#1328: Kickoff of IDFA DocLab 2023 Coverage: “Natalie’s Trifecta” is a Virtual Tour of Natalie Paneng’s Digital Art, Identity, & Imagination

I interviewed Natalie’s Trifecta creator Natalie Paneng at IDFA DocLab 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.

Here are my 19 interviews that I conducted at IDFA DocLab 2023:

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

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. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So I'm going to be diving into my coverage from IFADocLab, which is the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam and they have a doc lab section that was started 17 years ago by Casper Sonnen that features a lot of new and emerging technologies. So William Uricchio is a historian of documentary and he has said that documentary is often at the forefront to explore the potentials of new media technologies. 90% of all the films that were released in the first decade of film were documentaries. And so if you want to explore the potentials of immersive storytelling, it makes sense that using documentary to capture and reflect different dimensions of the physical reality we live in, as well as the human experience, then it makes sense that the form of documentary is often the frontier of innovations. So in that spirit, IfADocLab ends up being one of the most experimental film festivals that are out there when it comes to the immersive selection of what people are doing with immersive technologies. And there's two sections. There's the digital storytelling, which is looking at all of the different range of technologies and how they're uniquely being blended together. But there's also the immersive nonfiction, which ends up having a lot of virtual and augmented reality and some experimentations with artificial intelligence as well. I had already covered a couple of different pieces from If and Doc Lab this year, Traversing the Mist, as well as Voice in My Head, which you can actually go back and see those in previous episodes. So I'm going to be starting with the third of 19 today with Natalie's Trifecta, which actually won the If and Doc Lab Special Jury Award for Creative Technology for Immersive Nonfiction. So Natalie is a digital artist based out of Johannesburg, South Africa, and she's a theater maker and costume designer. And so she uses the virtual reality to blend both the physical art that she does as well as the digital art and creating into one space that you can experience it. But also because she has this background in set design, she's creating these different worlds as well as these variety of different personas that are reflecting different dimensions of her identity and her personality. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wizards of VR podcast. So, this interview with Natalie happened on Monday, November 13th at IFA.Lab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:33.725] Natalie Paneng: Hi, my name is Natalie Paneng and I am a Johannesburg-based multidisciplinary artist and what I do in VR is an interesting question because Natalie's Trifecta, the project I'm at IDFA for, is my first VR project but more like a way to diversify like I spoke about being a multidisciplinary artist I felt that because my practice is so digital VR was something I definitely needed to jump into so it's a growing relationship and a learning relationship and because it's so free like I guess just very like amateur and like not amateur but linked in like purity versus extreme technicality yeah

[00:03:24.482] Kent Bye: Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and all the different influences that you're pulling into your work, but also your journey into making immersive work.

[00:03:33.725] Natalie Paneng: So I come from a, well I studied theater. I think my background is like mixed and slashy but I studied theater and during my time studying theater I realized that I was very interested in performance and storytelling but not necessarily being on stage and I immediately wanted to find what formats would work to share what I felt like I could share. And so I started playing with the camera and just like teaching myself digital skills, editing, shooting, editing video, editing image, playing with sound. And slowly I like wanted to create worlds around the pieces I was making. And so this idea of being an IRL, in real life, world builder came about. where I was really interested into world building and I guess there's a link between that interest in physical world building because my major was set design and costume. So that principle really expanded and became many things in many mediums but constantly world building. And I recently realized, as VR was rising, that I wanted to kind of move in that direction because it felt like translating what I was doing in the real world into a digital world, which is also a big part of what I do and what interests me. So yeah, I hope I answered that question, but it's a whole thing, a whole journey that has gotten me to a practice and an execution tool, which is VR, that allows me to transfer a lot of my ideas and make them a different level and a different experience for people.

[00:05:16.582] Kent Bye: Yeah, that definitely helps set a lot of broader context for your training in set design and theater, because there are a lot of sets that you're creating in this piece. But before we start to dive more into Natalie's trifecta, I'm wondering if you could give a bit more context for how you came across virtual reality as a medium, and what was the catalyst for you to decide that you wanted to start to experiment with the medium?

