GEOFFREY LILLEMON – The Nailpolish Inferno (2013)
This case study will analyze Geoffrey Lillemon’s virtual artwork The Nailpolish Inferno: Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Art Show (2013). It will utilize a personal analysis methodology, from a modified experience of the work, and will posit the experience of the work with the full Oculus Rift hardware, based on video documentation found online. Without access to the Oculus Rift hardware, this methodology will draw primarily from application of early modern art history as well as a critical breakdown of specific elements within the virtual sceneography (as seen on a regular computer monitor).The goal of this case study is to explore the possibilities of Oculus Rift as an emerging technology that engages the boundaries of commercial (gaming) and fine art (virtual reality).
In the biography page on his website, Geoffrey Lillemon describes himself as bringing “classic romantic painting and drawing style to technology to reinterpret artistic practice”. This descriptor seems contradictory, considering that on the surface his work primarily draws on a digital glitch aesthetic. His characters and scenes are all computer-generated, in garish colours and movement effects that resemble gif and website designs from the 1990’s.
The introduction to his website: http://www.geoffreylillemon.com takes one to a slow-loading page of 3-dimensional dancing eyeballs, saturated colours, atmospheric moaning and dynamic cursor trails that both leave solarized clouds in the wake of your mouse arrow, and make video game beeps as it passes over links. Everything flashes, dances and squawks. On digging through some of these opaquely-titled links, one might stumble across his latest work, The Nailpolish Inferno: Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Art Show (2013), on a page with no information, just a title and download link. This recent work is created for the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Gaming device (designed by Oculus VR) that is currently distributed to a selection of developers for beta-testing. The device itself consists of a goggle-headset which completely encases the user’s vision, operated by a hand-held interface. This hardware has received a lot of recent attention for its intention to create an affordable immersive reality device for mainstream gaming, however it is not yet available to the general consumer, which makes Lillemon’s choice to utilize it for artistic purposes especially interesting.
The Nailpolish Inferno consists of a single virtual room with carnivalesque atmosphere. Within the space, everything is once again full of rich, and often garish, colours. The walls are wine coloured with golden accents and drapery, like a turn of the century salon, and the carpets are covered with a complex intertwining design. There are niches that contain locked doors, framed artworks, and the occasional virtual character. The ceiling is an open dome of stars. Within the space, certain characters stand motionless, while others constantly move in repetitious sequences. The characters themselves are often pulled out of Lillemon’s previous works, and their actions and design are surreal, sexual and uncomfortable.
Some are humanoid and engage in human actions, like lounging, juggling, slashing at passer-by’s with machetes and exotic dancing, while others are animal (like the cat prancing on the piano and dog-like creature crawling on the floor) or simply objects, like the chair that shimmies back and forth. The audio is the same, horror-soundtrack electronic moaning from Lillemon’s website. The experience of the world without the Oculus Rift device is much less immersive than it likely would be with the headgear—the visuals output the dual images within the goggles as is, along with the 3D filtering, which would normally become illusory within the device. However, Lillemon has sculpted a world that is engaging, even with the distractions of two, colour separated images. Lillemon’s online video depicts a young woman using the Oculus Rift to experience the work, and she sits, moving only her head to experience the world. The visuals seem linked to her body movement, and she smiles when characters startle her. Even without having the experience myself, I can imagine and feel the immersion, as the video shows her actions in conjunction with the images she is viewing. In addition, on viewing the work several times now, even without the full immersion, its music and atmosphere still makes me quite uncomfortable. It is not a space of comfort and ease, it is disjointed, uncanny and unpredictable.
