Artist Stuart Campbell uses VR, AR and interactive comics to explore memory, storytelling and the plight of refugees

Stuart Campbell:

"Digital Artist and Explorer"

September 13, 2017

Artists should rarely be confined to a single medium. The individual creates, forms exist merely as conduits. As new technologies continue to emerge and transform, adaptability makes more sense than ever creatively. The artist Stuart Campbell (also knows as Sutu) exemplifies the power and benefits of creative fluidity. Immensely talented, dexterous and highly prolific, he operates from his own unique vantage point both creatively and literally. Working in an assortment of genres and mediums, Campbell lives and creates from a small town in the Australian outback, regularly collaborating with an indigenous population that has lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. Sutu’s works - whether graphic novels, VR or AR or new hybrids, imaginatively subverts narrative conventions with a combination of imagination and technology. Whether creating comic books, VR documentaries, immersive art or more, we believe Sutu is a model for future creatives and possess the potential to alter our creative landscape. 

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"I'm in North Western Australia 2000 km north of Perth. If you went to the end of my street it would just see a vast nothing. We are literally at the edge of the desert here. It’s awesome when it’s storm season because then you might see a huge dust storms coming. This is where Australia's mining boom was, so if you drove 15 minutes you would see some really huge iron ore operations. At night it just looks like a crazy futuristic city. It’s just a big mess of industry encroaching on aboriginal land. There is also the largest collection of rock art in the world. Over one million petroglyphs, some of them dating back over 30,000 years."

The 70-year-old aboriginal women who spent their life in the dream time - which is kind of like astral projecting your spirit across the landscape, it almost feels like they've had VR technology for thousands of years already and this is nothing new.

"I'm originally from Tasmania. It's a sort of remote place as well. I worked with a company there called Big hART who are an art and social justice organizations. I just told them I was interested in working with aboriginal communities and I was at their disposal and I had all these digital skills. I just put my hand up. I liked it and I've been here for seven years now."

"The elders in the community wanted me to work with the kids. They were sick of all the sad stories so we created the comic book series Neomad. I worked with the kids to come up with the storyline. They wanted to do something fun with an adventure. I shared that I loved science-fiction, so it became a science fiction action adventure. The story starts when this rocket falls from space and it has this ancient petroglyph carved on the side of it which sets them off on an investigation,  It ended up being a vehicle for us to explore the idea of colonizing that's present today. On the surface it's a fun action story but a mature audience would see other levels of story and politics."

"I was drawing comic books before, but it felt like something was missing, the interactive part. I've written a 24 episode interactive comic series called NAWLZ about AR and VR culture in the future. And I did lots of narrative experiments that explored traditional comic conventions like reading from left to right and following one panel to the next, and then deliberately kind of fucking all that up. The story would start folding backwards as the protagonist remembered something back in time, or maybe the panels start breaking apart and deteriorating as you read them."

He suffered from dementia and was having recollections of World War II, As you scroll down the story starts disappearing, so when you try to scroll back up it has already faded away. It replicates the frustration of memory.

"That concept followed through into a project about my grandfather called These Memories Won't Last. He suffered from dementia and he was having recollections of World War II. As you scroll down the story starts disappearing, and when you try to scroll back up it has already faded away. It replicates the frustration of memory. And there’s also this parallel of living in the digital age with dead links and updates that destroy all these things that we do. It feels I like there's a shelf date on everything now, where two years from now it probably won't even work."

"Lostropolis explores landscapes in a state of transformation. The transformations are all a result of modern progress where dregs of the past still linger. Through a montage of photo, video, audio and text collected during my travels during 2007-2008, this experimental site explores the overlap of past and present and the transformative forces of industrialization, urbanization, tourism or commercialization.”

Venturing into the world of AR, Campbell along with Code on Canvas and 45 other artists and sound designers from all over the world have created the Prosthetic Reality Book. It's an Augmented Reality Art book that, when paired with the AR app EyeJack, allows the viewer to experience traditional artwork come to life with animation and sound.

"I've been working in VR, mostly creating art in Tilt Brush and Quill. I kind of like dabbling in everything and then trying to figure out what I can do with it. I fucked around in Tilt Brush for a while and Google commissioned me to do some paintings for them, and that lead to doing some paintings for (the film) Doctor Strange."

"I just finished working on a VR documentary called  Inside Manus where we interviewed three detainees from the Manus Detention center, which is this island where asylum-seekers trying to make their way to Australia get sent for processing and never leaving. It's been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of human rights. We interview three detainees, and then I painted their stories in VR, including painting the dorms and stuff. So you’re standing in the middle of it and listening to their stories. It’s going to premiere at the Melbourne international film Festival."

There was a media blackout. But another comic book artist knew one of those detainees and he actually managed to Skype the guy.

"There was a psychologist that was sent in there and she was treating a lot of the detainees, and she taking notes and recording interviews with them. And there was a media blackout. But we actually managed to Skype this guy and instructed him to stand in the middle of the grounds and take a 360° shot which I was able to use as a reference to paint the settings. There aren't many images available. So I relied on photos that were smuggled out."

"I was also at the Sundance Lab doing a VR documentary about an Iraq war veteran suffering from post dramatic stress disorder. It’s called Inside a Mind at War. You’re exploring inside this guys mind, literally fumbling through the dark. You use your controllers to push this fog out-of-the-way and you stumble into this fragmented memory, which can also deteriorate in front of you. It felt like an opportunity to explore what could be going on inside someone's mind."

That environment felt like a confession booth where there is a voice you can't see, and you were sharing something very intimate and personal. 

"VR has this ability to be quite isolating and block out reality and draw your focus because your senses are hijacked.  You can create a setting that is vulnerable, but also at the same time, when you hear the veteran, who has a soft gentle voice, whisper in your ear, there is a sense of trust. He is the one guides you through the story.  I felt like that environment felt like a confession booth where there is a voice you can't see, and you were sharing something very intimate and personal."

Images (from top to bottom, left to right): header- Illustration '15, 1. Stu Campbell, 2. Exponius Museum, 3. still from Neomad EP3 Outro Porkchop Plots, 4. still from Neomad - We Made This Comic, 5. still from the Neomad trailler, 6. still from Neomad EP3 Outro Porkchop Plots, 7. gif from Neomad - We Made This Comic, 8. gif from Nawlz, 9. still from Nawlz, 10. gif from These Memories Won't Last, 11. still from Lostropolis, 12. still from Lostropolis, 12. gif from Lostropolis, 13. gif from Prosthetic Reality Book, 14. detail from Tilt Brush work titled Pause Tomb, 15. detail from Tilt Brush work titled Sutuwerld for Google - 4 rooms in one Tilt File, 16. still from Prosthetic Reality Book, 17. detail from Tilt Brush work titled Flying Dutchman, 18. detail from Tilt Brush work titled Flying Dutchman, 19. detail from Tilt Brush work titled Flying Dutchman, 20. Manus Detention center, 21. detail from Inside Manus, 22. Manus Island, 23. detail from Inside Manus, 24. detail from Inside a Mind at War, 25. gif from Inside a Mind at War, 26. detail from Inside a Mind at War.

More on Stuart Campbell here