The Art of VR: an Interview with Rachel Rossin

The Art of VR an Interview with Rachel Rossin

Some readers of VIDEO GAMES: Playing for a Living might know Hot Shot, which is a shooter that uses a unique mechanic: time only moves forward when the player moves. Your piece Stalking the Trace, Which just opened in London uses a similar mechanic. 

RR Yeah, it uses room-scale tracking in VR. So it's using the person's physical location to scrub time forward and backward. And it's funny because Hot Shot came out at the same time I started working on it—that's just the zeitgeist for you. But [Stalking the Trace] is quite different. I had to use some crazy hacks to get it to look right. I used Houdini to make these really gaudy, incredible, ‘Christopher Nolan’ explosions in VR. And then, depending on how your body moves in space these explosions, these disasters scrub forwards or backwards in time. Your body ends up feeling like this big lung that's controlling time. It took a long time to finish. Eventually, I knew it was done when I moved a giant fireball towards myself and actually felt warm. I tricked myself…

V95 Do you find yourself using specific vocabulary to describe your work with VR to other people? 

RR That's a good question. I think of virtual reality as a kind of sentient installation. The best VR works, for me, are the works that have an awareness of the viewer, an awareness of the spectator. I'm all for passive VR experiences—I think that's also a distinct medium—but it's not the real reason [for VR], right? Sentient installations have an awareness of the viewer, and use viewers as “intermediaries,” or “emissaries,” or “interlopers.” 

V95 I’m curious to zoom in on your piece Man Mask which is described as “A guided meditation through landscapes taken from the game Call of Duty: Black Ops, drained of violence and transformed into an ethereal dream world.” 

RR Yeah, that actually was a passive viewing experience. It was the challenge because it was commissioned by the New Museum and they wanted to distribute it for free. And the way the app that we had to use worked… I just didn't trust it. So I challenged myself [to make a passive VR piece]. And embodiment, or body awareness, or meditation felt like a good place to start thinking about what a passive VR experience is. 

I liked exploding these Call of Duty animation sequences, having them on a loop… When I was recording that piece—it was recorded in real-time—I was just randomly assigning the animation clips to the rigs and then messing around with shaders, and I liked that they were all collapsing in on each other in this sort of purgatory world. At the end of the piece you end up in this generic algorithm space, and there's this sort of GUI view of the what the bullet physics is doing, and then there's a pool, and all those oranges are falling...

V95 It’s really beautiful. How’d you decide to work with Call of Duty, specifically? 

RR I was a big Call of Duty player, growing up. I loved first-person shooters for whatever reason—I'm admittedly just a video game addict. I can't start one or it'll take over my life. It's really been a problem as long as I've been alive and sentient. I used to mod games. And some of my work now is a similar kind of intervention or a kind of statement on the embodiment.

So I have a personal history with [CoD]. And back when I was able to start playing online I used a man's name and a boy's avatar. Anytime I had any representation online in any modding forums or anything I was using a “man mask,” so that I could be a non-entity, or just so that there was some democracy in the way I was being treated.

V95 VR gaming is still a bit of a novelty. How do you feel VR is received in the art world?

RR It's still cheesy. I mean, I feel like it's cheesy, and I make it. But it's absolutely a medium. I don't make predictions about where it's going or anything like that. I think that's just foolish. There will always be technology; there will always be tools to make work, and there will always ways of using those tools that tend towards novelty or spectacle. But I think experience should always be the priority over spectacle or novelty. 

But I think the medium [of VR] is also able to open up access [to art]. Some people don't like going to museums. Maybe it's nice that they can view a virtual reality work. I'm not saying one is better than the other. I just think it's interesting and it should exist.

At the beginning of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin quotes Paul Valery who is describing the first time he heard a recorded symphony played back. It blew [Valery] away. He felt like he was in two places at once. The actual quote is much more poetic than how I’m putting it now [laughter], but, In some ways, that's my hope for VR. That it can be an experience that gives the feeling of being in the presence of something.

This Interview is excerpted from the book VIDEO GAMES: Playing for a Living which is out now from Vapor95 and Yonkers International Press. The book features exclusive, in-depth interviews with professional streamers and content creators. But here we step out of pro-gaming and into the art world to hear how Rachel Rossin, whose work often uses VR, draws inspiration from her past experience as a gamer.