#849 DocLab: Preserving Avant-garde Digital Culture & VR Embodiment Explorations with Ali Eslami’s “Nerd_Funk”


Ali Eslami
is an Iranian VR creator whose livelong project is an ever-expanding virtual city called False Mirror, and he was showing off the latest edition at IDFA DocLab called Nerd_Funk. Nerd_Funk is a surrealistic, guided tour through an spatialized interpretation of his social media landscape. Eslami collaborated with video installation artist Mamali Shafahi to archive the Instagram stories from over 600 of their avant-garde artist friends who are using these ephemeral stories to document their artistic experiments including the modulation of their sense of identity and embodiment through augmented reality filters.

Eslami takes a very VR architectural-inspired approach to archiving a cross section of artists who are experimenting with new modes of identity augmentation by placing these videos within a spatialized context that mirrors the different categories and topics that they assigned to the videos. He’s also playing with virtual embodiment in interesting ways as you are holding a virtual phone within this experience that sends push notification haptic buzzes that connects you to your body throughout the experience, and also provides a whole other layer of context and meaning by sending you videos and art that’s related to the world around you. It manages to evokes a very familiar Pavlovian-response of receiving these types of texts and push notifications, but it’s all completely recontextualized as you float through these spatialized art installations that explore different modes of embodiment in VR.