Realism is clearly not on the agenda in this virtual reality. Instead, the aesthetic immediately calls to mind that of surrealism, and their reliance on altered and dream states. As mentioned before, Lillemon utilizes the style of “classic romantic painting and drawing”, which is not obviously apparent at first glance. However, in consideration of The Nailpolish Inferno as an art show, one of the first tasks within the virtual reality experience as an art object is to attempt to discern how its title relates to the scene. Like accustoming oneself to the gaming controls, an artwork’s title often gives the viewer an entry point into the work and establishes some of the key functions of the world. As I navigate the space, I notice a few paintings scattered around the room, but they are all on the periphery of the much more active and colourful character designs that are spread out throughout the space. In amongst sharks swinging from trapeze and three-breasted alien exotic dancers, the traditional artwork is not immediately obvious. Although the paintings themselves actually do reference Lillemon’s interest in classic painting and drawing—they are all in a style of turn-of-the-century modernist movements like Surrealism, Impressionism and Symbolism—I believe that the actual art show actually resides in the virtual reality spectacle. The computer-generated characters, the spatial design and the atmosphere of the scene all work together with the act of voyeurism through the goggles and the spectator’s telepresence within the site to activate what Alan Blum described as a sense of “being seen seeing”, or a duality between exhibitionism and voyeurism that is a “reciprocity of seeing as an act of mutual recognition” (172). In this act of being seen seeing, the viewer is both a voyeur and performer in the space, engaging and interacting with the sole purpose of being acknowledged as part of the event. Blum connects it with cultural scenes in cities and the notion of “cool”, where gatekeepers of a certain clique will determine who is “cool” enough to participate, and it is a badge of honour to be seen circulating within that scene. These types of scenes are often developed in the Art World (with capital letters!), where the mere act of going to a festival, biennial or other event is sometimes more exciting than actually seeing the artwork (Sundance Film Festival, Venice Biennale, or even going to an ‘important’ museum like the Louvre). In addition, the functionality of the entire space was more like an art gallery than a gaming experience. After the program started, I immediately wanted to interact with objects and characters, clicking on a variety of surfaces to create effects. However I was stunted at most turns; there is very little literal interactivity in the work, which establishes the same sort of “don’t touch” distance that one would find in an art gallery. However this is also juxtaposed by the ability to glitch through objects, coming so close to characters and structures in the space that one is able to share the same space with them.
Although I found the space to be interesting at first, it did not sustain this interest for very long. I quickly explored all the aspects of the room and became bored, which is problematic for most enclosed virtual realities (especially with the lack of interactivity or gaming dynamics). This type virtual environment has developed out of computer gaming, and within that context, the viewer expects more depth or narrativity within the experience. One of the most interesting moments in my explorations actually took place during one of these space glitches, where I attempted to go through one of the doors around the room’s periphery and ended up “trapped” between the exterior wall and the nothing-ness of un-programmed space. From here, I was carefully able to navigate the outside of the virtual space, peering into windows and watching the action as a literal voyeur. This aspect really drove home the notion of “being seen seeing” and brought up interesting artistic possibilities for creating porous experiences between real and virtual space. It drew stark attention to the bounds of the virtual world, the work that was done to create it and the role of the user as a spectator within the immersive experience. Like some Second Life art exhibitions, this iteration of a virtual space within Oculus Rift still maintained the traditional ideas of an art exhibit, where you are part of a scene, staring at work that you are distanced from by touch, commercialism or other factors, and engaged within a specific architecture designed to mimic the real-world art-gallery experience. However as the technology matures, and artists mature in their usage of the medium, it will be exciting to see what developments are able to break out of the boundaries of real-world approaches to virtual-world art.
Blum, Alan. “Scenes”. The Imaginative Structure of the City. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s U.P., 2003. Print.
Lillemon, Geoffrey. “Bio.” Geoffrey Lillemon. Geoffrey Lillemon. Web. 4 October 2013. <www.geoffreylillemon.info>.
—. Geoffrey Lillemon. Geoffrey Lillemon. Web. 4 October 2013. <www.geoffreylillemon.info>.
—. “The Nail Polish Inferno”. Vimeo. Vimeo, 30 August 2013. Web. 4 October 2013. <http://vimeo.com/73785409>.
Oculus VR. Oculus VR. Oculus VR. Web. 4 October 2014. <www.oculusvr.com>.