[00:05:38.354] Natalie Paneng: So, my beginnings I guess with virtual reality, I always knew that. I worked for a digital festival in South Africa called Fabugezi. They explored all types of digital fabrication, mediums, experimentation, biohacking. they had like makers labs and all these things and I worked there for a while and got exposed to different types of technology and making and that was the first time I watched like VR projects and I was so blown away because I felt I was there or I felt deeply connected or teleported almost to the next level and so I knew that at one point when I'm ready, when my skills are kind of more up, I would touch that surface. And then I did a lab last year, a VR lab. We got gifted quests and I made a pitch that I wanted to make a project. and so yeah it started literally through like that and it's literally just been like a journey of learning and doing learning and doing it feels very new but now through this project it feels like it's something like i was not made to do, but it puts everything into perspective in the right place. And I worked with an amazing developer, Kyle Marais, and he is just insane. And so working with somebody who knows how to create things in the way that you see them in your mind also gave me a lot of freedom to think within the medium. and just feel supported in jumping into what can seem like a really scary or intense industry or space just because it's kind of hard to understand and sometimes a bit inaccessible. So yeah, like the combination of working with someone with just having this energy behind wanting to do it and not caring how it will happen and then having the support and the history in your own practice to create something is kind of how I just landed, you know, in the right space with this.

[00:07:48.256] Kent Bye: Yeah, I noticed that Ingrid Kopp and Electric South was associated with helping to produce this piece. So how did you come across Electric South then?

[00:07:56.662] Natalie Paneng: So I came across Electric South through initially I did a project called the Subterranean Imprint Archive but I didn't do the project I contributed video work to this project and this project was produced by Electric South and so then I started kind of going down a rabbit hole of who they are what they do and I realized they're like one of the main immersive media companies, agencies in South Africa and I realized they had like labs and you could apply for these labs. So I applied for two labs. My first was this one and it was my first time. I met a bunch of other artists and they have a beautiful way of bringing what medium you do and teaching you about VR so you can kind of cross over mediums. So this made it a lot easier for me. So after this lab I pitched And basically, I got it. My pitch was successful because I'm here now, like doing the same project that I was thinking through. And I also did another lab with them called the Design Futures Lab, which was working with a designer or somebody linked in fashion and creating a type of XR prototype. So these two labs really gave me a crash course and Electric South gave me this push, you know, towards all this understanding all of these mentors and labs are just really good in like a short amount of time a lot of motivation a lot of clear like ideas and a lot of people supporting you with the tools and understanding on how to do those weird things in your head and then you kind of have to just go home and like research more and like connect with people who do this and ask them questions like I was just asking so many questions and Yeah, it helped me a lot

[00:09:47.878] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, in my experience of your piece, I felt like it was a lot about the themes of identity and your own identity, but also the multi-dimensional nature of identity. And so I'd love if you could provide a little bit of the pitch that you were providing as to what you envision this project would be of Natalie's trifecta.

[00:10:05.958] Natalie Paneng: So yes, I think in many ways it's about identity and inserting yourself so deeply in a way that makes people comfortable to see themselves in your work and the things you do. I think that The identity I'm exploring is of being multi-dimensional as a person or breaking up what a person is into their everyday and how that everyday contributes to their outputs. So by showing myself so deeply, so vulnerably, my practice, my dream space, and just my imagination in the best way possible through a digital medium, was like a mirror to myself, but also an invitation for others to join that self-introspection and hopefully inspire or push or provide little peoples for them to see themselves in the same way and for it to actually be an identity formula where like either new media artists or artists in general can break themselves down into their process into how their final outputs come out in the world and their dream spaces and how that makes a totality of like a person but also sends out a certain message in the world and the message can come in any form, in any format and can be layered and playful and just have different elements that make it one thing.

[00:11:40.182] Kent Bye: Yeah. And so in Natalie's trifecta, there's like four different worlds. There's like the hub world. And then you can go in between a liminal space going into these other immersive worlds. And so maybe you could talk about the structure of the different worlds that you wanted to explore in this piece.