I had a chance to talk to Eslami at the IDFA DocLab about his journey into VR, some of his deeper design intentions with Nerd_Funk, why he believes that VR will potentially render science fiction to be dead, and his worldbuilding process that he hopes to continue throughout his artistic career in order to create virtual archives of his life as an immersive artist, but also to help create a larger spatialized context to reflect upon the ephemeral nature of avant-garde experimentation with self-destructing Instagram stories. You can follow the Nerd_Funk Instagram account to keep tabs on this project.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So continuing on in my series of looking at the narrative innovations coming out of the IDVA DocLab, today's interview is with Ali Alsami, with his piece called NerdFunk. So this happened to be one of my personal favorite experiences at the if a doc lab and there's a number of reasons Why one I think the way that Ali thinks about VR experiences has this very architectural mindset So he's designing these spaces in a way where there's just a lot of really interesting things that are going on He's also doing some really good experiments with embodiment. So within this experience of nerd funk you're going through guided tours through these tunnels with a all sorts of really surrealistic art. And he's doing this collaboration with a video installation artist named Mamali Shafahi. And in the experience, he's got these archived Instagram stories from like 600 of these avant-garde artists. So he's curated all these different videos and he's spacing it through these virtual worlds. So he's essentially creating this digital archive of avant-garde culture. As you're going through this, you're seeing all this surrealistic art. And you also have this mechanic of having a phone in your hand a virtual phone so you're in VR but you have this hand with this phone when you're either able to like videotape and film stuff like as we do and we're interesting places we want to like document and film it so you can do that looking at this virtual world through a TD representation while you're immersed within that world. Or other times they start to send out push notifications and they just give other art and deeper context to the world that's around you. So a lot of really interesting narrative innovations to this piece. And I had a chance to talk to Ali about some of his inspiration and just his process of trying to do this archiving of digital culture, but this larger picture of trying to create this ongoing lifelong project of these virtual worlds that are representing these different phases of his life. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Ali happened on Friday, November 22nd, 2019 at the IFA doc lab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:16.563] Ali Eslami: So my name is Ali Islami, and it's a pleasure to be on the podcast for the second time. So it's been like six years, almost, 2014, since I've been doing VR. So I'm coming from the background of digital arts. I started when I was a teenager, I started to mod games and learn 3D just to mod games, everything self-taught through the internet. And then I studied civil engineering, although I really loved architecture, but I couldn't go to the university for that. So the civil engineering thing was kind of the mindset that trained me to, kind of prepared me to learn some coding, you know, with the mathematics and stuff like that. But besides that, in that time when I was like 18, I've been doing like architectural visualization in 3D, like super realistic arc waves. And then I got bored of doing that, but I still had the skill. I wanted to push it forward to more imaginative worlds in 3D. So over time my work kind of drifted towards the art and digital art. But yeah, six years ago I landed on VR and don't think I'm gonna get out of this anytime soon. So I've done a couple of projects. The first one was a recreation of Magritte's painting in 3D aimed for VR. So I made this house of Magritte's painting where you can roam around in this house filled with six paintings in the same house and could interact with the paintings in a sense. But that project got cancelled due to copyright issues, although it got really good press release. So yeah, that was a good try anyways. So I always like try to learn through making. I have an idea which I'm obsessed with. I start creating it and through this process and this playful process I learn the techniques and also the conceptual development at the same time and research and development. Then the second one was the death dolls experience which was premiered at the ITFA in 2016 which was somewhat like a data experience about visualization of the death dolls that you hear in the news but in VR you could see all the dead bodies inside body bags in the same exact number and these numbers are growing as you walk through the experience. Which that was really a big success and it won the best immersive non-fiction award in that year at IDFA. So that was like a pivotal moment for me to really ground myself that okay what I'm doing can have an impact and I can go further with that. Then after that project, my work, I wanted to develop more interactivity and especially embodiment in VR because I was, for me, at that time in 2016-17 when I got my touch controllers and Oculus Rift, I felt like this bodily presence is something that really makes sense in VR for me and it's a lot to explore. So I started to dig more into decoding and interactivity. So then, back then, I started this project called False Mirror. And I hate to call it a project, it's a process that's growing over time, which is a virtual city that's made in VR. And I'm expanding this city over time. So this city grows as I live my life. And the basic idea behind it is I'm trying to speculate a future where we might live in a completely virtual world. So I'm trying to make this a space where I can live within it throughout the time, grow it. And by growing, I mean the spaces within this city and my own virtual body. So it's kind of like I have the kind of like a post-human body where I can attach attachments to my hands, where it gives me different perceptions and how we can perceive the space. So I did lots of plays with this. For me it's a really playful and explorative space where I can make a space and I can perceive this space with changes to my body and all these correlations between space and body. So it's been already three years that I'm still keep working on False Mirror and for next year I have a plan to even expand it further to multi-user experiences and how social constructs can be rethought and imagined through this sort of speculative framework. Because what I experience in social VR are kind of more or less the same. You basically have an avatar and you hang out with some people online. But what I would like to explore more is actually how you can have a really authentic body that you want for yourself with all those things that you want to perceive. And then how you can interact with people in a different way that we cannot do in the physical reality. So mostly my obsession is how I can basically kind of drift and extend these constraints of the physical reality in terms of body, space and even time. These are all the questions I'm trying to tackle within this project and I'm kind of also collaborating with other artists, the installation artists. designers to invite others to elevate this project over time, giving workshops. And one thing I really did with this project, especially last year, was focusing on the lecture part of it. So I've developed some tools within this project just to be able to give live VR lectures. So I'm on the stage wearing the headset live and people could see what I see in VR. But at some point I give a tour to the city for the audience and it was super successful because I was kind of frustrated by the need to experience VR. because what I'm doing is basically in a sense conceptual development and I'm trying to use it as a platform to as a medium to grasp new knowledge which I couldn't grasp and to share this knowledge it doesn't have to remain within the headset it's just the mean and especially for that project so I wanted to be able to tell these ideas for a big audience like hundreds and in one hour and they all get the idea of how it's gonna work and if they want they can experience it for themselves. So it was really a successful experience how I developed like I developed like virtual cameras where I could switch between a third person and first person perspective in VR. I made an avatar for myself like a weird hand kind of a mouth where it reacts to my voice. And also I use the webcam feeds. I always put a webcam towards the audience in this type of VR lecture. So I can see the audience live within the headset. So I'm not completely blindfolded and not disconnected from the reality. And it's like a handheld webcam, like a screen, where I can bring it when I'm giving this tour to the people. And they can see themselves, so it's more like inviting people within this VR world. And also I do Q&As when people come in front of the camera and they ask questions, I don't have to put the headset off. And I get really nice impressions from that, because explaining this idea of this virtual city or whatever, Can take for ages because there's a lot of concepts like tools that I can just talk about for years But if I'm just in VR and people just sit I break it down for them. It all start to make sense So yeah, that was a big success. I'm planning to expand that more. So that's something that's always going on I think is my life's work and a good reason that I have for developing it over time is because the question is how is this virtual life to imagine the virtual life and for me it only makes sense if I live within it over time so I realized okay this space I'm bored of it now at this point in my life and I want to change it maybe I can change my body I can add something to my body which allows me to shrink myself So then everywhere gets fresh. So it's over time, you feel that you demand something and it's more natural. So I'm trying to keep this nature of it over time. So that's about False Mirror. I think it's enough talking because we talked before about it. But as I said, it's still ongoing. So, this year, as I moved to Amsterdam from Iran, I collaborated with Klazin, Van der Zand Shop, and an installation artist who we've been working with for the past two years, he's also Iranian, Amali Shafoui. He's coming from a fine art background. So, we developed a new space within False Mirror as a new kind of experience called Sacred Hill. And Sacred Hill is like a sacred space within False Mirror where participants can trip through this ritual machine made in False Mirror where you can go through this seven minute experience and lose your virtual body which you took as granted because if you live with that body you take it as granted, you believe it. So in the Sacred Hill it's kind of like a speculation of this ritual and like transcendental kind of feeling where you lose what you got as your body and you transform into kind of an abstract embodiment form where you go through the ritual machine and it's like four tunnels shaped in form of a torus, interconnected together. And as you go through, which you actually don't go through, you enter this torus, and the whole space goes through you. So you don't move an inch, but the whole space goes through you. So you go through