Excavating Virtual Presence at Convention House (July-November 2022)
An artist residency supported by the Weston Culture Fund and East Street Arts
Armelle Skatulski, February 2023
Convention House Studios // East Street Arts
I was recently commissioned to undertake an artist residency at Convention House, East Street Arts (Leeds, UK) funded by the Weston Culture Fund (July-November 2022). I first had the pleasure of meeting the other commissioned artists Vicky Clarke, Adam Peacock and Soorin Shin, and ESA’s artistic director Jon Wakeman, programme producer Shazia Bibi, and Matt Collins, lead technician at CH, to share our experiences as artists working with different forms of technologies. I started the residency by researching avenues for community led or owned Virtual Reality platforms as opposed to existing platforms owned by large corporations or technology monopolies.
My desire to do so was informed by my previous experience as a commissioned artist/researcher working for progressive think tanks with a focus on the data economy, digital rights, privacy risks, and post-work futures - Autonomy and The Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab. What motivated me was to find ways to use artistic formats and methods to transmit knowledge usually confined to academic papers or policy reports to a different kind of public.
Image: Detail from "Wireframed I" - collage study for screen print, Armelle Skatulski, 2022.
Excavating virtual presence
I wanted to find tangible or practical ways to show what happens behind the scenes of Virtual Reality experiences so to speak: in terms of data collection from ‘users,’ in terms of the ownership of infrastructures, labour divisions, and power relations. Hence, it was about finding a kind of material and formal prism through which one could excavate the various stratas of relations existent between people and corporate entities and mediated by ‘smart’ technologies.
Image: "Wireframed I" - collage study for screen print, Armelle Skatulski, 2022 - model courtesy of Digital Reality Lab.
I came across some exciting projects of collective, community-based ownership of communication infrastructures and of digital justice initiatives in the US (such as the Detroit Community Technology Project). I paused that avenue of my research to turn my attention to the practicalities of making Virtual Reality twins (using software such as Blender and game engines such as Unity, etc.) and to the mechanisms used by technology companies to record and map all sorts of information from people during Virtual Reality interactions.
These are for instance, algorithm-led optics using images captured by VR headsets and used to map and predict facial expressions or motion, which may also be used to produce behavioural statistics and extract value from users in VR with serious risks for privacy. I researched which practical paths could be available to me to speculatively represent the black-boxed mechanisms of data collection used by large platforms such as Meta LLC to track people’s activity during VR interactions for the purpose of creating PROFIT.
The answer was: CODE and LOGIC.
I decided to produce a simple application using the game engine Unity3D which would contain code that would collect various forms of information (‘data’) from different types of gestural motion. I would then transpose these to a form of 3D representation through simple data visualisation tools or by translating them as 3D geometry with appropriate software.
“Two Repeated-Measures Experiments” (2022-ongoing) - An art-based project researching gestural motion mapping in VR
With the help of a developer, I therefore designed and produced two gaming applications inspired by scientific experiments on ergonomic risk which were undertaken by Facebook’s Reality Labs. The script or code written in C# by Stuart Mellor and contained in the infrastructure of my ‘games’ is aimed at recording and mapping different types of gestural motion during game usage. The code uses the CommonUsages API available for developers on Unity3D’s open source repository.
The work in progress which I titled “Two repeated-measures experiments’” (2022-ongoing) was presented to a group of designers and artists during a public workshop at Convention House in November 2022. Participants tested two VR tasks (one of which a painting task, the other a randomised target exercise) and were shown how very personal information like eye movements could be mapped with code and then translated through plotting and visualisations tools or expressed formally through artistic strategies.
Thank you to the Weston Culture Fund and to East Street Arts for their generous support.
Image: Drawing study for "A Randomised Target" from “Two Repeated-Measures Experiments” (2022)