#1038: [DocLab] Iranian VR Artist Ali Eslami’s Experiments in Identity & Embodiment

Ali Eslami is an Iranian artist who has been working with VR since 2014 & living in Amsterdam since 2018, and we talked about these projects that have been featured at DocLab since 2016:

This was recorded on Friday, December 3, 2021 as a part of a collaboration with IDFA’s DocLab to celebrate their 15th year anniversary.

If you’d like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then consider becoming a member at Patron.com/voicesofvr.

Thanks for listening!


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:11.874] Kent Bye: Hello and welcome back to the latest edition of this series of podcasts celebrating the 15th anniversary of DocLab. My name is Kent Bye. I do the Voices of VR podcast and today we have Ali Alsami. Ali, maybe you could introduce yourself and tell me a bit about what you do in the realm of immersive storytelling.

[00:00:27.092] Ali Eslami: Hi Kent. Yeah, it's nice to be here. And yeah, it's always nice to talk to you as well. I think it's the fourth time almost we're having a discussion. My name is Ali Islami. I'm an artist working with VR since 2014, basically, actually, like really early times. Yeah, it's been the main medium that I've been exploring my work. But the results of my work was sort of like not just VR, but sometimes manifested itself in different forms. So I use VR as like a source for my practice-led research. Yeah, I'm from Iran, and now I'm living in Amsterdam. I moved to Netherlands in 2018. And since then, I've been living and working here.

[00:01:12.404] Kent Bye: Great, yeah. And maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into XR, because it is quite a unique journey relative to probably most folks in the XR industry. But yeah, maybe you could just give a bit more context as to your background and your training and your journey into even working within immersive technologies.

[00:01:29.402] Ali Eslami: Yeah, for sure. So yes, since childhood, basically, I've been always playing games. I kind of grew up as a gamer kid, thanks to my dad. I mean, he was not a gamer. He was just a geek, you know, he always loved to have the latest computer at home. So I kind of grew up with having a computer at home and growing up with that alongside the whole reality that I was growing up in Iran. And I also had a very conservative religious family. And these are kind of like early internet, then that sort of reality was kind of like two extremes on different ends. And I'm kind of like living in both realities at the same time. Yeah, I've been playing a lot of games, especially computer games. And over time, when I was like a teenager, I started to learn 3D in forums and text-based tutorials in order to mod the games that I've been playing. So modding in gaming means when you can modify a game and you can bring your own 3D assets or textures into the game. That kind of brings a little bit of agency to the player. So the first thing I created for the football game that I was playing was like a 3D stadium in Iran, in the city I was living in. So I sort of recreated that stadium based on Google Images and put it in the game. And then, yeah, that was like really early on. I was like 14, 15 years old. And then over time, I got more interested into this, and things became more and more serious. So I've been like, yeah, doing 3D and I was having a lot of interest in architecture. So I tried to go to architecture school, but I couldn't because it was very competitive and I was not a good student. So I thought an alternative would be civil engineering. So I have a bachelor in civil engineering, but I have no idea about it. Although the good takeaway from that was I learned coding through that and the engineering mindset, which now I would say half of my work as an artist is engineering, like artistic practices mixed with engineering, making realities basically is to a good extent in engineering. So, yeah, I mean, I've been always self-taught and the internet had a big impact. But, you know, also being in Iran has its own risk constraints. Of course, you have to deal with sanctions and everything, and it's always there and it keeps getting worse for the people who live there. And, yeah, when I was there as well, I've been struggling with these kind of issues. So, like, getting a basic VR headset sounds like an easy thing. You go to like an online web shop and you order it and it comes to your door. But in Iran, it was impossible because first of all, we couldn't have a bank account because of bank sanctions. Second of all, they wouldn't ship to Iran because of other types of sanctions. So yeah, I basically had to Yeah, the first VR project I made in 2015 was, so I started learning Unreal Engine by myself and like experimenting a lot. And I spent six months to create a project in Unreal, but I couldn't really test it because it didn't have a VR headset. So I've been waiting for my friend. who was in Amsterdam to bring the VR headset for me. And also I couldn't afford it, to be honest, I had no income. So I was lucky. It's a funny story. I sent a random email to Gabe Newell from Valve, the CEO of Valve, and just honestly told him that was 2014. Hey, dude, I... I am a developer and I want a VR headset, like a Vive, HTC Vive Pre, which wasn't even a production, it was like pre-production HTC Vive. And yeah, he forwarded my email actually to Cet Felicek and then Cet sent me a HTC Vive to my friend in Amsterdam and then he brought it to me. So yeah.