different phases of embodiment in VR. Like in one tunnel you can shrink and expand the tunnel with your hands, or in another tunnel you can have a light attached to your hand and shed light to your surroundings. And then at the end when you reach out of this ritual machine you get a glimpse of the sacred hill where your journey ends. So that was made as a VR installation and performance on top of it as well. We had an installation, an art installation, where the shape of the hill was a big kind of sculpture, like a green sculpture, and the headset and the computers, they're all inside the sculpture, and the wires are coming out of the sculpture. to kind of interconnect the physical reality with the virtual. And as a participant, when you enter this space, the full installation is lit with UV lights and with in-fit grids in the wall. So as you enter this space, it's already a space that you're not used to. It's like... It's in a way sparks your curiosity of what this space is going to have for me inside the headset and it kind of prepares you for what you're going to experience and it kind of molds virtual and physical together and some of the elements that are in the installation are also reflecting in VR. And also there's a performance, there's a card reading performance, which was really an interesting part I developed with Klassine, my main collaborator on this project. So she's doing this performance with her own custom-designed cloth, and this is like a card reading, and we made a special kind of like tarot cards, like especially built for Sacred Hill. And when you want to go to VR, before that you get this card reading performance. where she asks you some questions and gives you the card and that card augments your experience within VR because there are some symbols within this tarot cards where you can relate to that. So it becomes kind of personal in a sense. We also got really good impressions and feedback of that because it's not just kind of like a lazy volunteer who says, stand here, put the headset on. We try to really work on the whole process of the experience as you enter the space, go through into the VR and come out of it. We also have special scent by a scent artist made for this space. It's kind of really multi-sensory experience. So yeah and it was last month it was part of the museum night in Amsterdam which is a museum event where all the museums in Amsterdam come open to public and we had like four VR stations at the same time and for me it was amazing because I saw people like 40 people in line waiting for two hours to get into Sacred Hill and that was really amazing to see and also the public sphere that you reach within these kind of events like museum like events are like let's say more public than festivals where you still have a specific community coming on more or less. So that was Sacred Hill and at the end it's part of Falzmirror and people if they just have the VR and experience they can go through this ritual and we recommend to go through this ritual every day but if you want. So, apart from that, the project that I have at ITFA this year is called NerdFunk. And this is a project that I developed with my collaborator, Mamali Shafayi, who does the installation art. So we got together more than a year ago, and he had this idea where he had this account on Instagram called NerdFunk. and through this account we started to follow some more like avant-garde sphere of digital culture in Instagram who are posting stories and we started to basically collect and archive their stories around like 600 handles and over a more than a year we ended up with lots of like videos that we recorded like random stories And then we started to just categorize these basic categories like human body, animals, what we found like more categorizable, like nature. And then we realized that we are both kind of obsessed with how Instagram and especially these stories, like rapidly changing the digital culture and how we think about sharing our moments and stories and the information overload that's coming within it. So we wanted to have some sort of an archival, at the beginning it started as an archival kind of approach to social media, but then we wanted to go back and give spectacles through each of these prominent themes we found through this mess of information. So we thought about making a chapter based VR installation, where in each chapter we can zoom on one of these main themes that we figure out through this account. So, the first chapter that we created was, we call it Post Body, which is about representation of human body on Instagram. Those we were following, so we don't have like a universal kind of view on social media. We didn't want to go into that field, because that has its own critiques. It's just about how we saw that through this account. And so we crafted these hyper real journeys based on all of these contents about human body. So we have one prominent icon of the experience where this weird melty hand holding a screen or holding a phone and this is endlessly scrolling. This phone is like intimately touching the phone. And as you go through this experience, you see like a tunnel made of flesh or body with separate body parts spread around the tunnel. And as you pass by, these are like a living kind of body parts. Within them you see a projection of the Instagram stories that we collected. So it's kind of like dreaming in social media in a sense. And also I feel what we see on Instagram is super random. The experience of watching Instagram stories is like you see your friends posting about his food. the other one is in a party, it's all random information and we try to collect them all and craft something that we filter with our mind because it's so random that our finite body and perception cannot perceive it anymore, it just becomes normal and this leads to us that we lose the grasp of how our reality is becoming more fiction day by day So in this first chapter, you see how fiction our bodies are, our image of body is already getting through Instagram. And this world that we created is already very hyper real, but it all starts to make sense because it's all kind of inspired by these contents from Instagram. So that was the first chapter, but the second one is about techno parties and clubs. So we also wanted to kind of not keep it the same, to kind of like evolve through each chapter. So in the first chapter you only have one hand holding the phone and as you pass through with the phone you can kind of see contents as you pass by. But in the second chapter you actually evolve to a new body form. which is a weird big hand, extended hand, an arm attached to a platform on your head. There is a weird, kind of inspired by Death Stranding robot arm that's attached to your head. And this attachment throws emojis around the world as you go through. So with that body, you can actually dance within this club experience. So we still have that hand holding the phone, but it's kind of like your bike. It's attached to your body like a platform. So the club experience is still, again, inspired by those many stories of people posting about clubs, DJs and like dances and ravings and stuff. So the journey is about going through, first you end up in this neon light tunnel, which is kind of twisting over time. And you see more like early party footages of like house parties, smaller parties. But then you end up entering this huge weird kind of vertical club. So that's where I really wanted to make a space. an architectural approach to what's a post club, like what's a virtual club could be like. It doesn't need to have a ground where you dance or whatever. It can be super vertical. So it's like endless vertical club where all the walls are filled with projections of the dance parties and it's all circular around you and everything rotates around you and there are many like weird characters dancing around you as you're also dancing with your hands. So it has this sort of vertigo effect where you always want to rotate and see around as everything around you is rotating. And at the same time I use a lot of haptics to kind of augment this feeling. I use a sub-pack which has a really great effect for this one because it's like pumping the bass to your back. and the music is made by my collaborator, he's a musician, he's also a great DJ and he creates amazing techno music, so for him it was super exciting to make this kind of sound for this project. And as you enter this club it gets to the extreme, where the club experience gets to the very extreme, the music becomes to the point where it reaches the noise level and all the movements become super fast and then you kind of get a bit like high or like on drag or something and everything becomes like blurry and like a chromatic effect and all these effects and then it's the time of the burnouts for you actually burn out of all these clubs and being super high and this ritual club. So yeah, and that's how it ends. And for us it was a great kind of exploration that in each chapter we can evolve this world that we are creating for NerdFong. It's kind of the process of like world building and like sci-fi. Because for me VR is becoming more like science fiction in a sense that The science fiction writers, they're basically, most of them, they usually first imagine the world they want to imagine and tell the story about in each element, like architecture, bodies, like really small details. Once you create that world, then they start to create journeys in this world. So VR is for me kind of the same that I first need to imagine that all these details, they might sound pretty unrelevant, but they fill this reality, and then you build the journey on top of it. So, yeah, mostly my creative process, I make the word in details. Like, maybe I spend one day to just make one moving wall for my club, just to experiment and play with that. And then slowly add things on top of it, and then everything starts to connect together. So, for me, that's more of a tangible way to look at VR and world building and how things can correlate together. And as the new chapters come, this world becomes more real, you know. So, yeah, that's about Nerfung. And also the cool thing is that We also launched the Instagram account, so that's a post experience and you can keep following NerdFunk and we keep sharing new contents within this Instagram account. So you look back and it kind of gives you the idea how those dreams that you've been to, they start to make more sense because It's still a little bit random within this account, all these pictures and images that you see. But at the same time, you have a dream about it. You have seen a dream about it and you feel a better connection probably. And the other thing that I mean, we figured out that it's kind of valuable to do is because the digital culture is rapidly growing. It's so hard to grasp. Like Instagram added this Instagram story feature two years ago. For instance, they added the AR masks less than a year ago. And once they added the AR mask, it changed everything. Now everyone can use an AR mask. And so they are applying weird avatars on their faces. And for me, it's interesting how it changes our culture. my mom can hold her phone and flip it and just have a skeleton on her head and these are all like changing the human that we're calling ourselves. So in a sense it's kind of archiving this rapid pace of digital culture and like maybe in 10 years if you look back it might give you some clues of what's been going on.

