"I really think the notion of content is killing everyday art" An Interview with Dooley Murphy

Exploring the uncomfortable actualities of mediation through virtual reality art.

Published: November 13, 2018Words: Dooley Murphy & Macon HoltTwitter: @DooleyMurphy

Virtual Reality is a fledgling artistic medium. And the future of its aesthetics and canon are being fought over right now by filmmakers, software and game developers, artists, opportunists, charlatans, and combinations of all these together. One voice in this cacophonous corner of high-tech art making is the British–Irish VR researcher and artist, Dooley Murphy, whose own vision for the future of the medium is as inspirational as it is bound to ruffle more than a few feathers. His works seem almost like attempts to stretch the discourse around VR as a kind of empathy machine to the breaking point by taking the medium’s immersive qualities and directing them to the production of discomfort, gnawing anxiety, ironic distance, and claustrophobia in the viewer. Murphy’s goal is to skip past the VR sales pitch that would have us believe it’s just a pleasant diversion for the well-heeled and instead treat it like a serious artistic medium. Which means being able to take us as viewers to some uncomfortable, but also subtly ironic, places.

Originally from Cambridge, Murphy cites his father’s outsized talent as an amateur sculptor as what sparked his interest in art. His own fascination was, however, always with the ambiguity of images. For example, the way in which the addition or subtraction of a single detail can be the difference between a bunch of abstract lines or something instantly recognizable as a face. Studying Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, Murphy’s interest shifted towards documentary filmmaking and the mechanisms of mediation. But it was while studying at Copenhagen University, where he is now based as a PhD researcher, that his focus on VR developed. The way this technology seemed to exaggerate the logic of particular kinds of mediation intrigued Murphy. It is a medium which, perhaps more than any other, seems to shut out the everyday world and insist that the viewer experience the strange reality of whatever the device puts before them.

In the two pieces that Murphy has allowed people to see so far, he attempts to use the strange combination of immersion and ambiguity afforded by VR to highlight the mediated nature of our day to day experiences and ask questions of the lives and futures this mediation is guiding us towards. Yorick is comprised of a monologue delivered by the eponymous floating head named for Hamlet’s best friend/skull. This head, a mixture of 3D animation and radically manipulated green screened facial footage is an AI who has stared the singularity (the theoretical point at which artificial intelligence exceed human intelligence) in the metaphorical face and now wants to get all up in yours while he (it?) waxes lyrical about the end of humanity to come. Yorick follows and fills your field of vision wherever you turn, getting ever closer as time passes and, in a way reminiscent of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey, becoming ever more unhinged.

The Mediation of Violence and the Violence of Mediation (Atrocity Exhibition) is technically quite different from Yorick but, at the level of sensibility, there is a strong sense of continuity. You stand in the center of a virtual white cube museum, surrounds by carefully cut out images of violence and suffering from the last near century of news media, combined with the banal iconography of social media and adverts for sexual services. This piece attempts to implicate you as a consumer of the world’s horrors. After a while inside, it forces you to interrogate your motivations for your news media consumption. Are you trying to stay informed or entertained? Are you appalled by the spectacle of real-world violence or thrilled? And who’s getting rich on your consumption while you make up your mind?

While it may be early days for Murphy as a practitioner, his background as researcher imbues his work with a depth that is often lacking in art that attempts to engage with new media technologies. Which is to say, he is as interested in exposing the medium for its limitations and connections to certain problematic discourses as he is in illustrating and exploring its vast capabilities. He does this by drawing on a rich critical vocabulary, which he then translates into the construction of his pieces. We can hear this in the destabilizing irony that resonates through Yorick’s monologue, which oscillates the AI’s position between tech guru after one joint too many, and an unfathomable existential threat to humanity. We see this in the cornucopia of abjection he places before us in his Atrocity Exhibition, which recontextualizes actual suffering as a consumer good that both the market and art are all too happy to provide for a price.

Right now, Murphy is getting ready for the film festival season to come and putting the finishing touches on his pieces. I caught up with him over email, which led to a long and intriguing conversation about the state of the art for VR aesthetics, the role of the artist in the development of the medium, and the need for art to take you to disturbing virtual places.

VR and 3D animation are both technically demanding and time-consuming ways to produce artworks. What drew you to such a complicated method of art-making and how do you retain the immediacy of an idea throughout the process?