[00:11:57.580] Natalie Paneng: Yes, so I'll explain. It's a project that is like kind of like a little multiversal universe where you enter one world and in that world there's a portal to another. In that world there's a portal to two others or three others and so there's a home world and the home world is an image basically it's inspired by an image I made a few years ago and so it's like a three-dimensional image with three portals and it's basically a garden so There's like nature and pools and characters and floating objects and bubbles to pop and these three doorways that lead to the IRL world which is the in real life world. This is basically my studio space and my process, brain, explosion, mind map. It shares a lot about the interpersonal, why I do this, who I am, what this is, what the experience is. It shows objects in the studio floating around. It's just a process and a jump into the in-between. The second portal is the gallery space, which, because I'm a digital artist and a multidisciplinary artist, A lot of the time I'm building installations. My real world building life basically is a big part of my practice. And so this world, the gallery, is a representation of my world building life in real life, but in a digital world. So it is set up like a gallery with installations and it's called the gallery of many selves. And in this there's like video works and installation and just magical objects in a way. And the third portal is an isotopia, which is kind of like my dream space, this utopian space where I can play, rest, think, be, create, jump, fly, climb. And it's all these little heart antidotes and imaginative prayers in one space where it's a wonderland. my wonderland and I hope that this wonderland specifically is the last portal and it's because it's meant to kind of push people to move in the direction of like their own individual wonder with this thread of the process, the execution and then the wonder and so I keep going back to seeing the project itself as a formula because it's how I think My practice functions and why it works for me and it's also a really freeing practice that I would like to share with others through an experience, through art, through moments of truth, through story and through play.

[00:14:42.668] Kent Bye: Yeah, a common theme that came up again and again as you were saying that is process, where you're explaining your process and taking people through your creative process as you're going into what would kind of be like a studio tour, you know, if you were actually visiting your studio. You do a virtual studio tour where you're able to Through the medium of 360 video, you're giving us actual shots of the different locations where you create these different art pieces. There's a number of different scenes that you're going through, but also you have these 2D videos where you click on and you give a little bit of explanation about things and just give a little bit more. context and then have these different objects that are around that are either volumetric spatial captures of like photogrammetry of some of the art that you've created, but you get this sense of what feels like this 21st century virtual artist studio tour where you're able to show people your work, but also your process. But yeah, I'd love to hear any additional elaboration for why sharing your own creative process is such a important part of your own creative practice.

[00:15:45.510] Natalie Paneng: I think it's, I've realized that, I've heard this question, people have been asking me when I tell them this, and they've been asking me the same question. And I really like the question because this is a question that really actually has made me think. And I realized that because I'm from South Africa, which I didn't want to ever link it to like, you know, specifically being from somewhere, but new mediums and really alternative disciplines and executions, kind of push me to have to explain to my granny or my mom or an older lady who sees the work and thinks it's enticing but doesn't understand why it exists. Just trying to share your practice with the people who are not from the same generation or don't have the exposure to these spaces where this is normalized has kind of pushed me in a way to try and visualize that for others. and to show an alternative because I feel like my practice is so multidisciplinary that it puts so many things together and when I was studying I knew that I could study like this or that and through the journey I've realized that I can do a lot of things in one actually and so it's really helped me to visualize it for people who wouldn't clearly understand number one what I do and what it is and that this is a possibility in the world that we live in in the country that we live in with the access that we have they can do the exact same thing and Also just to visualize it for myself like back to the representation and the mirror kind of like the searching for yourself through medium and to visualize it for yeah, like the world who just put things in different places and show that this is how my brain would put things in places and how I would explain who I am in this world and it's a weird thing to wonder why you have to explain who you are in this world but I think that the world that we live in is so focused on identity and my practice has been so focused on finding myself through the practice and sharing myself for whatever reason it feels necessary with the world and just try with every way of sharing like find true ways to be authentic and to try teach through living, try be through example. I don't know it's something very centered in maybe where I'm from or what I want to do in this world and basically using the digital to push that because that's what number one my generation is doing but also what I am extremely connected to.

[00:18:34.052] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'd be really curious to hear how you think of describing the visual aesthetic of your piece, because it's very distinct. It's got your digital art, but it's also got like this lo-fi vaporwave, but also other almost like an immersive Geocities-esque, or at least it's got like this tone that's very lighthearted and encouraging of people to get excited about your creative process but also the works and there's the spatial dimensions of your art which is like a whole other dimension but even just like the interface of like the fonts and everything so I'm curious like if you were drawing upon any specific inspiration or if you have a way that you describe the visual aesthetic that you're going for.

