' torsos digitally, commenting on how the use of digital media in magazines, for example, may manipulate our ideas of a 'true' representation of reality. I found it frustrating that physical objects I built would be photographed then scanned before they existed on the computer. I wanted to move from manipulating photographs digitally to creating an entirely digital image, exploring the notion that simulation can produce a mathematical reality that has no previous existence in the physical world. The use of 3-D modelling software gave me the chance to explore this within my existing sculptural practice. With difficulty I learnt and am still learning to use Autodesk 3D Studio computer modelling software. I could now construct objects digitally, but to accept them as 3-dimensional I needed to animate the objects I made. Presenting the object as an animated film dictated what the viewer would see. I felt distanced from the objects I had made digitally, I wanted to make the exploration of the objects more interactive or more of a physical experience than watching an animation. This led me to VRML, which I had experienced on the Internet. I found VRML allowed me to explore the image – I could navigate through objects, find landscapes, views I had no idea existed, hidden inside the objects I constructed. It also allowed me to experience the object I had constructed in my own way as I would in the physical world. My desire to keep a sense of the unknown, a method of keeping that sense of discovery through making was regained using VRML.

To create my VRML objects I build the models in Autodesk 3D Studio and use a plug-in to change the model into VRML, later a plug-in became standard with Autodesk 3D Studio Max. I can create animations made in 3D Studio Max and export them to VRML. I had some difficulty getting animations working initially, as when the code is exported from 3D Studio to VRML the node for animation is written as loop FALSE instead of TRUE so I have to change the code in Wordpad. I use Cosmo Player to view my VRML models and I mostly use the examine mode. For me the VRML model is one piece of a whole installation/performance. I have only used a tiny part of the capabilities I can access through 3D Studio Max as I try to use the technology within the context of the ideas I have rather than becoming seduced by the possibilities of the software.

Images from the model

Figure 9: Images from the model 'Have Your Cake and Eat it'.

I created an installation, Have Your Cake and Eat it(info) (1996). A VRML model of a cake projected on to a real cake allowing participants in the interactive installation to explore under the surface of the cake before biting into it. The objects inside the VRML cake represent some of the more unpleasant surprises which one may encounter while eating: finding a hair in your mouth, or seeing the chef with a runny cold sneezing over your dinner. It is probably better not to have this knowledge, but, because of the lure of the technology, or a fascination with the unpalatable, or simply because it is there, most of us will take a look. The interior of the virtual cake provides a new space: the 'inside' of the icing becoming an arctic landscape once one begins to travel through it. The VRML Cake has no matter; the newness of the technology makes more apparent the fact that the digital cake is nothing but a sign, and so is infinitely flexible and controllable, like our imagination. I was asked by several participants to tell if there really was a hair inside the cake they had eaten, another exclaimed that it was the first time they had ever been inside a glacé cherry!

Inspired by the texture of the VRML model and the sometimes difficult experience of navigating in virtual space, I built 'Lap Top Dog(info)' (1997). This was a furry cover over the physical computer, where the viewer had to plunge their arms through furry sleeves to reach the mouse. The viewer could then manipulate a series of VRML images travelling through one into another etc. The objects based on internal and sexual organs, were nested inside each other, I wanted to create a sense of never-ending delving.

Images taken from the model

Figure 10: Images taken from the model 'Lap Top Dog'

I wanted to make covers for the computers of people who were real expert programmers; I constructed them for people at the London Virtual Reality Group. I wanted the viewer to experience things getting hot, difficult but sexy enough to want to continue. I also wanted to continue the sense of the physical and the unknown.

My interest in exploring the interface of the VRML model with physical objects influenced the work 'Fat Free Fat(info)' (1998), part of 'Exorcising the Flesh' commissioned by Walsall Museum and Art Gallery. The computer was housed inside an object, inspired from an individual pixel or one-calorie or piece of fat/flesh. A trackball mouse set into the front of the squashy sculpture manipulated the VRML object. The viewer looked through a tiny hole at the VRML object, a wobbling blancmange, and because of the restricted view the only way to view the object was to manipulate the model. The whole piece was impregnated with vanilla.

Images taken from the model

Figure 11: Images taken from the model 'Fat Free Fat'

Through experiencing audience reception of other computer works I began to get increasingly frustrated with the notion of interactivity. While watching people engage with my work I wanted to direct viewers to experience different parts of the piece. I noticed that quite regularly one person familiar with computers would interact with the piece while the rest of the audience looked on; through this person they experienced the work rather than interacting personally. This led me to the idea of performing with the VRML model. I thought I could act in a similar vein as a conductor of an orchestra, bringing out the best of a piece. I built a sort of ventriloquist dummy and created a performance work called 'Little Death(info)' (1999–2000). This consists of a dummy of the computer animation star from Tomb Raider, Lara Croft, dressed in a wedding dress, a roller ball mouse set in her lap. Projected on to her are a series of VRML models – a wedding cake with cherries falling and a tongue licking the inside out of the VRML cake and a VRML wedding dress with Catherine Wheel internal organs spinning inside.

Images taken from the model

Figure 12: Images taken from the model 'Little Death'.

The model is manipulated by the roller ball mouse set in her dress. With my arm through her dress sleeve I can move the roller ball mouse and so move the objects. The wedding cake imagery with the cherries and tongue were a way of representing sexual pleasure. I have been interested in images of women created by men which is why I choose the Lara Croft character, built by a male programmer, a fantasy sex object for men. The rollerball mouse in Lara Croft's lap is moved to the instructions of the accompanying sound track of the music from the Sugar Plum Fairy, with directions spoken by a female saying 'left a bit up a bit right a bit'. The sound track and the movement of the mouse gradually becomes more excited until it almost reaches climax but not quite and the whole process begins again.

I am working on other pieces using VRML which has provided me with a sculptural experience using computer imaging, exploring the merging, confusion and manipulation of the 'real' and the 'virtual'.