I won’t lie—originally it was happenstance, making art in and with VR. In early 2016 I built a monster computer with a view to clocking some serious hours in cyberspace (for my research, of course). But after experiencing a cross-section of what was available at the time (which was mainly shooting games and 360º movies), I thought, “90% of these ideas are disposable.” I saw very little evidence of aesthetic ambition. I’d naively imagined that digital distribution platforms such as Steam would immediately be awash with profound virtual objets d’art.

I was disappointed that almost all VR experiences billing themselves as even vaguely artistic were consigned to expensive galleries in so-called Alpha cities. There I was with £1500+ worth of bleeding edge equipment, and I could only use it to either shoot zombies or watch documentaries in which filmmakers dump a 360º camera in the middle of a refugee camp while they run off to do a TED talk about empathy. Very little challenging or highbrow stuff was available for home consumption. I’d say that’s still largely the case.

Noting the general lack of conceptually audacious VR (and realising I’d get nowhere by just complaining), I downloaded and fired up Unity engine and started playing around in it. Initially, I was just creating little scenes by dragging-and-dropping visual assets into a 3D environment (as much is still evident from Atrocity Exhibition), but eventually I thought I may as well try to recall what little I once knew about programming, and attempt to introduce some algorithmic behaviour.

I wouldn’t say that VR production—for me, at least—is as complicated as it is capricious; mercurial. Certainly; writing code can be dizzyingly complicated (worth stating again that I’m not very good at it myself)—and it’s invariably patience-testing, irrespective of the programmer’s level of proficiency (or so I’m told). But I’m usefully constrained by my own conspicuous lack of virtuosity, which is probably what keeps me from getting carried away with the technical implementation of an idea. Basically, if I can re-use or adapt someone else’s code, I’ll copy and paste from Stack Exchange or the Unity forums, and just try to get all those scraps of recycled code to play nicely together. It’s trial and error, which is certainly time-consuming, yes. And Unity occasionally throw a spanner in the works by updating an aspect of the engine or API, which can break things. But in general, my own work isn’t technically sophisticated enough to constantly spawn complex problems.

I guess the immediacy of my ideas is retained by treating the VR environment as a self-effacing platform upon which you bring together other digital artefacts that anyone with a computer could (in theory) make. Sequenced music or audio collages; video clips, edited photographs, and so on. Some VR creators would criticise this approach, I suppose, arguing that VR has to justify its existence as VR, or, in other words, leverage all of the medium’s idiosyncrasies in aiming to be something totally VR-specific. But, first off, we don’t yet know what all of those idiosyncrasies are. Secondly, I’d sooner lean in to the idea that new media find both their raison d’être and their modus operandi by re-presenting older media. My intellectual justification for this comes from Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, who speak of remediation in relation to their twin concepts of immediacy and hypermediacy.

Remediation is the idea that new media inevitably hark back to their ancestors, as early cinema did with theatre. Immediacy, as Bolter and Grusin define it, is self-evident in VR; it’s the feeling of seeing through Alberti’s window, so to speak, and occupying the image-space itself. Non-mediation, in other words. Hypermediacy is the idea that we can see through or past a technology’s material form, become absorbed in the representation, and yet still derive tacit pleasure from interfacing with the very thing we’re (on some level) ignoring, whether that be a keypad or a stylus or what have you. So immediacy and hypermediacy, according to this formulation, at least, are not mutually exclusive. So why not incorporate a photograph as part of a wider VR experience? It’ll still affect you differently from viewing it on a page.

So much of the discussion around VR these days is monopolized by the games industry, yet your references are to film and contemporary art. Beyond this, the limited capacity for interaction in your work seems to force the viewer into a more passive position. In a medium whose champions claim it as a vehicle for increasing the agency of its consumers, how do you see your work as questioning these tendencies?

Ah, you’ve tapped into a line of reasoning that I’m still developing for my doctoral thesis. Without wanting to give too much away, I’d say that the opposite of agency is indeed under-exploited in VR. What is the opposite of agency? Not quite passivity, I’d say, but patiency—a term borrowed from linguistics: Being acted upon (or at least the possibility of being acted upon), as opposed to total mastery over the environment (as is common in video games). I tie prospective patiency to the notion of the Romantic sublime.

(Assuming, that is, that the Romantic sublime is indeed a thing. As a brief aside, then, I should thank my friend Peter Nelson for an interesting conversation in which he cast doubt upon the authority of wealthy, white, eighteenth-century European philosophers to identify and prescribe a new form of putatively universal aesthetic experience. Could the sublime be an imperialist social construct? Ultimately, I think not. But I’ve neither the space nor the scholarly references to explain presently. But I digress.)