[00:25:03.488] Kent Bye: Yeah, because the Instagram stories, they disappear within like 24 hours. And so I guess just to take a step back, did you ask these 600 people if they would be willing to have these videos archived and shared in this piece? Or how do you handle that?

[00:25:17.556] Ali Eslami: Yeah, because we've been quite careful with that. Most of them who we followed or like we archived are those who we know, like friends or friends of friends. And if there is a content where it's pretty obvious their identity or whatever, we reach out to them. And we've never got a no, because in Instagram everyone wants to be seen. So, I mean, luckily, you know, since now. So yeah, and also what's interesting about Instagram stories in general is because it's 24 hours temporary It enables people to be more provocative Because it's temporary and this fact makes them think less about the effects of their existence which led to Many people opening up about their moments like intimate moments because they know it's temporary So it's kind of changing how we see and share our stories. So yeah

[00:26:11.272] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's important context, I think, just to make sure that, because they are sharing it under the assumption that it's ephemeral, but if they know that you're archiving it or reaching out, that makes me feel better, at least for ethical aspects of that. But, so, just to talk a little bit about my own direct experience of going through NerdFunk, because, you know, as I am going through this first section, this first chapter, I'm kind of flying through this tunnel in this kind of on-rails type of experience, and I'm going past these different art installations, like a 3D model of body parts or whatnot. And you have a number of these laid out, but then I lift up my hand and I'm holding a phone. And sometimes you turn on the camera. So I found myself like, if I was actually there, I'd probably be like recording videos. And then it makes me think, oh, well, I actually want to experience this VR experience. I don't want to see this VR experience mediated through like a virtual phone. You know, when people go to a concert, you know, they'll watch the whole concert through the phone. And it's like, is one of my pet peeves, because it's like, oh, you went to the concert to be really present. And so I found myself playing with the virtual phone, because it was interesting to be able to like, oh, if I wanted to try to capture this, what would the 2D representation of this experience look like? And then I'm in a 3D representation, and there's always some sort of information loss when you try to do that, just as there is in any other level of reality. But then you also have this mechanic where you're using the haptic buzzer of this phone Then show me some weird avant-garde art that can either look at or scroll through or so there's you've got this like You're in a VR experience, but then you're sending me a push notification To then look at this virtual phone and then play with that back and forth as I go through this experience and I found myself trying to minimize like looking at the phone or What eventually I found was that I could actually look at the phone at the same time as I was looking at the virtual screen. So try to actually look at these two together. And then I realized, oh, I'm in a virtual reality experience. What if this was all just like augmented reality? Could I like take this image out and pin it up? And then it just started to make me think about like, oh, well, this is actually a really interesting way to try to prototype Augmented reality experiences because you are now have the ability to be in this Interesting experience and then how could you start to put all these other layers on top of that? So I thought that that was just the way that was laid out. I could tell that there was Just these different scenes where there was something interesting going on at things coming up in the future that I was gonna come to and me not knowing and then I get there and then you're sort of revealing more context and it almost felt like being on this guided tour where I have this tablet where you're able to give me additional context or information and I could imagine like eventually having like if you go to an art museum you have all of the artist statement and all the deeper context you could use that in virtual reality to be able to do that as well but I just felt that that was really like I kind of sensed that that guided tour aspect of it but also playing with sending these push notifications that were making me aware of our own tendencies of what happens when we have our phone and we get buzzed and we automatically have this Pavlovian response to look at the phone and I felt like that was being able to be replicated within virtual reality.

[00:29:24.048] Ali Eslami: One thing I have to add is that we wanted to have this basic phone hand, at least in the first chapter, because first of all, it's kind of the iconic part of the experience. We have this big sculpture of that. Within this sculpture, in the installation, there's a TV instead of that phone, a big TV screen. And inside that TV screen, we are showing the whole archive. the random stories. But this hand functionality, I'm not going to say, of course, it's basic and it's it's a very passive interaction as you go through. But in a sense, it's like an early invention in this world. And as I said, this can evolve. So if you experience chapter one with this basic hand and phone, maybe in chapter three, you actually have kind of like a upgraded version of that where it's actually functional. So then this process starts to make more sense as you see each chapter evolve through time. So that's a part that can be a very prominent aspect of next chapters. And I think playing with this temporality and this development through each chapter make this whole work a more sense because we're not just trying to introduce a new word, but we want to develop and expand this with our audiences. maybe next year if you have all the other chapters then that hand can do more and then it becomes interesting because you experience the basic hand and now you have the better hand and like This is for me. It's like it's part of this whole world building process So but at the same time interactivity as you know for every developer an artist is the most tricky part in the process of creation and Creating the word is one thing, creating the interaction with that word is a whole other thing. So it takes a lot of iteration and time to make it work. But at the same time, if it reminds you of these daily experiences with phone, it's kind of starting point to connect you bodily with that, in a sense, I think.

[00:31:38.748] Kent Bye: Yeah, I thought it was a really powerful, like I said, triggering this Pavlovian response in me when you started to buzz it. And I actually just took a family vacation down from Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans, but we went to Elvis's Graceland and we did a tour of his home. And you're given his iPad that they've taken 360 photos of the location and then anchored within that 360 photo, like a photo of where that photo was taken or a video. And there's like the audio tour that you could be self-directed and go through room by room rather than have a whole group try to go through. They allow you that agency to be able to stay longer in another room if you want to or to like control the pacing of the audio tour or to look at the photos or videos. But I felt like then after having that experience and being in your experience, it just started to make me think about like, oh, well, what other kind of things could you have this virtual tablet and what could you do? You could do all sorts of things like navigating around the space or you could have more audio information or reading or what it felt like in some ways is that like when you go to a website and it says, do you want us to send you push notifications? And I always click no, like I've never clicked yes, like I want you to send me notifications. And so it felt like in this VR experience that I'd never had the option to be asked whether or not I wanted to be pushed with these push notifications. And yet here I am getting all these notifications as I go through the experience. And so what was that that you were trying to have? Because you have this kind of pacing of these push notifications. And so obviously when people see it, they're going to likely look at their phone. And in some ways you're like really directing their attention by doing that. And so maybe talk about that as a creator and a 360 experience, why you wanted to kind of have this tension between like having that directed attention through those haptic notifications.

