Strange bodies in virtual places: An interview with artist Elliot Dodd

Elliot Dodd’s work is full of gloopy, dislocated organs, stuck together like obscene family portraits. They remind me of mascots for some long-cancelled brand of cereal, or the plasticine grotesqueries of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer.

He recently took part in a collaboration between HTC Vive and the Royal Academy to make a piece of art within virtual reality, alongside Adham Faramawy and RA student Jessy Jetpacks. Dodd’s project was made almost entirely using Tilt Brush, a 3D painting app developed by Google. The result was a cavernous, virtual room, leading up to an enormous goggle-eyed effigy. This figure – titled Whippy Snaggle Stack – was 3D-printed, plonked into the real world, on its very own plinth.

I talked to Dodd about his work, and how he found the experience of making art in VR.

How did you find the experience of making an installation within VR, using Tilt Brush?

The almost hallucinogenic quality of hours spent in VR was really demanding and productive. It’s a really physical way of drawing so it presented a bridge between my existing computer work and my pencil drawings. The last couple of updates for Tilt Brush have suddenly made it a much more dynamic and less lumpen piece of software.artist_elliot_dodd_with_whippy_snaggle_stack_2017_for_virtually_real_at_the_royal_academy_of_arts_

Previously it seemed solely good at creating a dramatic visual demonstration of VR. The addition of the ability to shift your scale allowed me to use it to present an environment at the exhibition. In a lot of ways it was like exhibiting a huge Photoshop file for people to explore/take apart…

I really like the simplicity with which you can now draw huge spaces very quickly using a basic intuitive interface, and the ability for Tilt Brush to now import pre-existing models also massively diversifies and expands what it can do. It allowed me to jump between Tilt Brush, Kodon and Blender and form a (reasonably!) smooth workflow.

Can you see VR becoming a common medium for artists? Does it have the scope to change how we think about galleries, for example?

VR is already appearing within exhibitions at all levels, from university grad shows to the Frieze art fair, so I feel its place is pretty solid and established as another artistic tool, especially as the more rudimentary phone-based platforms are so accessible now.

I don’t think it will have a fundamental change on the function of galleries. The art world is based on social networks, so at least until the VR chatrooms are ubiquitous, I feel people will still (for the most part) travel to galleries.

I saw a video you did called Step to Aeration [above]. Is it a back story of sorts for the goggle-eyed totems that crop up in your work, as some abject body/object?

All of my work is focused on proposing possibilities of where our human bodies sit amongst the miasma of technological machines (political, economic, sexual). So my interest is as much in using VR myself, as in the philosophical space it creates and its possible effects. The drawings I make and, in a very similar way, the 3D print from this exhibition, are all attempts to diagramatise a mind state through making a logo-like reduction of bodily or psychological forces which I’m feeling.dodd_art

(Above L-R: Bubbly Smuggler and Puffy Fish Trap)

I like the dumb straightforwardness of pinning on the most basic of biology (eyes, tongue, penis and so on) to render them as beings with a life force.

In the video you watched, I made use of human-generating software, where racial origin, height, genitals are all defined via sliders in the interface. I found that really interesting as a means of creation… which I could then reduce to a piece of rubber via another program (Blender).

What was the thinking behind bringing that figure in virtual reality? And then getting it 3D-printed? Was there a need to have it there as a physical object, as well as a virtual object?

I was compelled by the idea of a three-dimensional version of my drawing. I’d seen lots of really commercial uses of the coloured plaster 3D-printing method, and felt it held some possibilities as a mode of less defined expression. Working with Digits2Widgets in Camden was great and they made the translation process of the VR raw file to a print-ready file very smooth.

I felt it was important to have the print there alongside the VR incarnation; to be able to position it in direct competition with the enormous Constable painting on the other side of the room was very interesting. I love that an object of such complexity and high finish can emerge directly from a machine.

I’ve seen a profile that says you work with “surfaces and techniques which embody the spirit of the global techno-macho-man”. What does that mean?

I feel my choices of materials/tools/software/brands attempt to reflect that ethos or spirit. I think the film I made last year, Limpid and Salubrious, and its presentation within my graduation show at the Royal Academy goes the furthest to illustrate that idea.

(Above: Limpid and Salubrious)

I made use of a series of decisions: cinematic camera work, an electric luxury vehicle, conversations about personal appearance, gloopy 3D animation. I feel they all represent that spirit of a globalised, male-driven attitude towards technology and the human body.

It experiments with using a brand as a material alongside a drawing or a sculpture – a material that can be manipulated and reformed and distorted. Hence my graduation show took on the form of a commercial presentation: I displayed a brand-new BMW motorcycle alongside the Limpid film and a series of drawings and sculptures.dodd_ra

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a new film which I’ll show as part of a solo exhibition at the Zabludowicz Collection in April. I’m filming a sequence in which another conversation takes place within a vehicle. This time, one of the characters will be using a VR headset. I will be exploring the idea of perversely characterising the brand of VR equipment in use. I’ve already shot one of these sequences at Gatwick Airport. I’ll hopefully film individual sequences with the Sony, Oculus and Microsoft platforms.runway_suite_wip_test4_2016_elliotdodd_1

(Above: A shot from Dodd’d Runway Suite)

You can read my interview with Adham Faramawy here

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