Assuming the Romantic sublime—particularly Burke’s conception; not Kant’s—is indeed a thing, it cannot be realised in VR when the participant is in total control and/or at zero risks of being subject to the exertion of agency by other, virtual forces. Historically, sublime experiences might include, for instance, marvelling at a gargantuan storm on the horizon, or other distant, perilous landscapes. It’s an appreciation of the inconceivable power of nature. In VR, the programmer or developer takes the place of nature (or God), acting as a kind of omniscient but invisible presence. You tacitly know that they’re orchestrating your every percept and inviting your every action, and so you’re trusting them to not fuck with you too hard; not to hit you with a cheap jump-scare, as so many “psychological horror” VR experiences are wont to do.

The most powerful emotional experience I’ve had in VR was when I felt totally vulnerable. Not scared; definitely not fearful. Just… A little exposed. (If you get the chance, try The Cubicle.) I could be wrongheaded in unremittingly attempting to recreate this bodily experience in my own work, since it’s entirely possible that I only even had this experience because I was, at the time, wholly new to VR. Yet I feel fairly certain that others will report enjoying similar experiences upon taking off the headset, even if they felt totally uncomfortable while “in there.” It’s a little like watching a Gaspar Noé film (especially Enter the Void or Irréversible). You can be blown away by a work of art, and yet never want to experience it again, owing to its sheer overwhelming intensity. I guess that’s what I’m angling for: One-shot emotive experiences so powerful that they preclude the need for a second exposure.

So much of VR art seems focused on how the medium can bring out positive affects and emotions in its audience. For example, there is a great deal of talk about how this technology might be some kind of empathy machine. Your work, however, seems geared towards the production negative affects and in some way might be considered as being actively hostile to your audience; making them turn away from rather than embracing the other. Would you agree with that characterization? If so why do you want to produce such discomfort?

Hmm. Maybe this question is answered in part by my response to the previous one. But I certainly haven’t thought of my own approach as actively or intentionally hostile. I just see it as going against the norm, to an extent. Maybe it’s fair to call it contrarianism. I dunno. Not all films are nice to their viewers. Nor all games their players.

Janet H. Murray—a theorist of interactive narrative (not specifically VR, though there is incidental overlap there)—wrote in 1997 that:

“[I]nteractors will be lured into worlds where they float, tumble, and arc through thrillingly colored spaces, fly through imaginary clouds, and swim lazily across welcoming mountain ponds. The nightmare landscape [of text-based video games] … may give way to enchanting worlds of increasingly refined visual delight that are populated by evocative fairy-tale creatures. …

[T]he landscape will be filled with objects of desire and enchantment. … We will fly along with virtual geese and pet digital unicorns. … The creatures will be inherently charming in the way that children and small animals are charming to us.” (p. 241)

When I first read that, I thought, “nope. No thanks. Not for me. I don’t want VR to resemble a Lisa Frank illustration.”

For one, what Murray talks about in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997; updated 2016) sounds, to me, like Aldous Huxley’s fictional drug, soma, from Brave New World. In the course of her analysis, Murray actually considers the potential perniciousness of Huxley’s “feelies” (sensorial cinema), but fails to recognise VR as an analogue of the novel’s mandatory narcotic panacea-cum-population control.

If all mediated experience is as uniformly pleasant as Huxley’s soma or Murray’s saccharine vision, aren’t we at risk of seducing ourselves into catatonia, as so many dystopian sci-fi stories predict? A few years back I taught myself to lucid dream. Being in control of all my dream experiences was eye-openingly bleak. It’s like… You have some limited conscious control, but not “higher” moral control. Consequently, when I had a lucid dream, I’d seduce whoever I wanted; beat up whoever I wanted, but would do absolutely nothing of didactic value. Is that my fault? Yes, on some level. Ironically my dreams are infinitely less egocentric when I’m not trying to steer them. I believe that in order to have interesting dreams, you have to relinquish absolute control to the unconscious. And while the unconscious isn’t always nice, it generally bubbles up something thought-provoking. We shouldn’t be able to orchestrate our own experience in full. Give me “the nightmare landscape” over digital unicorns any day of the week. Besides—so much art sets out to induce negative affect that can be contemplated and cashed out in service of eudaimonic personal growth. Tragedy is but one example. For me, an unpleasant experience that you can learn from is infinitely preferable over some dopaminergic drip-feed.

