Virtual and wet: An interview with artist Adham Faramawy

Under a gold ceiling in the Royal Academy, I flailed around at nothing in particular. Several rooms were put aside for a collaboration between the illustrious art institution and HTC Vive, the high-end virtual-reality maker. Three artists: Adham Faramawy, Elliot Dodd and Jessy Jetpacks, were invited to make work for the VR headsets. With the machine on my head, I was able to step, duck, teleport around these virtual pieces.

While Jetpacks made a desert of naked dancers and Cronenberg beetles, and Dodd a stomach-lined altar to a goggle-eyed deity, Faramawy presented a spare area inhabited by floating chrome blobs. Made with 3D sculpting tool Kodon, the piece (“Floating, Spray Can In Hand”) does pretty much what it says on the tin. Faramawy convinced Kodon to develop a new spray tool for their software, and I could use this to paint technicolour doodles on his virtual sculptures.

Back in the real world, Faramawy had installed a physical, 3D-printed version of a single blob, also adorned with colourful lines but this time severed with an LCD monitor. On the TV screen were ripples of shallow water. Fluid, but unreal.

I got in contact with Faramawy after the showcase, and asked him a few question about his work, and his thoughts on whether VR will grow as a medium artists choose to work within.

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A lot of your work foregrounds human bodies – senses. How did it feel to make something in a space that is, in many ways, devoid of weight, smell and taste?

The first time I tried a VR headset I got vertigo. I felt like I might fall over. I still feel ill at ease when the VR scene doesn’t provide a floor or if it’s set high up or under water. Sculpting in a VR scene feels disembodied, even though I’m really much more acutely aware of what my body is doing, how and where it’s moving.

I get really excited thinking about sensual experience, I love to touch, smell and taste, so having my senses compartmentalised and separated from each other was disorienting but not unpleasant.

Talking about bodies, how important do you consider the idea of performance when using virtual reality? Did you design this work to be watched, as much as to be experienced firsthand?

“The way a person is both in a physical space and seeing a simulation makes me feel quite vulnerable”

A lot of my work employs performance for camera. I work with performers and how viewers or users have to relate, behave, how they’re implicated in something, to receive an image is fascinating to me. There’s something inherently antisocial in how VR functions right now. The way a person is both in a physical space and seeing a simulation makes me feel quite vulnerable and I’ve seen that affect how a person uses the work I’ve made.

Your piece had a real interactive element, with viewers being given a virtual spray-can tool. Why did you want that in there? Why not just plonk them in a VR space with virtual objects?

The important thing to me in making the work for the Vive/Royal Academy commission was to understand virtual reality as a time-based medium, experienced in the round and to give the viewers a way to engage with the work both visually and physically.

(Above: Sparkling Life, Pure Water, Healthy World)

I found the experience of making in the VR space much more interesting than viewing a scene lacking narrative or an educational function. I also found the tools prescriptive. They seem to encourage a certain type of emotional engagement. Describing feelings is a complicated thing, but feeling like I could only really do one thing in some of the apps was a little oppressive. I had a few conversations with the programmers at Kodon about mischief and how it can be productive and generative, so we tried to develop a tool together that lets people graffiti on my sculptures in a fantasy space, standing on a platform above the clouds.

One of the things I really liked about your piece was how the physical (3D-printed) sculpture felt both more and less tangible than its virtual equivalents. It was visibly solid, although sliced in half by a TV monitor, and yet the etiquette of art galleries meant it was more untouchable than the floating VR blobs. How did you consider the ‘reality’ of your objects, making them both in and out of VR?

The fact that while modelling a digital object, you have to tell the object or material every possible variable that affects it, and how it is affected, leaves a lot of opportunity for experiment. I’m still open to being excited by that, but I think it’s important to use new tools in thinking about things that affect people in their day-to-day lives.

A lot of what I make, in all media, is about offering and describing materialities that are undermined or short-circuited by the situation they’re in. I get off on trying to translate a material from one medium into another and seeing what’s lost, what fails, what short circuits and also what’s gained.

In some ways I’m taking pleasure in play and experiment, trying to find new ways to see and think about materials and images, and thinking about how those images affect how we think about our bodies.

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HTC at least are pitching VR as a game-changing technology for artists. Would you agree with this? I mean, game-changing is a silly term, but do you see VR as a new material? Does it have scope to change how we think of sculpture, or art galleries altogether?

VR makes some interesting propositions and offers a few new tools for immersive viewing, but I feel like it’s still very early days. Doing the recent HTC commission, I was encouraged to use apps to sculpt in a VR environment rather than modelling on a desktop. The tools have been changing and updating on a weekly basis, and there’s still a very live conversation happening between makers and programmers as to what’s useful and how different technologies can be made compatible.

“There seems to be a push towards a kind of relentless optimism”

Currently I’ve found the tools on offer, though incredibly stimulating, still quite limiting in terms of what and how you can express an idea or a feeling. There seems to be a push towards a kind of relentless optimism. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to be part of developing the spray tool. I’m looking forward to more people getting involved with program development and seeing the medium diversify and mature.

What are you working on now? Do you think you’ll continue to make art within VR?

I’ve just completed two quite involved projects showing at the Bluecoat in Liverpool and the Royal Academy in London, so I’m going to focus on a few smaller-scale projects online before working on some physical sculptures. I’m making a relief for a ceiling and a print for a shower.

I’m in the research stages of a performance for camera work that may now have a virtual-reality iteration. I made an augmented-reality sculpture called “Hi! I’m happy you’re here!” that you can download as an app, so I’m excited about the possibilities of augmented reality experienced through VR headsets.

You can see more of Adham Faramawy’s work on his website.

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