[00:19:17.555] Natalie Paneng: Ah so cool to like hear somebody see it and get it and pick up on it because that picking up is the same picking up that I've done in like my art practice. I was initially very inspired by like early video artists and Vaporwave actually. A lot of my practice started with like a deep obsession of Vaporwave and just how Vaporwave itself was very nostalgic and light-hearted but also extremely digital and like flashy and present. It wanted to be seen and it placed objects in the forefront. it made objects float and it just felt like that's what my memory and my brain was always functioning in that way and it visualized that for me as a medium and a micro-genre and it was an intense other side of this rabbit hole but I used to be so deeply inside you know this rabbit hole of vaporwave and it stayed with me in my practice because it was a great springboard to be obsessed in and then my practice just like also springboarded in its own way in these like very tiny world backroom like aesthetics but always inserting myself into them to take over space, to reimagine, to rethink, to offer new So, the aesthetic, it's mixed. It's mixed with like, watching hours and hours of Teletubbies as a kid. That's so present there, and the greenness of like, Nicetopia, and the hills, and the like, playgrounds, and the towers, and all the fairy tales and cartoons that I watched. And that's just like, a huge like, you know, it's a mix of the mediums. and the mix of the media that I watched as a kid and with the gallery it's like my best way to be serious but to teleport people out of space in a way but grounded and I wanted it to feel accessible like a gallery that would be crazy to walk into but also feel kind of out of space and that in that way and the studio was just to try explode what a mind map would look like digitally and the 360 video that basically is like a shout to the IRL world forces you in the mind of like the artist kind of feels like you're actually in the brain and like these memories are looping while the elements are floating in space and are interactable And I think the interaction of the whole piece really allows people to explore more, to learn more, to choose what they're inquisitive about, to come, to go, to leave, to find a moment to be still in. There's like a meditation pond which is filled with these beautiful moments and it also calls you to stillness almost, like a zen garden within VR. And so it's like trying to give people as many moments that installations themselves do, that video work does itself, that VR experiences and immersive experience give us a chance to be in somewhere new and to also somehow let all these experiences, all these travels, kind of like a trip somewhere, have this end moment where you learn something either about yourself or about that place. So yeah, there's so many inspirations and it was just about like pulling them from the purest, most playful, most nostalgic parts of myself, bringing them into place and just having an amazing developer who could make things move and could hear what you're saying that sounds really weird and childish and take it seriously and execute and help you Bring that into space and just like spent hours like negotiating building in ways that really sometimes felt like true world building and it is but like felt like building a city, you know and the little corners and things to be aware of and safe spots and explosive spots and places where things are hidden and clear exits and clear entrances and so it was just this process you know of building a world really and this is the start of the world it's kind of at least there's four spaces within this multiverse that can be visited and in there there's like clear reasons why they need to happen yeah

[00:23:55.692] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's also a lot of fun, light-hearted interactions where you push a bubble and then it may, like, reveal a sphere that gives you a little bit of a sneak peek of some of these other worlds, or I think there was one where you clicked it and there might have been some sound effects and ones that you clicked and you changed the whole color saturation where it goes from black and white into, like, a Wizard of Oz. Now you're in a full color version. So, yeah, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your process of developing the different types of interactive components because, You have the capability to locomote around and look at things, but also you have moments where you're interacting and popping bubbles, but also climbing and also engaging with the world that you've created.

[00:24:37.130] Natalie Paneng: Yes, so this is really for me like the best part of the experience and working with someone like Kyle because we thought a lot about having people experience something, learn something but also be within it because so much of the work is like centered around the character and you see this character everywhere. We really wanted like the user to have moments of influence on the world and to feel their presence and to search and play and we wanted everything to feel like a game but also a learning experience at the same time and so I think that a lot of those interactions aim to extend the wonder and continue the game in a way so the game doesn't end halfway there's always something to look for and to push people to always be looking in the project because anything they look anything they might touch might have a magical secret hidden explosive outcome and that essentially is I want that to be translated into the real world where that exploration in life can lead to moments of wonder and so just that thinking and was a big part of thinking through interaction and these are like things I would say to my developer and he was so good at understanding that and we would find practical examples of what that would be like I'm obsessed with bubbles and we thought about okay your obsession with bubbles can be turned into something and it can lead to something. I'm obsessed with portals and I wanted people to reach in and be taken not just to move like into a space by walking through it. These moments of magic and teleportation and there's a beautiful moment where there's these stars if you get to the top of the tower and you can touch the stars and they multiply you can throw them into the sky and so like the interactions themselves are like metaphors because they force people to do the thing but they also say to someone hey populate your skies with stars and that as an interaction is a message. So like kind of trying to link the interactions to the message constantly and have the interactions and the heart of the message be the prompt and then the interaction find itself in meeting and serving that prompt. So yeah, there was a lot of like, everything was based in Wanda and from the Wanda we found the technicality and the ability and the ways to execute the initial feeling of Wanda and beautiful delusion and like finding that as a really serious thing and taking that really seriously and then creating interactions that lead to pushing the story further and everything just feeling like really like connected. Yeah.