As for the “empathy machine” discourse… I have a lot of opinions about that, and I think they’ll be best expressed in a sober academic piece I’m writing for an edited volume (“Motion Pictures and the Public Good,” expected 2020). Suffice to say for now that framing VR as an “empathy machine” is reductive and inaccurate at best, and intentionally misleading in service of promoting one’s own personal brand at worst. (Here I’m alluding mainly to “entrepreneur and innovator” Chris Milk, who made a 360º film following a day in the life of a Syrian refugee child. I wonder if he’ll follow up with a day in the life of a child working in an Indonesian Nike sweatshop; a company for whom he made a series of six TV commercials in 2007.)

The problem with woke-ass “empathy machine” rhetoric is that, frequently, people think they’re feeling as (empathy: “what if that were me?”), when in fact they’re feeling for (sympathy; pity: “I’m glad that’s not me”). In many cases, it’s more of a self-congratulatory exercise than people are willing or able to recognise or admit. I don’t think this is just me being deeply cynical: Unfortunately, “empathy” of the shallow variety described here seldom translates into either long-term behavioural change or short-term charitable action.

I’m not saying that virtually visiting a refugee camp is necessarily counterproductive, in terms of building a picture of the hardships suffered by less fortunate people (or understanding the sociopolitical and socioeconomic conditions that produce their suffering). It’s just that when you use a concept like empathy to sell your technology or productions, you’re selling snake oil. Empathy is merely a mechanism by which people can or may feel a whole range of things; it’s not an altruistic elixir. It’s value-neutral. It does not dependably produce a uniformly positive knee-jerk reaction à la behaviourist psychology of yesteryear. TV viewers empathise with sociopaths and murderers all the time. Consider your own attachment to Walter White, Tony Soprano, or Dexter.

Then there are Mark Zuckerberg’s tone-deaf exploits in virtual Puerto Rico. Last year he did a promotional live-stream featuring a cartoon avatar of himself grinning and high-fiving a colleague while flying around (360º images of) a flooded, hurricane-stricken neighbourhood. “Wow! It feels like I’m really there!”, or words to that effect. Critics were right to point out that he was essentially promoting disaster tourism. “Empathy machine” indeed.

Don’t get me wrong—VR shows great promise in a wide range of prosocial applications. I’ve delved deeply into that body of research literature. But branding it an “empathy machine” is a hasty generalization; science communication at its sloppiest.

In the same vein, despite your focus on producing unpleasant personal experiences by playing with things like invasion of personal space in Yorick or by forcing your viewer to linger amongst images of death and destruction in The Mediation of Violence and the Violence of Mediation, it seems as if you’re focused more on making the political personal rather than the other way around in the old feminist adage. How would you describe the politics of your work?

Well… As a white, Anglophone, cisgender, heterosexual male, I think I’d have a hard time making the personal political. What personal obstacles have I got to shout about? I belong to the most over-privileged demographic on the planet.

I think the politics in my work—if there are any—are infinitely more banal than the identity politics you’re hinting at. I suppose, actually, that the politics of my work would be fully extratextual. As in, a politics of the production and distribution of VR, rather than the anything perceptible in or through the pieces themselves.

First off, I’m adamant that my creations never generate revenue for anyone. You might (hopefully, one day) catch them at a free film festival, but other than that, they’ll eventually be distributed online as pay-what-you-want. So far I’m maybe a hundred quid out of pocket—maybe two hundred—having paid for 3D assets, music licences, software, etc. But I think that if you have the means, you should “subsidise” your own work and give it away for free. Naturally, this doesn’t apply to people for whom making art is a primary source of income.