[00:05:31.645] Kent Bye: I didn't realize that you had reached out directly to Valve to get your first VR headset. That's amazing. Yeah, I was very naively just emailing Gabe. Wow, that's that's amazing. Well, yeah, just to be able to get access to that. And I remember the first time I talked to you, I think you said that your first VR experience that you had experienced was actually something that you had created, but you had never had a chance to actually see it. And it wasn't fully optimized for VR. But yeah, you started eventually the first piece that I saw was a false mirror at DocLab. You know, you've continued on that theme with this overarching project that's spanned over multiple years and different installations with NerdFunk and then kind of another revisiting of FalseMirror. So maybe you could give a bit more context as to this exploration of both embodiment and identity and what you were really, as this interest in architecture, really building these spaces and engineering realities. So yeah, maybe you could set the stage for this larger project of FalseMirror that you started a number of years ago in 2018 when I first saw it.

[00:06:30.289] Ali Eslami: Yes, I mean, I mainly I had like The main body of work that I've been exploring VR through was False Mirror, which started since 2017. And it's still sort of ongoing. It just reshapes and it continues in different forms and different angles. And along that, there was another project, collaborative project, with artist Mamaly Shafaei, which was called NerdFunk. That's kind of like a totally different project, but it was also a long-term project that's still ongoing. NerdFunk is a chapter-based project about social media. especially about Instagram. So we are creating five chapters in VR. It's kind of interactive. It's like, yeah, six stuff sort of interactive, but linear time. And in each chapter, we zoom in different sort of theme on Instagram. And all the words that we create in NerdFunk is sourced and inspired by Instagram contents that we've been archiving in the past few years together. So that's NerdFunk, which yeah, I'm currently working on chapter four of it and two other chapters are also in development. Hopefully we sort of like wrap it up by end of next year or mid next year. I mean, COVID compromised everything, so it's not an exception. And coming back to False Mirror, which is the main sort of research project that I have, it was really the reason I kind of started this project was the thing is I personally have a little bit of not choice. It's not an OCD, but it's more like I like to collect things and be methodical about my process. And my work with VR is not an exception. I like to be able to, even if I'm doing little experiments and just being playful and messing around with the medium, that's always a mystery, I like to always do them, even though if I have no idea what I'm doing, I wanted to wrap them in a project or a process that can accumulate and snowball over time. So the project was called False Mirror. And the aim was sort of just to basically explore virtual life through different angles, like three main different angles. And that's space, time, and body. And the main aspect which I had a lot of fun working with was space, which was the beginning aspect. in development is creating different virtual spaces and connecting them together in the world of Falzmir. Like I made six initial spaces and I was thinking how I can interconnect these spaces together. What's the navigation? Yeah, what is a virtual space? and just to really explore the dynamics, the fluidity of space, the things that you can only have in a virtual environment. Yeah, I did a lot of experiments in the beginning with space, still ongoing as well. And then over time, there was another aspect that became more prominent, and it was embodiment. I think in the second year, I really just realized that, hey, I'm making all these spaces, but my body is just like two bare hands that I can just grab stuff. What if I focus on the body itself and see where I go and then the relationship between the two body and space? So yeah, I started to create these different identities. One of them, which is the most prominent one, is the schizophrenic version of myself. It's called Alice. And it's a modular body that's a bit more human-like body, chrome hands. And in my rest, I can attach different modules. It's like a modular body. And this body expands over time. So for every different occasion, I created different sort of body kits For instance, a kit that would allow me to shrink myself, a kit that could be a spotlight, all these different tools. And then I could see how it interconnects with the space around me. So yeah, that was kind of the idea behind how it evolved over time. And then the latest chapter, the side of False Mirror that we developed, that we also showed last year at IDFA as a performance, was Eclipse. And it was a social VR element. like a layer, that we try to explore how these different identities, I just told you one of them, there are two other identities as well, and how these three can go into a shared experience and interact together through radically different bodies. Like one of them can fly, which is called Lena, it's like a half plant. And it's like, I don't know what to call it. And with Leno, you can fly around and you can leave traces of your thoughts as you fly in the space. And there's another entity called Bird, which is a non-VR entity. So you can actually play it as a game, like with Gamepad. It's a bird that can fly everywhere. And it's like the whole performance of it is how these three entities can encounter each other for the first time. And beginning of this year, I developed the installation, a hybrid exhibition of it, which is currently running at Tetum Gallery Space in Enschede, Netherlands. And it's running actually for seven months, which is great. Not many VR experiences can run for that long time. But yeah, it's like a multi-user experience that you can change roles. You can try the same experience with different roles and see how it really changes the perspective. Yeah, so I think in the past six or seven years that I've been working with VR, it's been mainly playing and just trying to understand different thresholds and aspects of it. I've done many experiments, many things turned out wrong, many things turned out not really that great. But there have been few things that I found really great potentials in it. Glitches, bugs, I really love bugs and glitches. And yeah, I think right now I'm kind of like in a transitional phase because I started a artist residency in Amsterdam called Rijksacademie. It's a two-year residency, and it's focused on fine arts and contemporary arts. So I'm kind of like now trying to just zoom into my studio work. And I still want to do VR, but I'm focusing into other angles of my practice that I haven't been having time to develop. like I'm writing a script for a short film that kind of relates to False Mirror. So it's kind of like storytelling aspect. And I'm also researching on materials for installations, you know, more physical manifestations of the work itself. But yeah, I think that's the whole summary of what I've been to and what I've been going through. And But yeah, overall, in terms of Dark Lab, I've been always having the pleasure to be part of Dark Lab in the past four or five years. I met a lot of amazing people, artists, thinkers, curators. I think it's a great community. And it keeps being surprising and unexpected. And that's what I really love about Dark Lab.