[00:27:43.727] Kent Bye: Yeah, you had mentioned that there's lots of images of the character that ends up being different archetypal representations of yourself. I don't know if you have different personas that you're explicitly diving into, if you have different names of those personas, but there was different fashion decisions and outfits that you had, but just curious to hear a little bit about the reflection of creating that pantheon of different archetypal representations of yourself, but also what it's like for you to be in this experience and to see yourself represented in all these different variety of representations.

[00:28:17.191] Natalie Paneng: So nice, such a great question. So yeah, back to the degree thing was that I studied theater and I majored in set design and costume design. And through doing this, I learned that a world, a story has the place and the people and the story inside it. And so now I use that formula to extend into my practice. In anything there is, I always have a place where the thing happens. and a character in that space and a story. And through my practice I constantly kept on developing new spaces which meant I needed to create a character or an avatar or a deity that embodies that space and then a story for that space. And slowly I've developed these characters and found ways to archive them. and pull them out of myself in each artwork that I do and so in this project I was able to carry over characters from other stories and give them a place to stay kind of forever. I was able to extend their stories where in a video work in a gallery for many years they did one thing but in this piece they did another thing or they had a simple role of pointing two things or just being present being less mobile but archived within the space and I was really obsessed with creating my own assets at some point in these characters and these worlds and the tree is an asset and there's certain assets that are part of my practice if there's ever a body of water it will be Ophelia's poo and Ophelia within it or not in it or not always but she will be present where there's a body of water or the goddess of the unknown. She wears this beautiful white dress and she points and she's always in these questioning poses and she's just around looking for answers and her presence is very quiet and calm but there And so, it's also like a multiverse for these characters to now finally exist, for their stories to be elaborated, if not elaborated, archived. If not archived, they serve as a contribution to building the world. That has been a long practice outside of VR, and now VR gives them a different way to just exist and play. Mainly I'm making these characters because there are so many stories in the world and I just am really obsessed with creating and bringing the alternative stories where the character also within that alternative, cute, weird, whimsical story is a black woman. And that is me for now and in the future I hope that there will be many other characters not only embodied by me that I can bring into the space. But like I said, we're creating a formula and so in order to show this formula exists I have to be hard at work. showing it, being an example of it, embodying it and that's also another thing is like each character is my love letter to the universe and the embodiment of what I want to see in the world and that's why the project in itself ends with Nicetopia where all the characters play and come to this point of rest and that's kind of showing like elements of end goal but in other places elements of hard work, elements of stillness and execution And these characters, they embody actions that are part of the story. So yeah.

[00:31:50.055] Kent Bye: Yeah, what I'm getting from this conversation is that there's a whole other layer of the lore and the stories that you're just able to give a little bit of a glimmer of some of these involved character names and their backstory and their story. There might be represented in a pose or there might be other things that they say that's representing that story, but there seems to be a lot deeper world building that you've done that you can continue to expand on and continue to tell different stories in these same spaces and these same characters.

[00:32:17.740] Natalie Paneng: Yeah, definitely. Some of them definitely do have names because I realised that before I used to embody a character like once or twice and then when I really started realising, oh she needs to stay and she needs to be given her thing and I often create costumes for the characters which helps me always physically embody them and kind of revisit in many ways. and they all have a role linked to the story. So I wanna, can I go back to your question? Sure, sure, sure. The last point, could you repeat it?

[00:32:51.768] Kent Bye: Oh, yeah, just that, because there's a lot of characters that are on the side and they're not saying anything, they're just in their pose, but it sounds like they may have a name, they may have a backstory, but they're not playing directly into the, the world so but it just felt like as I hear you speaking of creating these different characters that if there's a lot of like lore that has been created that's in your mind but there's a lot of opportunities to continue to expand ways to take those potentials of that lore and collapse it into a specific story.