[00:33:27.083] Ali Eslami: Yeah, so there are many, some different small reasons that, at least in our vision, it could work. One is just to remind you that you have a body within this work. Because if you don't get haptics, it's a thing I'm really trying to play within my work to grab those attentions, which is really powerful to remind you that you have a body. And over time, with some intervals in between, you start to pin yourself to that body. And for me, that's a good connection. These stimulations connect you more to this hyper-real world that doesn't make sense at all. So these are like triggers to attach you more to this reality. But on the other hand, this vibration effect and phone is something we all experience every day, holding our phones or not in our pocket. So this is like feeling that again in VR is again something that connects you to your life and your own personal experiences. and allows you to reflect yourself within that new world. It's kind of like an entrance, like a transition of you coming from this reality to this new reality, but there are still some stuff, same, maybe it doesn't work as perfect as your real life, as functional, but it can have that perceptual effect within the experience. And on the other hand, the third reason, especially for the first chapter, because in the second chapter, we're not using that haptic push notification at all, is that you basically have this confrontation with these elements as you pass by, like this huge intestine, which within this intestine, there's this video projected about this guy making sculptures about creepy sculptures of human body. And also you can see it in your phone. So in the beginning it's just a reflection of what you see in the world. And as you go forward, there's a big mouth that's opening up. Within that mouth there's a story about a girl who's opening her mouth with like a snake mouth. and then within the phone you see other mouth related contents apart from what you see. So it's starting to go more abstract and more to revealing more avant-garde stuff that we figured out within this archive to give a direction that how this can go even further. Because one thing I think in VR is there has to always be a room for user's imagination. And this can kind of lead to that, where you represent a content on top of a content and you inspire that there is more within this context. and your mind can go through that. And it's like basically reading a book. So that's, for me, the thing that's this critique of VR that VR is not imaginary because everything you see is made for you to perceive. For me, it's not relevant in a sense that what you experience in any reality can spark imagination. It's just how you craft that reality. and using the empty spaces to make the space for your mind to roam and think through. Which, like in NerdFunk, in the first chapter, because it's kind of slow, the pace is very slow, and this slow pace actually allows you to also imagine things that could happen within this work. So I'm not sure if that worked for you, if your mind went somewhere else. And also this suspension effect makes you wonder what's outside. And all these feelings are, for me, things that are part of my creative process. Like, where does the imagination go? Because I don't want to show everything, I don't want to put everything in your face. You have to be able to imagine to make it personal, to make a sense out of it. doesn't matter how surreal and hyperreal this reality is, there has to be room for imagination so you can make it your own.

[00:37:36.175] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, one of the things that was really striking about this piece was trying to bring in that 2D content into, like, textualized into this virtual world because, you know, you're usually watching this content on your phone, but when you juxtapose it with many different screens all over the place, there's a couple other pieces that reminds me of. One is the inhabited house, which is here, It's a doc lab that they took a 360 photo of a location of a home But then had all this home video footage that they kind of projected on to where that had happened in the past And you were embedded in the architecture of the space but then it gave so much more life to this home video where it made you feel like you were I don't know, somehow more there than if you were just watching this video that you probably would never watch. So it provided a context to be able to put this stuff together. And then also there is the common ground where they have the architecture of a building, but they're using projection mapping to be able to project 2D content onto the screen. There's also the deepfake experience called in the event of a moon disaster which is creating a deep fake of Richard Nixon giving a speech that he never actually gave but would have given if Apollo 11 would have crashed into the moon then he would have given this speech and then you're seeing this whole context but you know projected onto this like 1960s television you're seeing this deep fake which would be a lot different context than seeing it on the screen so you're like doing all of this mashing together of all these different previous contexts that were very ephemeral but putting it into this immersive experience and then ending in this what I can only Describe as this super surreal with green lasers and avant-garde artists that are doing something maybe you could give a bit more context as to What was happening in that scene because then you kind of call back to it with having a whole interactive moment with it

[00:39:21.545] Ali Eslami: Yeah, the last scene in chapter one, where you see the performance art with people with lasers attached to their asses. Yeah, that's actually a really interesting performance. And we reached them on Instagram that we want to craft this experience of the people who recorded your performance, because we have lots of videos of that performance. And they were super excited about it. And we're so glad that they're also really into this and open to this thing. So that performance is all about like another form of body where lasers are attached to their asses or candles. But you see that same event from six different perspectives recorded by six different people in that same event, which in VR you see all these six different big screens, which is the same phone you have in your hand, but in a very large landscape scattered around the landscape. And we made these body parts, which are like legs that are pointing towards the sky and they're kind of like swiveling around. So at some point the lasers come out of these assets in VR like going around crazy in the world and the same laser come out of your hand and you sort of start kind of connecting to this weird thing that's going on. I mean, that's for me the feeling when I get to many performance arts where I cannot connect. how abstract or there's no connection that you just pass by because it's too weird to just look at but not sure about you but with even like just with that kind of connection with your body which a laser comes out of that you also see those lasers coming out of their asses in the stories so it's kind of like different layers happening at the same time which kind of interconnect here with this moment to have this kind of shared experience with that event that happened somewhere, sometime. So, yeah. And one thing I can add about the using of videos actually, which is very important, is because my collaborator is an installation artist and video artist, so he met many video artists before. So all of those videos were edited by him. So the order and how they put together next to each other is very precisely took by his kind of aesthetic. Especially in the club, we have an array of dancing people, different stories recorded. They're all around you in your surrounding club. I don't know, 16 screens around you. And so how we put them next to each other is like a video art of itself. So the events and how the editing part comes involved with it. And so it's kind of like mixing different sort of aesthetics and things that you have in video art that can also foster VR experience. Yeah, it doesn't matter, we just use what we have in hand, also in the installation. It's very basic, we added this fan, which is just blowing air to your face. For both of the experiences, I think it works really well. Although it's not interactive, it's just a constant flow of air. But once you're in VR, you feel this wind coming through, because also in NerdFunk, you're always going from some point, so you're always in movement, although slow or maybe fast, but that's wind, that touch of air to your face and your body, In VR, when you get immersed, when your mind kind of tricks into the fact that you're in that world, that wind comes from that world too. So it really augments it to another point. It's just like a small addition that is like a cherry on top of the cake. It's just a small thing that Although it's not super interactive, I don't want to try hard and like sync it and the direction and whatever. It's just a basic thing that just we added, tested and it worked really well. I'm not sure if it worked on you, but this flow affair kind of, yeah, it was a good experiment that we didn't expect it to work, but at least for me and some others who I asked for feedback, they felt like, yeah, it was a good addition.