[00:13:57.371] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to see the False Mirror and then the NerdFunk in 2018 and 2019 and just some memories that I have of that, of the being able to be in a room where you're able to shift and change the environment based upon clicking buttons and exploring different aspects of identity and just the kind of like the consideration of the different spaces of going from one space to the next. And yeah, I really like that, as you can see, to kind of build out this world that you'll continue to add on different as you go up the elevator and go to different worlds. And with NerdFunk, I just remember being driven through this world that had all this recontextualization of social media in a way that allowed me to be fully immersed into this whole artistic genres and communities and movements that I hadn't been tracking, but you had been immersed in, but also these moments of blending the realities where you kind of have the controller buzz and you kind of look up at your controller and it's like your phone. And so it's like recreating the affordances of how you use your phone and really critiquing the different aspects of the social media as you're immersed in the social media world but also have yet another layer and so kind of nesting layers and meeting on top of each other. So yeah just some really provocative moments of experimentation that you've had and the thing that I've always been driven by you is that you very driven by these deeper questions and so you know just a few more questions as we start to wrap up but one of them is you know, what are the questions that are really driving your work now? Like, what are the things that you're really looking into and trying to investigate? You looked at identity and embodiment, but what are the things that are going to be moving you forward with the types of questions you're asking?

[00:15:29.327] Ali Eslami: Yeah, I think to me it's been always about technology has always been part of this. There's no escape from it. It is embedded and the virtuality and like this sort of like notions, but it's like a never ending question, you know, because VR is like very phenomenal subset of technology. like the concepts that you explore within a virtual world through a medium like VR can feed back to an extent of philosophical existential questions that we have in our own reality. So I don't think there's like, you know, it's always like this parallel sort of exploration. So as you explore, find something out in a virtual context, it doesn't necessarily stay there. And right now, the thing that's mostly in my head and trying to sort of like explore and like play with, and more true storytelling maybe, is the idea of how the many wars, or like, I don't want to mention metaverse because it's already been mentioned everywhere, but in a sense that how, what is communication across realities? So I'm now like trying to actually working on the draft for a short film that is half recorded in a video game, Assetto Corsa, which is a racing simulation game. And the other half I'm going to record in VR from my own work, False Mirror. And so the interrelations in between with the narrative. So I'm trying to see how I've been working a lot in terms of world building in the past few years. And I've been mainly focusing in one word. And over time, I realized that there's no word that remains sterile from other words. You cannot make an enclosed word. There's always different correlations with different words. And I'm trying to explore what are those correlations. What are these portals between these words? And also, I think it's also more fun, because if I stay too much within the context of one body of work, which is false mirror, I'm just becoming like a translator. You're always trying to filter things and bring them into this sterile world. And something doesn't always contextualize in those words. Sometimes you need to just show a real image of a bird. But the aesthetic choices, the world building sometimes doesn't let you do that. So I'm trying to find ways that are convincing enough for myself and my narrative and my philosophical questions I had in terms of words. What are these words? Are they sterile and or how are they connected to each other?

[00:18:16.170] Kent Bye: Yeah, that totally makes sense. And so that you're not trapping yourself into a specific aesthetic that you can't expand from. So I can definitely see that as being a trend. Yeah, and as we start to think about where things have been and where they're going, I'm curious what you think the ultimate potential of immersive storytelling and all these immersive technologies might be and what they might be able to enable.