[00:33:22.685] Natalie Paneng: Yes, definitely. So, like I said, it feels like an asset library or a library of stories and some of the things are, like you said, like the sun and the moon. They are just the sun and the moon. Every world has a sun, every world has a moon and somehow I wanted to give the sun and the moon a presence and then presence translates into character. And some, like Nisotope, I mean, the home world, that initial space just holds these PNG characters, this tree which has eyes, these stars which are floating heads, the moon, the sun, which pulse in and out, this guide who just follows you, and this kind of like a round blimp, if you ever feel lost, and just like slowly moves in. and they all kind of feel like one thing just like a presence of like a moving alive type of nature in a airy place and then other characters you can see are like literally me out of character in the IRL like I'm speaking as Natalie also like very clearly breaking that whole character versus the real person telling the story but around that, the functionings of what that means. And then in Isotopia, it's this in-between of characters who are functionally doing something, saying something, and they're also, again, more active than in the home world, where they're less active. but very present and assets that create the world. But slowly it starts to move into assets that come alive from assets to person, to story, to character who aims to teach something specific. So yeah it's like in a way like creating avatars in a way creating again like I said a library of these avatars and once they're in the frame they always have their own little agenda. If it's not an avatar it's an asset that we'll always have an idea of. If a tree looks like this in this world the trees have eyes and they have this specific look Yeah, so it's the bouncing between the types of assets, the type of characters, the types of functionalities, the distinguished like long story that some characters have and the single function that some characters have back into being the contributors of the world, the inhabitants also of worlds. Because every world needs to have people that inhabit it. And I want the person playing to feel like they're in a way meeting, experiencing, are never alone in this world, because also it's so populated. So it's another element of creating a type of safety and occupation within a space. It's occupied, it's not empty. it's not a back room where it just feels airy but within it it's got stories, it's got layers, dynamics, characters, pathways, suns that have smiles. Back to Teletubbies also, so these like referential elements, these objects that reference but create and serve a new function and again rides a black woman into the stories that I always saw but never saw maybe the sun represented as a black woman. she doesn't have to be but it would be cool if she was and I've seen many representations of sons that are personified but I wanted to see it myself in it one and then see a black woman in it too but not only for myself and a black woman to see themselves in it but for people who play in the world to see themselves as the objects as the things they could easily, if they have the strong mental ability to block me out, kind of superimpose themselves into the characters.

[00:37:28.807] Kent Bye: So it's clear from watching Natalie's trifecta, your piece here at the DocLab 2023, that you're working across many different mediums and modalities. But there is digital art that's a part of that. And so I'm really curious to hear your reflections of not only getting a chance to experience your own digital art in a spatial context in an embodied way, but also to be able to share it with other people in that spatial context that you're creating these worlds around. Yeah, kind of the digital nature of art can be difficult to exhibit. And so what's it been like for you to find VR as a way to find new ways of presenting your digital art to an audience and to yourself?

[00:38:04.828] Natalie Paneng: Yeah, this is a big part of why I initially thought it was so amazing. Like the idea of some spaces being big enough to really elaborate and build something and show someone or some spaces being tiny and actually just being 10 minutes that you have with someone and being able to show them the whole experience in a headset basically. To show them the way you think through your practice, to show them what you do, a mock-up but a playful mock-up in a way VR felt like but it also felt like like I said an extension of what I'm doing already so it's like jumping in between worlds of what I do physically I want to do digitally and want people to experience like I feel like a big thing is also like creating experiences so having multi-layered experiences and multi-discipline and multi-medium ways of experiencing one form of art from an artist I think can be really cool just to kind of say many things in the same language basically VR for me has felt like that like another way to communicate through a different medium but that allows me a lot of space and clarity and ability to do something. So yeah I think that it allows me to share a lot in one object and to allow a big big type of travel in one object and I try to do that in space, but even space is limited and stuff with physical installations. So this felt like a very open prompt to create as wide and big and loud and playful as possible. Yeah, it felt like a type of freedom that I was offered through the medium.

[00:40:06.180] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'd love to hear you elaborate on some of the differences that you've experienced from doing like world building and set design in physical reality versus the type of world building and set creation that you're able to do in a virtual space.

