DEATH, ALIENS AND PSYCHEDELIC SIMULATIONS

VR Artist Jeremy Couillard Explores Immersive Art
June 13, 2017
Jeremy Couillard is a New York based artist working in virtual reality.  His recent first person video game Alien Afterlife begins on a hospital deathbed, moves into a beautifully psychedelic afterlife before involving aliens. It was profiled in The New Yorker magazine. In addition Couillard turned the game’s intro into a VR video entitled rebirth_redirect which was featured in the recent “First Look: Artists’ VR” exhibit at the New Museum in New York. We love what Jeremy is doing. We appreciate his unique visual style, surreal yet profound narratives, and an unflinching willingness to use technology to create brave artistic works.  Here is the Transport interview we did with Jeremy from his New York studio.

So what was your very first notion of Virtual Reality as a concept?

I first became aware of VR when Nintendo released that game in the 90's called Virtual Boy. It was just red lines and black. I never really did it but it seemed like such an amazing concept. And when I saw that I thought the future is going to be really cool. The graphics will just get better and better. And then the oculus development kit came out I jumped on it.


When did it occur to you that VR could be used as a new art form? 

Well when the oculus came out I was already an artist so I immediately thought, how can I make this art? Because my first real experience of art was with video games I never really saw this huge difference between technology and art. It might have been different for people whose first experience of art was going to a gallery with their parents and looking at a painting. I mean I did that too, but the first thing that really blew my mind was playing Mario Brothers.

That said, now that I have done some projects in VR, it feels like a lot of people just want to have a technological experience and don't really care that much about the art. It can be frustrating because you put so much effort into creating an experience, and when you finally put it out there, people just think, ‘Cool I get to try VR.” 


What inspired your piece AlienAfterlife?

One of the things that I really love about real-time engines is their ability to simulate anything you want. I was thinking about what are some of the things I could simulate that I could never experience in real life. One of them was being abducted by aliens and the other was dying and going into the afterlife. So I thought what if I simulate those two things together. Where you die and go into the afterlife and then aliens hijack the afterlife while you are there.


So do you think at some point there could be a new psychedelic movement based around VR?

That’s the hope. I think that would be a really awesome direction. Like a drug you could take, but more controlled. That's kind of my hope for it. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a technology that would be so immersive that you would forget your own identity. You would forget your name. Just be so far gone, that you might even forget that you are human for a bit. It could be a nightmare or it could be very interesting. And if it was considered an art experience as well as a spiritual or technological experience, that could be even more fascinating.



Who are some of the artists and writers that inspired you and kind of pointed you in this direction?

The earliest would be playing Nintendo. And then as an undergraduate in college I majored in Spanish because I loved reading writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolano, all these kind of bizarre South American writers that informed my ideas about what narrative could be.

And in terms of art, some early inspirations would be something like the collective Paper Rad. They did these really weird animations and zines with funky characters that kind of resembled pop culture figures like Bart Simpson or Felix The Cat but the smoked, talked trash and solved psychedelic mysteries. That was something that really inspired me in my early twenties.


What do you think about the possibility of storytelling in virtual reality?

It’s not something I would ever claim to be doing. I think of VR more as an experiences.  I think what is happening right now with VR is similar to what was happening with film around 1910. Where in a few years they invented the idea of the montage and editing and the ways we understand how time moves in film. I think we just haven't invented that language for VR yet. And maybe no one will because maybe it will be just a totally different. I think we've become so used to seeing a moving image in a square for the last 100 years, and now all of a sudden we have a sphere. And I think maybe it's going to work in a totally different way, as more of an experiential medium. 


Do you think there is resistance to VR in the art world? Are they intrigued or dismissive?

There was a piece in the New York Times that talked about this exhibit we did at the New Museum and the title was ‘VR Has Arrived in The Art World, Now What?’ And I think that is basically the sentiment. Okay, there's a bunch of artists and they mess around with VR and it's kind of cool, but now what can we do with it? Reading that article I don't think the writer even watched most of the experiences, and that kind of sums it as well.

At the Virtual Arcade at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a lot of the experiences were presented as installations complete with sets. Do you think that is something that could help create more interest in experiences?

I think so. The first project I did in VR was an out of body experience clinic. The gallery was in Chinatown and we converted it into a clinic that blended into the neighborhood. You had to make an appointment and people would come in and think what the hell? The VR component was down in the basement and I worked as the docent. People would think, where is this tall skinny guy taking me? And in the basement was my shitty computer with these wires coming out of it and a stool and I would sit them down and put the Oculus on them. I did that because I thought it was important to really prime people for the experience.



At the Virtual Arcade at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a lot of the experiences were presented as installations complete with sets. Do you think that is something that could help create more interest in experiences?

I think so. The first project I did in VR was an out of body experience clinic. The gallery was in Chinatown and we converted it into a clinic that blended into the neighborhood. You had to make an appointment and people would come in and think what the hell? The VR component was down in the basement and I worked as the docent. People would think, where is this tall skinny guy taking me? And in the basement was my shitty computer with these wires coming out of it and a stool and I would sit them down and put the Oculus on them. I did that because I thought it was important to really prime people for the experience.


How do you get the realistic graphic quality and your work? It feels less like video game artwork, more like a graphic novel.

Some of the first work I did was in graphic novels. And on these projects it’s just me working and using all the same tools as any video game. I’m using the unreal engine, but since it's just me I have to work really fast and it can get really sloppy. And I also like that goofy almost amateurish look. I think that's why it has that kind of indie graphic novel feel to it.


And where do you see your work in VR heading?

I think technology has the potential to both isolate and connect people. Eventually I would like to get more into a metaverse experiences where you can go into a world and the characters you see are real people. I think things like that would be cool for an art experience. But I’m also aware that's a ways down the road.


It feels like your work is exploring these profound spiritual human concepts using technology.

One of the reasons I find computers so interesting is because they feel immaterial. I know that they're very material things and take a lot of resources to run, But the feeling you get when you are in that space is for me very close to how I feel in my head. When I’m in front of a computer working on something I can visualize things and then see them in 360° pretty quickly. It feels almost like a spiritual and material landscape. It’s really just a tool that we can use anyway we want. Right now we see it used by Facebook in, what I think, are fairly unfortunate ways. But it can also do profound things. The artist Brenna Murphy has been doing some VR stuff lately and I think she thinks of it as a sort of spiritual tool.


Are you connected with other artists who are experimenting with VR?

It’s a pretty small group of us in the art world, at least in New York. So we pretty much know one other. In the art world there are very few people who actually know how to make an application with VR. And in a way that New Museum project I did was a show for us. And there were only six artists. 

Any final thoughts on where this will go?

I suppose I'm both optimistic and guarded about it. It's great that we can get past the square screen, but there are screens everywhere. I feel like I spend most of my waking day staring at a rectangle which I think a lot of us do which is kind of weird if you think about it. And I think if we can get out of that it would be really cool.


It seems like a lot of the innovation could come from people like you, new ideas always seem to percolate up from underground.

I really hope so.