[00:18:38.203] Ali Eslami: Yeah, I think it's always a hard question to answer, but I would like to respond it this way. And I think every artist, every maker is the one who is exposing that potential. And that potential can only be exposed by pulling and pushing towards different thresholds. Yeah, that's what I really like about the speculation and having a speculative aspect within a practice. That means it's always gambling. It's always risking. Does it really worth me digging this thing that I don't know what I'm doing? That's what brings those potential into the surface. So that's something that requires exploration of a community of artists. But there are things at the moment that are quite a bit becoming a little bit like culture making and like the idea of metaverse and NFT and all these like buzzwords that we are overhearing. I think it's even if it is a potential when it's overheard, it becomes like evangelical. And that's immediately creates a sort of like a filtering response in everyone's head that when you overhear something, it becomes like a radio signal that your brain doesn't really actually perceive it. It becomes like a bunch of words. And yeah, that's the only thing I'm kind of like a bit concerned with these investments and like all these commercializations. And like, I mean, we all see how like, Facebook is like becoming like investing all these billions to metaverse and virtual reality. I mean, we can be happy about it. because it brings money to the aspect of the works that we are doing or the community of VR. But at the same time, it also says a lot about what is the real agenda behind it, you know? Is it always about exploring these potentials as you, Kent, asking all these artists? Do they think the same as we do with all those resources? What do Facebook think about the real potential of immersive media? I think, for me, the real question, the answer of that question mostly matters from those big guys. For us, it's more like challenging it and providing, I don't know, antidotes, let's say. So I think that's what encouraged me, actually, to make this social VR experiment. with false mirror because when we say social VR, we really haven't really explored social VR enough. Like the avatars, like most of the social VR stuff you see that are more like working, like the avatars are basically a skin. It's not about your functionalities that much, you know. You cannot really define a unique identity or entity. to take over as an avatar. It's more like a mask you wear. And these platforms, they uphold the constraints of all these realities. They don't allow you to be wild, to explore all these different forms of bodies. That's why I really appreciate the games that allow you to mod them. In the gaming community, there are certain games that you can never mod them, but there are games that you can mod them. Those that are moddable, like everyone freely can modify them and share with each other, like they became timeless. Like Assetto Corsa that I'm playing now, it's like modding. It's released in 2014 by a small company, Italian company, and it's now still being made. Contents are like enormous content by communities, just like everyone just cherishing this whole game that is equal for everyone, you know. Everyone has agency, they can modify and share together, but there are other games like they don't allow you and it doesn't like live with the community. So yeah, I think these are the questions we are, we need to ask as we are hearing these metaverse wars more and more, like what is agency basically within the metaverse and Yeah, I think that's the main concern I had with the upcoming short feature and investments and over commercialization of everything. You know, I see NFTs, I see potentials. I also see, oh, but that also means this hyper capitalization of everything, like everything can be monetized, like grabbing a cup of tea in VR can be monetized. And I don't want that. So at the same time, it can enable all those things. But I think we need to talk about it.

[00:23:13.241] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's certainly a huge, huge issue and beyond the scope of what we have time to really dig into here, but I'm curious if you have any other final thoughts to share with either the broader immersive storytelling community or the broader DocLab community.

[00:23:27.973] Ali Eslami: Not really. I mean, it was, again, great pleasure to talk. I just think in general, one thing I would like to emphasize is the importance of to forget about the gears we're working with sometimes. Because we can have gear talks always, but the context and the core concepts within that we enable through those gears are more important. Yeah, for me, that is becoming more of a thing. And yeah, I mean, the more I grew up within working with VR, the more I realized why I'm doing this. And also becoming more and more conscious of my own sort of like health, you know, as in like, why am I doing this? And if we can forget working with virtual mediums like VR, that it is a material process. The material process is brain work, is our bodies, working with these virtual elements, but it's still time and your own energy and your own input into it. So I think that material process needs more thoughts and critical thinking. Yeah, be mindful about the process.

[00:24:42.898] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, Ali, I just wanted to thank you for joining us today. This is our fourth year in the row. I think we met in 2018 and we've been able to catch up each and every year at DocLab. Kind of a nice check-in and it's nice to hear what you're working on next and where you're going with the fusion of the modding and more narrative experiments. But yeah, just great to kind of recap your journey into the space and yeah, just to catch up and see what you're working on next. So yeah, thanks for joining us today.

[00:25:08.947] Ali Eslami: Thank you so much again. Love to see you. And yeah, take care. All good. Bye bye.

[00:25:14.852] Kent Bye: So that was Ali Aslami, an Iranian artist working in VR since 2014 and living in Amsterdam since 2018. This conversation was recorded on Friday, December 3, 2021, as a part of a collaboration with IFAS DocLab in order to celebrate their 15th year anniversary. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please do consider becoming a member at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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