[00:40:20.547] Natalie Paneng: so yeah like i started making videos and i began to create these worlds around my videos and create worlds because i was already aware that a screen felt two-dimensional even though i felt like the videos i was making were trying to push a three-dimensionality and so when i make videos i felt like i was putting so much work in the 3d onto a screen which was 2D and it felt like I had worked in 3D to flatten back to 2D and being a digital artist so much screen time so much screen engagement on a flat screen on my phone felt like I needed to move into making physical space so people We're always pulling in and jumping in between, seeing it digitally and physically in the same space, out of space, hearing sound, extending, creating immersive little installations which became bigger and bigger. And that skill and that time and that practice of doing that so much The ability to scale that down but explode it at the same time in VR is a very fun and weird thing but also calls for a different way of thinking completely but also calls for flexibility within me as an artist. So it also feels like a very necessary challenge to move between the tangible and the digital for me. My hands get very itchy so I need to make things but at the same time my brain is influenced by so much digital so I need to express digitally and so I'm like having to straddle between these two mediums very intensely and doing it physically gives my hands and my body and my brain that ability and that outlet and doing it digitally specifically in VR but in digital form in general also, you know, soothes the brain that needs to execute digital ideas and my digital programming and the years of digital media and reinterpretation of that in my own brain and extending. It's like this practice of extending and a few days ago I went to a talk here at IDFA and Eluta Ngo, she is a developer and amazing artist from South Africa, She spoke about being a serial experimenter and I think that is the heart of being a multidisciplinary artist, like this serial experimentation, wanting to do it this way but look at it in a different way and do this and this and go back. turn and churn and let these things bounce each other and influence and have my digital work inspire my physical work and my physical work inspire my digital and find the in-between. So it's this whole maze of how the project and the work dips into each other, how the photogrammetry scans of physical objects and process elements that were really in my studio and being able to take those physical objects into the project as scans, as things you can look at in detail that look very real but also janky and sometimes because they've processed but also polished off in the next world and mixing the worlds the same way you take a glass from one space and you move to the lounge and now the glass from the kitchen is in the lounge and now the worlds are bouncing together because they're mixing and elements from these worlds find each other in other worlds. And the same with the characters. They come from this video from a long time ago and now find themselves walking in Nice-otopia. So it's this existence that we are living now of being in the digital and being in the physical and it's extremely inspirational to me and it pushes my practice a lot because I straddle those two spaces in the real world and so my art practice has to do the same for me. And it's trying to merge that language for people who always ask me what it is and how it can work and what it can mean. It's attempting to answer the question of that to people who sometimes just say to me they cannot imagine it at all. They can't imagine it. I love old ladies. I love talking to old ladies. They're always excited and interested in what I have to say. I tell them about this and they just cannot imagine it. I bring it to life basically through my practice. I make it real so they don't have to work so hard at imagining it. but also children and adults and people who've forgotten to imagine. You know some people are not thinking about imagining on their every day but I am and I want to remind people to imagine number one but also to have the tools now to share how I imagine and so my practice and VR has helped me really like share like Imagination what's in my head and this project is a lot about like sharing those imaginations and the ability to have like Really like open myself up and being super nerdy to my developer and being like these are my imaginations I want them to be real. I have made these kinds of assets. I like these kinds of colors I want this kind of feeling I made this kind of thing in the real world and its value is this to me and its value comes from this from my granny and in fact it's a long big story and someone in the world might understand that so I want that in the project even though it's sitting with me in Johannesburg in my studio and that becomes the way that this formula works, you know. Also just to make people see the everyday object in their real life or the stress point in their real life as the magical place of the dream world that they're building through their new media or artistic practices.

[00:46:30.302] Kent Bye: Awesome. And so finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable?

[00:46:42.715] Natalie Paneng: I think I sound like a broken record with this imagination thing, but I guess it enables imagination and it unlocks possibilities because it is a medium or something that exists, something that has many possibilities, something that can be adaptable to whatever medium you come from. So I feel like it's an open space to imagine a different thing that is touching in some way, that because it has a quality of immersion, that is a great way to tell a story, is a great way to teach, is a great way to execute. So I think that the possibility is that it's equipment and like it's valuable equipment, really fun equipment. So yeah, I just feel like VR and immersive technology assist in opening that space for opportunity for many things to be translated into it. It's like another door, another portal. I feel like I don't even know how far the possibilities are for VR and immersive technology. Every time I learn, I see myself in it. And so when it comes in the world, I'm like, yeah, how did they know we needed that? Because somehow we do need it. We need a lot of things in this world, but It feels really cool to experience that in our normal working life, the same way we experience lots of things in our working life. It feels like an extension, an exploration and a tool. Like any cool tool that is made, like a million cool artists in the world, radio, TV, these things like shared knowledge, inspiration, taught people things, gave people access. I feel like VR should have the same ability to teach and do that for people, change generations just through being a medium that can share information, experience and teachings.