Secondly, I just want to create powerful experiences that are categorically not game-like. I don’t categorically dislike video games (although people might get that impression from talking to me). It’s gamer culture and game industry economics that irk me. I don’t think VR is a gaming medium, and it will surely suffer from being thought of as such. Semi-relatedly, I really think the notion of “content” is killing everyday art. Not as in, “form versus content,” but, like, “we need more content to grow this platform.” It’s an unabashedly capitalist logic. I’ve seen people tweeting recently about how and why VR has “already failed,” as if they by now expected to see as many VR headsets in circulation as there are mobile phones. They’ll speculate about price points, VR-as-antisocial (think about it: VR is no more anti-social than silently reading a book), and so on. “Maybe there just isn’t enough content,” a pundit will tweet. The implied logic being, vast quantities of content will sell a product, irrespective quality or intellectual worth. I’m thinking, “nah; maybe it’s because we’ve devalued creative practices to the point that we only see their output as content.” It’s a flattening word: It steamrollers everything in the wide spectrum that encompasses both art and entertainment, reducing all ideas and the ways in which they’re realised to their sheer economic value, whether that value be monetary or attentional. All these people care about is the number of seconds they can keep eyeballs fixated on screens, and how much advertising revenue (and/or data collection) can be facilitated or generated in that gluttonous yet precarious process of consumption. I realise the irony of making this observation as an artist whose medium positions screens mere centimetres away from my participants’ eyeballs, but I think it’s a question of attitude: I’m anti-content, or anti-logic of content. We don’t need Lego Spiderman 9: The Game – More Content. We need economic configurations that support and encourage auteurs who take risks.

The parenthetical part of the title of your piece The Mediation of Violence and the Violence of Mediation (Atrocity Exhibition) is a reference to a book by the British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard, who famously said that the kind future he was interested in writing about was the perpetual future of the next five minutes. It would seem to me that you share a certain anxiety/excitement about the future with Ballard. How would you say you address this in your work?

Good question. There’s the J.F.K. link there, too. I’m actually more taken by one of Ballard’s other collections of short stories, The Terminal Beach. It’s a characteristic mix of Cli-fi and ambiguous interpersonal encounters. But yes, there are anxieties evident in my work, I suppose, about what lies just around the corner. The Mediation of Violence and the Violence of Mediation is a piece about pre-traumatic stress syndrome; something I only recently discovered existed. (Maybe this begins to answer your previous question about politics?) We have a voracious appetite for news media, and yet so little agency available to us in shaping the immediate future. “Get out there and vote!”, we’re told. But even the most ardent advocate of democratic processes would have to admit that we, as individuals, have little control over the mundane news stories that break daily, establishing the quotidian; the status quo; continually shaping what’s normal. I’m talking mainly about the day-to-day headlines of death and destruction. Even Obama—perhaps the least shitty US president in living memory—spearheaded a covert drone war that killed no fewer than 300 civilians (probably hundreds more recorded as “combatants”). Any vaguely politically engaged person is effectively obliged to read about such horrors daily. The self-preserving dissociative impulse is at once dizzying and taxing. And this is to say nothing of the unfortunate individuals whose entire wedding party is targeted by a Reaper drone or whatever.

War aside, cutting-edge cultural phenomena or popular icons strike us as cartoonishly absurd, making us feel prudish and out of touch (Nicki Minaj or Lil Pump always spring to mind, for me), and are always already a projection of the present’s collective imaginary; our symbolically violent, usually sexualised fever-dreams. I suppose that’s the space which is most interesting to me, even if its exploration isn’t explicitly evident in my work. How do latent and inarticulable ideas manifest, finding their expression in these bizarre cultural avatars? (Not necessarily individuals; movements count, too.) Brexit and Trump are already so trite as to not be worth mentioning. But it’s far more mundane than these big things. A pop-up advertisement that says, “Fuck a fat girl TONIGHT!” is, to me, just as dumbfounding as reading about InCels, “deep fake” videos, Boston Dynamics’ latest military android, or Foxconn workers throwing themselves out of windows. All of these things are at once causes and symptoms of the same vertigo-inducing, depressive syndrome.

How do you see your practice developing? What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

I want to blur the line between art and entertainment even more, maybe sneak some vaguely subversive ideas onto popular distribution platforms like Steam. We’ve long considered even the most mainstream of cinematic productions “art,” and game studies scholars argue that video games are inherently “art,” (which, I’d contend, can be true, but is not automatically so). I’m not sure. All I can say for the time being is that one future piece will combine Greek tragedy and comedy, while also disguising highbrow ideas in high-concept, lowbrow garb. There will be characters whose names and narrative functions are just the worst groan-inducing wordplay, yet who have a lot to say, ideologically. There’ll be an aspiring Instagram starlet for a heroine and a thoroughly unremarkable white male support who thinks he’s the lead character. That’s all I know for now.

But hopefully, in making it look and feel more like a conventional video game—with colourful, 3D character models and limited interactive sequences—I’ll be able to admonish those who call it art, and chastise those labelling it entertainment. I think that’s the dictionary definition of trolling, but I like the notion regardless. Amorphous entertainment–art that is as challenging as it is engaging: An all-around compelling experience.