Published November 12, 2016
In 1935, the American author Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote what many believe to be the first fictional model for what we now know as virtual reality. “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” features a small “gnomelike” professor with a Berkeleyan slant who creates a pair of goggles that submerges its users in “a movie that gives one sight and sound […] taste, smell, and touch. […] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.” The first US military flight simulators emerged around the same time, and variations on the theme of total immersion were promoted by gaming enthusiasts like Sega over the next couple of decades. In 1987 the term “virtual reality” was coined by Jaron Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Lab (interestingly, he also developed one of the first head-mounted displays, which he dubbed the “EyePhone”). In practice, the development of virtual reality has been driven primarily by military and gamer interests. It was not until a couple of years ago that the medium began to invade the realm of pop culture. Filmmaker Andrew Huang is on the front lines.
Tell don’t show
Andrew hates the colours of the southwest United States. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, he was always put off by the desert oranges, browns, tans, and turquoises that surrounded him. It’s a surprise, then, that his breakthrough short film ‘Solipsist’ (2012) is drenched in these tones. Then again, there is a lot that is surprising about this film. ‘Solipsist’ was a way for Andrew “to confront ideas that I thought I hated,” as he says. When he graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of Southern California in 2007, he immediately found success as a more commercial director (his references include contacts like Lexus and J.J.Abrams). By 2011, Andrew was ready to be his own client. He scrapped his film reel and began to explore more personal subjects. Subjects like human connection, bodily form, and colour palettes.
It began with puppets. “I really enjoy puppetry, because it allows you to perform while hiding at the same time,” Andrew explains. “You can feel the humanness and the locomotion of a human body but you don’t actually have to show it. A lot of my work has to do with hiding yourself but showing yourself at the same time.” It is not far-fetched to draw the line between Andrew’s beginnings in puppetry and his more recent endeavors into virtual reality. Both require the imagination and a technical ability to create entire worlds—worlds and characters that reference the human form, without necessarily showing it.
The strangeness of one’s own skin recurs throughout Andrew’s work. “I am really interested in demon possession,” he says, “the idea of being ridden by something else and your body being a vessel.” In 2013 he directed the video for Sigur rós’s track “Brennisteinn,” a seven-minute exorcism—brutal and beautiful—coloured in black and white and neon yellow. In “Family”—one of Andrew’s virtual reality pieces for Björk Digital—viewers dissect and resew Björk’s open heart wound. In his most recent short film, a personal project called ‘Interstice’, Andrew casts his dancers in a silky red veil which he describes as “a self-contained magic trick: a shapeshifting second skin loaded with potential energy to manipulate identities and dimensions [or] otherwise be rendered immeasurable in its absence.”
All the feels
Given that his films delve into the difficulty and grace of the human form, his recent collaborations with Björk seem like a natural union. “I’ve always loved Björk’s work because she is not afraid to explore the territory of the human body,” Andrew says. “She is a fantastic performer and amazing to look at. I love to observe the way other collaborators of hers have used her image and performance as a medium to explore the music.”
Björk’s work has always had an intensely visual side, from music videos early in her career with innovative young directors like Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and Spike Jonze, to her current touring exhibition Björk Digital, which Andrew has played a huge role bringing into creation. He began work with the famed musician with the pulsing, quaking, erupting video for “Mutual Core,” from her 2011 album ‘Biophilia’. The collaboration continued in 2015 when the Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned Andrew for the top floor of the Björk retrospective; the video for “Black Lake” from ‘Vulnicura’ was born.
In Björk Digital, Andrew, with the co-creative direction of Björk and James Merry, has assembled what is—at the time of writing—a collection of six fully immersive viewer experiences from ‘Vulnicura’, Björk’s latest album. Five of them use VR headsets and headphones to isolate the viewer in his or her own virtual world, one-on-one with Björk. One argument against overactive involvement in our virtual identities is that it disconnects us from the real world. Virtual reality, in a way, brings that argument full circle. Walking away from the Björk Digital exhibition one feels the pain of heartbreak and the solace of resolution; empathy is enhanced rather than subtracted.
Reality in motion
Over the course of the exhibition’s global tour, its developers are actively working to better understand, establish and develop the VR technology. It’s clear that we are amidst a work in progress; the sixth and final track of the exhibition, “Family,” is a far cry from the first, “Black Lake.” “The evolution of the technology and the music together is a powerful statement,” Andrew says regarding the exhibition. “It shows that here is an artist who is willing to be emotionally vulnerable, and daring enough to pioneer this new technology which is a very vulnerable act in itself.”
Though our use of technology is embedded daily practice, a lot about our relationship with it remains unexplained. The marriage of virtual reality with music has implications not only for how we experience music, but how we create it as well. Andrew hints at future work with Björk on her upcoming album, which she is in the process of creating. “A lot of filmmakers, myself included, make work that is time-based. With music, VR has the opportunity to open up where we hear sounds, how big or small is the sound is, how near or far, can we walk through it? Does it go over us, does it go around us…” Andrew says. “There are exciting possibilities of spatially recorded audio.”
What’s then is now
One of Andrew’s big influences right now is the artist Jon Rafman. Rafman is known for his works exploring and acknowledging the disappearing boundaries between the virtual and the real. One of his more widely known pieces is an ongoing project called ‘9 Eyes’, in which he collects images from Google Street View cameras that show shocking, and often comical, bites of reality as seen through the “nine eyes” of Google’s Street View fleet. Referencing Rafman, Andrew explains that “we often think of technology as enabling us to do things, but what he really thinks is that our consciousness is primed, is ready for the technology before it exists,.”
Technology as a term has a metallic ring to it, one that reverberates with feelings of something “futuristic;” something separate from human agency, robotic, without desire. “Technology does enable us,” Andrews reminds us, “but that’s because there is a human desire and intention to use it in the first place.” In the end, the seemingly fantastical creations of the virtual world are as much about the future as they are about the present. “But what is reality?” asks the “gnomelike” scientist-professor in the opening lines of Stanley Weinbaum’s novel. “All is dream, all is illusion; I am your vision as you are mine.”
Explore Andrew’s world on his website.