[00:43:32.450] Kent Bye: I don't know if I remember even noticing the error. It may have been a part of experience that I just sort of integrated, but I did have a moment with the laser that I wanted to just sort of share my experience of that, because usually when you go to a performance art piece like that, You kind of know that you're going into something that's going to be a performative weird art piece. But in VR, you can really just switch people into a context where you're just like, OK, where am I now? It felt like stepping into this Stanley Kubrick eyes wide shut, like stepping into some sort of like weird ritual. But it was clearly like a performance art. But I had no deeper context as to who these people were, what was going on. It was really quite interesting and striking. And then to have the same kind of lasers that come out of the bodies of the world around me. And then I have a laser. Now I get to participate in this weird performance art. And I actually kind of held it down to my groin area and just like, oh, I have this laser coming out of my body part there too. And I'm just kind of playing around with the other lasers. And so it did actually feel like it was connecting me to that scene. But if you take a step back and think about these ephemeral art pieces, it's a bit of, If they're being shared on the social media that's disappearing, then it's kind of erased. But when you have these weird performance arts that are so ephemeral, the documentation is so important. And so it feels like archiving all of those and putting this into this larger installation, you're able to then start to preserve these interactions that people are playing around with, which then starts to then beg the question of, OK, what's worth capturing and archiving in this way? Because there's lots of videos and lots of people are doing stuff.

[00:45:13.241] Ali Eslami: feels like there's this like kind of weird slice of digital culture that you're tapped into that you want to kind of hold on to and come back to and Share with people in the future One of those like the archival part of this which is very valuable for us like to preserve moments that we are just losing grasp on because of the amount of things that are happening is hard to grasp and another thing is that I think is VR is Once you make something in VR, it becomes materialized, it gets to materials, like it's as real as whatever exists. So it's interesting that in 10 years you experience this again and you're back in time and you feel it again. So this archival approach with VR is in a sense like making them concrete. And this knowledge that we are losing grasp on, they just become concrete and material. So, although it's virtual, but what's physical, what's virtual, you know? Yeah, I think we're living the... I mean, it goes a bit too phenomenal, but now it's like... I think my view of virtual reality doesn't come to what I work with. It's coming from... I think our reality is already too fragmented. If I'm in Facebook, I'm in another reality. If I'm in Twitter, I'm in a different reality because my mind works differently and imagines differently when I'm surfing different apps or looking through a window in the train. So the physical reality, the IRL is already fragmented into different virtual realities. So it's hard to call what's physical and what's virtual.

[00:46:54.106] Kent Bye: I just want to touch briefly on the second chapter because you were doing this interesting projecting out of my body. So I have arms, but my arms are offset and they're also a lot larger. And so you're tracking my emotions, but it's sort of translated into this avatar representation that I have embodiment that is bigger. And I felt like there was moments when I felt like I was really able to embody that, but some other moments when if I were to move my arms in a way that wasn't being tracked or it was kind of like if you had elbow tracking and a big reason why you don't see a lot of the early VR games that don't have elbow tracking is because the elbow tracking is really hard to do. And that if you misdo the elbow tracking, then you can actually like pull people out of their virtual embodiment. And I felt like that was happening to me a little bit where I was embodied for moments, but then I would do something that would break the tracking and then I'd be like, oh, I'm no longer in this. And so like, it's the plausibility illusion of having that virtual body ownership illusion that if you snap out of it, then it's hard to kind of build up that trust again. So I kind of felt like I was slipping in and out of that. But I did have fun playing with things as they're going by because you're able to then move your body and adjust and you can adapt pretty quickly to then interact with things. So I enjoyed the fact that you could actually kind of swap things around in the second part with this playing with that avatar representation in my embodiment that you're actually dissociating from my body a little bit and creating this sort of weird representation of it. So yeah, maybe you could just talk about what you were trying to achieve there with that level of embodiment.

[00:48:28.110] Ali Eslami: Yeah, so as I said, the second chapter is kind of like an evolution of the first chapter. So you actually have a new body, post-body, inspired by the first chapter, which is actually about human body. So your hand, those two hands that you're holding, are actually the same hands you passed by in the body tunnel in the first chapter. but they become your body. So these are the connections between these chapters. So I wanted to evolve it to a full body as funky and weird as the whole world of NerdFunk is. So of course I would get that with these arms. I'm not a big fan of, I'm not using it in False Mirror. But in Erfang, the logic behind this word is more hyper-real than things that are working or that are not working. If this arm doesn't work perfectly, it's part of this... I'm not trying to defend, but I think if some stuff are kind of glitched or like... because it's part of the whole aesthetic of this word in a sense that your hand is melty, things are not perfect. It's a little bit kind of decaying in a sense. It's kind of like frustrated reality of this thing. So if things are not working, it can possibly make sense in that word. But I really like this feeling of extended body and it feels like you're kind of upgraded to a new form of human and you can reach stuff that are out of hand normally. And you pretty quickly get used to it by touching, because if you couldn't touch things around you, you couldn't see the extent of your body, how it can function. But at the same time, because the club is, there's too many things happening and movements happening in the club, you start to forget the presence of that body. And that's natural. I think that's what happens in clubs when you're too high, doesn't it? So I don't know what you think about it.

[00:50:29.396] Kent Bye: That's an interesting take. I feel like there's a certain amount of when I go into VR experiences, I do want to have this sense of embodiment. But if you were trying to create this experience of being high at a club and being dissociated, then yeah, I think that you were able to achieve that. Well, just to wrap things up here, just a few more questions. So for you, what do you personally want to experience within virtual reality?

[00:50:55.600] Ali Eslami: So personally, as I said, my life's work is false mirror, so I would like to experience, not to experience, but to be able to expand this ongoing work to more framework that I can speculate a future that doesn't exist. And this speculation doesn't remain as just an idea. That's why, for me, science fiction is dead, because the last thing that killed science fiction was VR, because whatever is fiction can get imagined and be experienced. So, in a sense, it's hacking body, time and space. And so my hope and my ultimate obsession with VR is to be able to create a reality because I think within this reality our future is cancelled because we are living in a late capital situation and it's hard to imagine any possible future apart from what's imagined for us. So I think virtual reality is a ground where it's not just about imagination, but sharing it and allowing others to participate and be there together. And this, in a sense, is like sharing blueprints that kind of expands the domain of possible future. So if there is any hope to exit whatever we don't like in this reality, With VR, it's possible to imagine that and kind of share it openly. And this sharing doesn't mean that you have to basically be able to live or experience that and make it a concrete future. But as I said, with these lectures, it can be anything. So it's just a thing that enables you to imagine a possible future and allow others to get a grasp on those imaginations. And yeah, for me it's like a ground that anything that can be imagined can be created and be shared with others and then you see the honest reflection because we have finite bodies and finite perception. and we cannot push further than what's possible for us. But with VR, it allows to kind of share these pieces of imaginations and imagine a better, like not a better, but just expand the horizon of what's possible to imagine. Yeah. I'm not sure if I'm lost with this. I think I'm lost with this last question in my thoughts, but yeah.

