On the origins of Immersive Art

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A few months ago, we hedged our bets on Virtual Reality as the future of our industry – a revolutionary platform for storytelling, data visualisation, empathy and romance akin to the invention of the paint tube or the editing suite. 

So at Semi Permanent Sydney 2017, we put our money where our mouth was and partnered with Google VR as an immersive design partner to showcase their Tilt Brush program. It was a cornerstone of our three-day event at Carriageworks, one themed on Designing for Change, and chosen especially to accelerate that which we've invested ourselves in. 
Watch the full run down of our Tilt Brush collaboration here...
The Tilt Brush experiment was a multi-pronged experience: from panel discussions with experts through to first- time workshops for our attendees. But the headline act was something a little bigger: We challenged four luminaries in their fields to create something truly unique together; a work of art in VR that was tailored to its own technological environment and created as a true collaboration of diverse skills and processes. A world first even? We'd like to think so.  

The collaborators: 

We kicked off by challenging four distinguished figures in four diverse fields to work together and create something that was true to their unique attributes.
James Jean – Taiwanese American visual artist known as much for his fine gallery work as his work for DC Comics, Prada and Atlantic Records. 
Sharni Spencer - Soloist at The Australian National Ballet.
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Left: James Jean.
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Right: Sharni Spencer. Photo: Toby Peet
Kelvin Ho - Architect from Sydney whose firm AKIN Creative has created spaces for the likes of A.P.C, Saturdays NYC and a resort in the Maldives.
Luke Lucas - Typographer, graphic designer and illustrator from Sydney whose work has appeared in publications around the world.
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Left: Luke Lucas
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Right: Kelvin Ho. Photo: Toby Peet

The Experience

So, y'know, we could have done this the easy way – two artists create an artwork in their own time, and you can view it at the event. Boring.
So we did it our way, setting up our own space and doing it live. We built a completely custom Tilt Brush experience room at Carriageworks throughout the duration of Semi Permanent Sydney, where our collaborators (and some friends) would come in and create the works in person. We put in a 12x24ft screen, made the room extra comfy with some ridiculous couches (one attendee said he felt like he was "uploading himself to the cloud"), and we got our mate Dan Stricker from Siberia Records to DJ throughout. It was a VR playground; an environment to push both the technology of Tilt Brush and the minds of our collaborators as far as possible.
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Photo by Toby Peet

The Results 

So what happened when we put these people in a room together? For starters, two incredible artworks created on site as the combination of two distinct mindsets coming together. 

James Jean and Sharni Spencer: Nests

The original intent was to partner up James Jean with another artist or designer. But in typical James Jean fashion, this wasn't far enough. He suggested partnering up with a dancer – from the Australian National Ballet, no less – who could bring a more 'kinetic energy' into their world.
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In the very beginning, Sharni created the bones for a horse character that evolved from the movements she made. Then along the way her movements became these nests of activity and I would go in and tease out images and new ideas – branches would evolve and erupt from these nests that Sharni created. It all evolved very naturally.

James Jean

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The end result was a beautiful mess of flora and fauna; a James Jean artwork reborn. It was an elegant collision of ideas, splashed across the boundless setting with the full arsenal of brushes and movements made available by Google.

I was so excited I could be a part of this project and explore this type of creative process. As a dancer, this technology and collaboration is not normally something I would be part of.

Sharni Spencer

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I'm like this omnipotent God creating the scene at will...

James Jean

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Luke Lucas and Kelvin Ho: Collaboration

Inspired by the architectural and technological innovation of 18th-century French glasshouses, architect Kelvin Ho kicked kicked off by building a stunning virtual environment inside the Tilt Brush rig. Constructed in a neon-pink brush that glowed within the abyss, Lucas was then able to bring it to life with a botanical showcase of plants, leaves, flowers and trees. High concept, high detail. 
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Photo: Toby Peet
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Part of the challenge was trying to work out an approach where we could both express our style and interests and we seemed to do that through the Glasshouse concept.

Luke Lucas

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It was interesting from a physical point of view - because typically you would be drawing from the wrist, elbow or shoulder (they are the principles of drawing of painting) but what this opened up was a physical pivot point and using your whole body axis as a tool. We discovered the more you use it the more you are essentially using your body as a compass or as a straight line or a pivot point - you can't really do that when you're drawing something flat

Kelvin Ho

The Future...

So what do we know about the next stage of design from VR? One is that it isn't the singular experience many think it is. This idea of 'exclusive immersion' (by which you cannot have a joint experience with someone else) is not an insurmountable obstacle – the collaborations proved that. The other is that VR will be the new canvas by which artists and designers can work with each other – whether in the same room or not. As part of the event, we opened up the artworks to all our attendees to be remixed, recreated, destroyed and rebuilt in their own unique way. We saw children build their own worlds on top of our collaborators, experienced designers explore entirely new typography forms, and some of our speakers and network commit themselves to getting their own rig the Monday after. 
The regenerative process of destroying and reloading gives us the infinite possibility to create something that hasn't been experienced before. Now we just need to start practising. 

A big thanks to Google for helping make it possible. If you have a VR headset like the Google Cardboard or Daydream you can jump into the final artworks  here.

Some notes from our friends... 

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Photo: Toby Peet
Photo: Toby Peet

Thankyou! It's given me a world of ideas.

Ben Quilty, Artist, Winner – Archibald Prize

Fantastic experience! It's not drawing, it's sculpting. I want to go back to the black box.

Anna Wili-Highfield, Sculptor 

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Photo: Toby Peet

It's rare to be able to lose yourself in a creative experience like that. There's very little I can compare it to - it has to be exprienced. I believe it's a big part of our future and how we will create and share.

David Caon, Industrial Designer 

I believe we're one step closer to uploading our consciousness into the cloud.

James Jean, Artist

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Photo: Toby PeetDavid Caon, Industrial Designer
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Photo: Toby PeetDavid Caon, Industrial Designer

It's beyond being inspired. Its design in context, how it fits in the world.

Gemma O'Brien, Typographer 

The more we got to experience Tilt Brush and inhabit these environments, the more we realised the amazing potential and infinite possibilities that comes with this toolkit.

Leilani Croucher. Director, Will O'Rourke

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Photo: Toby Peet
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Photo: Toby Peet
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Photo: Toby Peet
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Photo: Toby Peet
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Photo: Toby Peet
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Photo: Toby Peet

Film credits

Production Company: Revolver/Will O'Rourke
Director: Leilani Croucher
Managing Director/EP: Michael Ritchie
EP/Head of Projects: Josh Mullens 
Director of Photography: Simon Walsh
VR/360 Operator/Stitching: Virtual Guest
LA Facilitation: Gravy Films
Post House: The Glue Society Studios
Editor: Scott Stirling
Colourist: Christine Trodd
VFX & Online: Heckler
VFX Supervisor: Jamie Watson
EP/Producer: Bonnie Law
Title Design & Animation: Anthony Zazzi
Original Music by Hugh Burridge
VR Sound Design & Engineering: Otis Studios