[00:48:53.261] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:48:59.046] Natalie Paneng: Not much left unsaid, but I just, yeah, like I look forward to experiencing more in this space, learning a lot more about the space and sharing what I do through it. And I guess to close off, I did not do this alone. So just like thankful for teamwork and collaboration and contributions and seeing how projects like this are built of humans who work and we all like these communities of people putting in a lot of hard work. And so for me, in the creation of this project, I really learned a lot about collaboration and working together to be able to make something like this real. And I think that people who are in this industry or interested in VR or animation or, I mean, whatever, you realize how much teamwork is what brings us together. And that means community and helping and sharing and working together. So, yeah, I think it's just that thing of trust and find your community so that you can create what's necessary in this world. And my community and my big collaborator in this project was my developer, Kyle Marais, and I'm really grateful to him for understanding. And I hope that the project itself creates a community, however possible, but it creates an understanding and so an understanding is kind of what brings communities together. So I hope that it either forms part of a community that already does this or creates types of communities. But I guess the thing I just want to put into the world is like ultimately like love imagination and finding your people and your community in this world and people using their practices to do that, to push kindness, to push play, to push imagination. So yeah, like using it as a tool to do those beautiful things and finding the people who are doing these things in the world and using each other to continue to push more of this in the world.

[00:51:24.895] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I had a chance to see your piece in the Nellies trifecta a couple of days ago and then now having a chance to meet you face-to-face IRL and have this conversation. I felt like I had an experience of your imagination or different aspects of your identity that you were showing through your art. And so yeah, it was a real pleasure to go through that and to see all this kind of vaporwave aesthetic and the sense of humor and lightheartedness and Yeah, just the ways that you're explaining yourself and also your artistic practice. And so very much enjoyed the experience and also just the opportunity to help break down your own process and your background and all the other insights that you have as you're creating this. And so, yeah, just really enjoyed the conversation and look forward to whatever you create next. So thanks again for joining me.

[00:52:07.492] Natalie Paneng: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. This was super cool. And I really, really loved how you connect deeply and truly and really like observe and hold those observations. It's like, it's really cool to hear how things can transfer and be understood and taken in. So this has been really lovely. Thank you.

[00:52:27.730] Kent Bye: Yeah, you're quite welcome. Thank you. So that was Natalie Penang. She's the creator of Natalie's Trifecta, which was showing at IFA.Lab in 2023. And it picked up the IFA.Lab Special Jury Award for Creative Technology for Immersive Nonfiction. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, just the idea that you could use immersive technologies to capture a variety of the different dimensions of your personality across different contexts and Also, the fact that we live in a world that has digital technologies that are permeating our lives so much. And so as an artist, Natalie is creating physical art, but she's also creating digital art. And so within the context of virtual reality, you're able to actually have an immersive and interactive experience with all the variety of different art that she's creating. And you get to see all these different personas and costumes that she's kind of sprinkled out through the entirety of this experience. It is a bit of exploration where she's creating this context and almost like kind of like a museum where you can go along and look at her art. But also it feels a little bit like a studio visit for an artist where you're going into their studio and really listening to their own creative process as they're talking about how they make the art that you're able to experience and observe within the context of this experience. So I expect to see a lot more of this as we move forward, people creating these different spaces to express their identity or to just create something that reflects the types of experiences that they want to have, whether it's this kind of playful, irreverent vaporwave retro aesthetic that you really get a sense of, and not at least trifecta, or if there's other dimensions and other contexts that you can create these different rooms to express yourself and to take people into and show them around to by the end of it you know a little bit more about them. It's something that's reflected in Ready Player One where people have these basement arcades where you invite people over and you know these home spaces are already something that exists within the context of VRChat. And so I expect to see that a lot more as we move forward and more and more tools for people to create a bit of like a digital photo book, but instead of just photos, you're looking at these immersive art objects and these spaces that are somehow using the space to reflect your identity. And that's a lot of what Nanolase Trifecta is doing within the context of this experience. So that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to 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. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order 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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