[00:53:29.238] Kent Bye: Well, finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of these immersive technologies and what they might be able to enable?

[00:53:39.116] Ali Eslami: Honestly, in my practice, although it's all about immersive technologies, I never think about the technology part of it or that side of it. What I think, through collaboration with other artists, is other issues, concepts that I want to mold and create, and I just come to VR to make them possible. So I'm not at all raving on anything about technology or I'm not excited about what's coming next because I think we already got a lot in hand to be able to create prominent art pieces or experiences that can shift perceptions. So I'm not the good person to ask about that side of it So I never I just take it as granted and don't think of it So that's kind of my frustration to be honest in in most of like festivals or like panels It's more about talking about the medium like the technicality rather than the concepts behind it I think that's the problem with VR which is the critical thinking gets overshadowed by the medium itself. Like, it's hard to tap the core concept. Like, it's all about, yeah, I did this cool thing in VR, and this body is like this, like that, but the very core concept, this critical sense of it, it's not yet existing, but of course, because it's very emerging, but I think we're getting, as it gets more mature, we're getting to that point where we are not talking about the medium, we're talking about works, its effect. So for me, if someone comes out of the VR experience, if they're talking about how cool the VR things were, I'm like, forget about it. What do you feel now? What's added to your, does it make you think after that, you know? So that's, for me, the valuable thing.

[00:55:35.167] Kent Bye: It's interesting because I usually ask people like either what they want to experience or if they're trying to answer questions or solve problems and when I asked you about what you want to experience your answer was kind of like the ultimate potential of what you see it is. When I ask you the ultimate potential of the technology then you're like no it's about the experience and so it's interesting to see that. Are there any other kind of like questions you're trying to answer or problems you're trying to solve because you want to think about the concepts? What are some of those concepts or what are some of those open questions that you're trying to explore?

[00:56:08.000] Ali Eslami: Well, yeah, for me, the big black box right now that I'm really trying to tap and kind of experience and play and unfold is, again, the social and multi-user presence and experience and what can happen in between different people at the same time in VR. And not just people, entities. So you can embody a non-human entity and these connections between your new body or your new identities with another person, what it enables you and whatnot. For me, these are very interesting. Also, because I'm really a shitty programmer, I don't know about programming. Multiplayer programming, networking, it's super complicated. But hopefully next year I'm collaborating with an Unreal programmer who we can together help each other and imagine what's possible within this. This is a new ground that I'm super excited to play like social interactions and play with the embodiment part of it and also the temporality and the space. Yeah, I think what I want to be able to kind of more tap onto is like communications mainly. social structures like I don't know if like for instance if you go to a new city like how can a social structure be rethought about like your privacy like not privacy but like your space how can you share your spaces that you take for yourself with others because it's now in again in the social we are it's it's all very similar There's a shared space everyone has. There's a dorm. There's a room. You have your own home. But how can it expand more through radical imagination? So that's where I really want to tap and hopefully happen soon.

[00:57:59.621] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:58:04.752] Ali Eslami: No, but thank you very much. It's always a pleasure to be on this podcast. It's my favorite thing, and it's prominently having a huge impact on the VR community in general. And I'm super grateful that you're doing it. Give it up.

[00:58:23.023] Kent Bye: Awesome. Okay. Well, thank you so much for all the explorations that you're doing I want to think about the experiences I've had here if a doc lab I think the nerd funk is one of those that I had my own personal insights of like what I could experiment with and Play around with and so thank you for that. And yeah, thank you for sitting down and unpacking in it even more. So, thank you Huge pleasure. Thank you. So that was Ali Alsami. He's an Iranian virtual reality creator who collaborated with Mamali Shafahali, who's a video artist and does installation work, did the actual installation of NerdFunk, but they worked together on this virtual reality experience called NerdFunk. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, like I said at the top, this piece was one of my favorite pieces just because he's doing some really interesting experiments, both with embodiment. So he said that he wanted to have this phone in your hand, and so as you're going through this experience, you have these different moments where he's pinging you to pay attention that you still have a body. So it gets you more connected to this virtual representation as you're in there. You have kind of like this melty hand. Well, you already, there's lots of going on. There's lots of weird art and installations. And you see all these videos of these different scenes of artists from around the world who are doing weird and interesting stuff, exploring different levels of embodiment. So you're already going through like this time capsule of the digital culture of the moment, which I think, and in some ways, looking at this piece in 20, 30 years from now, it's going to be even more interesting because it's really capturing this moment in time. this ephemeral culture of people posting these Instagram stories and they post them and they go away. But, you know, he's got the consent of these 600 people to be able to capture these different stories and to be able to put them into these installations. And so it's a way of archiving different aspects of the digital culture. And so that aspect I think is interesting to think about other ways of blending in media. There's a number of different pieces that were there that I mentioned, inhabited house, which is kind of looking at these home videos, but they're able to take this 360 photo of the entire location and then match it. So there you kind of see the seamless like portal window, almost like if you were there and seeing like a little augmented reality window, but you see in that something that happened in the past from these home videos, a really interesting mashup of, start using immersive technologies and taking these existing 2D media and start to integrate it with it. Same thing with Common Ground where they find different ways of being able to take these other types of media by either putting it on TV screens or doing projection mapping of videos and then capturing that within 360 videos and being able to blend together the existing content. So VR is really able to kind of set a larger context there to see how you could take existing media and be able to remix it in a way within a virtual environment. just to give it a little bit more context. So Ali is really into this whole world building process. And so his thesis is that sci-fi is no longer relevant because we have VR. I don't necessarily think that's true just yet, because I still think there's things that we haven't built technology for, whether it's like nanotechnology or haptics or smell, or we still have a role to be able to tell the stories about the future about technology doesn't quite exist yet. So I don't think we're quite at the point of being able to just completely write off sci-fi, but his larger point is that the barrier between being able to imagine something and then actually build it and experience it, that barrier is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, especially as more and more people get the tools to be able to actually build stuff and figure out how to construct these worlds. And that a lot of times the process of sci-fi storytelling is to construct the world and then from there to then talk about different journeys. And so that's a little bit what he's doing here is to construct these really surrealistic worlds with lots of kind of weird avant-garde art and then as you're going through it he's exploring different aspects of embodiment and then overlaying all these other artifacts that are this preservation of the digital culture. So like I said in the second part you have this embodiment and so he starts to play with embodiment but in here he starts to break the embodiment and I said you know I really felt like I was embodied within this representation of this larger dissociated body that's offset from your body and it's very large But then the tracking breaks and then when the tracking doesn't work, then it flips me out of feeling like I have like a plausible embodiment or the virtual body ownership illusion is there's a break in that. But at the same time, he said, well, maybe that's a little bit deliberate that they want to be able to do that because you're going into this dance club and they want to give you this sense of dissociation. And so thinking about the breaks in embodiment, can that be used for different narrative effects to be able to explore different things? And so I think that's a question as to whether or not you want to start to do that for this larger purpose of trying to give you this sense of completely be dissociated and high at a techno dance club. And in that techno dance club, he's trying to create this virtual architecture where you do feel like you're in this big tube and there's things that are floating around. And it's certainly a type of dance club that you could only be in in VR because there's no gravity and they have this sort of vast architecture. But the other interesting aspect of that was just the architectural consideration to be able to do all these video arts and installations and be able to take this art from many different artists. And going back to the first chapter, at the end it was this really weird surrealistic moment when you go into the space and you start to see this performance art with people putting lasers coming out of their asses it's really weird a type of just performance art things but it's filmed from multiple perspectives and kind of like watching this and then you're like i was thinking okay this seems like this actually happened and this is just kind of like a weird scene that I'm not a part of and now I'm just in this VR experience and all of a sudden I get thrown into this weird art scene where you know if I would have gone to that performance art performance I would have maybe been a little bit more primed to say okay I'm gonna go experience something that's a little bit weird but I think that's a little bit of the commentary of what Ali is saying with the Instagram stories is that you can be in any sort of context that you are and then start to see different stories come in. And so they must have seen like six different perspectives of this performance art piece. And so it was pretty well documented from a variety of different perspectives. And so they got the permission to kind of recreate it. And then you have this moment in that where at some point you're given that green laser and there's all these green lasers moving around. And there was this sense that I was like more connected to the story that was unfolding because there is this kind of weird laser thing happening and then all of a sudden you get handed a laser and it allows me to play around and feel like I'm a part of this larger performance that's happening. So that was actually pretty interesting because they said that he was trying to feel like he was more connected to these different types of performance artists scenes where you go in and you do feel disconnected and How can you start to find ways to feel more connected to these experiences? So Ali talks about the process is that you're trying to create these different worlds and then you have to figure out what the interactivity is. And so I felt like there were certain aspects of the interactivity that really worked in this experience because you're already just kind of passively moving through the scene and looking around at all these different art objects. And so. you're getting these push notifications which are you know somewhat annoying if you are someone who likes to just kind of turn off your phone or not have a bunch of unknown interruptions but it was also at the same time connecting me back to this deeper experience and he said that he's really trying to you know focus on like three different things just like the stimulations are trying to get me more connected to my body and to you know trigger this sense of embodiment to allow me to reflect upon this world in different ways and so He's moving slowly enough that he's trying to spark your imagination to be able to participate in reflecting upon this world. And then the third thing is just to be confronted by these different elements and to reveal more context about other avant-garde artists and to just give more context to the worlds around you. And I do think that it's a powerful concept to be able to start to think about going into these virtual worlds, having things like this tablet. I know that High Fidelity has had a tablet to do different navigation and I just thought that in this case, to give you this sense of holding a virtual phone while you're in this virtual world, it just gives you that sense of connected to all of your experiences with your phones and what it means when you get these push notifications. But there's a lot of potential to be able to start to prototype different aspects of setting up this whole scene in a virtual world and thinking about how you can do different layers of augmentation on top of that. even though you're already in a VR world, you can start to flip off and on different layers of augmentation while you're embodied into these virtual worlds. And starting to think about, we're eventually going to have these augmented reality glasses and start to prototype some of these different interactions within these virtual spaces. So that's just something that I'd like to see a little bit more of, to prototype some of these different use cases. And thinking about these different layers of story or these different layers of context. So as you're going through these virtual spaces, what kind of other additional stories or context can you start to overlay? And I thought that in this piece, NerdFunk, they're starting to do that in very interesting ways. So like I said, I'm really excited to see where Ali continues to move this lifelong project, starting with The False Mirror and continuing to build out different aspects of his life as he's moving forward and trying to live into the potential of his imagination and archive these slices of his life. And after going through this experience, I was able to feel a little bit more connected to the art communities that he's tracking and following. As we look into our phones each and every day, we have these different worlds that we've created through social media. We're taking in an enormous amount of these little nuggets of information and these Twitter streams. I follow a number of different people on Twitter and dip into this firehose to be able to get connected to what's happening in the larger realm of mixed reality and virtual reality. augmented reality, different artists are doing stuff and start to broadcast that out. And, you know, for Ali, he's very connected to these different social media worlds and has this experience of like being into these distinct worlds that are so ephemeral and so personalized, and then try to capture the essence of that and put it into a virtual world for the people to come back and to be able to experience it here in the future. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for joining me here on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. Like Ali said, this is a podcast that is going around the world. We didn't talk about this in this interview, but in a previous interview that I did with him in episode 724, he talks about being in Iran and how the Voices of VR podcast was able to be these transmissions from around the world that allowed him to learn about what was happening in this whole movement of virtual reality and he actually tells the story of how he was able to create his very first virtual reality experience with Unreal Engine without even having a VR headset. His very first VR experience was him experiencing his own poorly optimized virtual reality experience that he had created but couldn't actually be immersed within it. And so like you said, this is a podcast that is literally going around the world and helping inform people to continue to do the different types of experimentations and the work. And so I just encourage you to support the project that I'm doing here, trying to capture this real-time oral history and spread these different learnings about what's happening in this space to you and to people around the world. And so if you want to have this continue, then please do become a member of this Patreon. Just $5 to $10 a month is a great amount to give and just allows me to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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