#1329: Mixed Reality “PHANTOM” Installation Explores Dark Sides of Mental Illness with Gallows Humor

I interviewed PHANTOM creator Aluta Null at IDFA DocLab 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.

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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. 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 voicesofvr. So continuing on my series of IFA doc lab of 2023, this is the fourth of 19 interviews covering the frontiers of digital storytelling and immersive nonfiction. So today's episode is with Phantom by Aluta Nol which is a part of the digital storytelling selection at IFA doc lab and it's a physical installation of a living room but there's augmented reality art that's sprinkled throughout the piece and there's an audio narration that you get to hear some dark humor that is reflecting on the complexity of mental illness, mental health, and issues around drug addiction. And so I had a chance to sit down with Aluda to talk a little bit about her own creative process and some of her explorations within both augmented reality and virtual reality. This specific piece didn't have the VR portion of this exhibition, but there is another version of Phantom that does have a VR component. But in this case, there's different dimensions of augmented reality that you get to dig into a deeper layer of reflections around mental illness. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of The Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Aluta happened on Sunday, November 12th, 2023 at IFADOCLAB in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:35.644] Aluta Null: I am Aluta Nall. I'm a digital artist. I'm a game designer. I call myself a serial experimenter and I'm also an XR developer. Yeah.

[00:01:47.070] Kent Bye: Maybe give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into working with this type of immersive and interactive media.

[00:01:53.592] Aluta Null: Sure. So I've always been a very creative person, always loved art. And my way of interacting or my way of expressing my creativity has always been in digital ways, because that's just how I grew up. I then went and I studied digital arts at Wurz University. where I majored in game design. And I did my honors in volumetric filmmaking, and that was how I started getting more into creating VR works. Yeah, I'm always exploring things and keep exploring, yeah.

[00:02:32.604] Kent Bye: We have a piece here at IFADocLab 2023 called Phantom, so maybe you could give a bit more context for this experience and how this came about.

[00:02:41.139] Aluta Null: So Phantom initially was created in 2021. I did it through Bubblegum Gallery's residency program and I created it with the span of a month and then the residency concluded with a solo exhibition. So I had the idea for the project in my notes app because everything's in my notes app. I had it with me for a while but when I applied for the residency I kind of grew it a bit more. So essentially it's about mental health disintegration and about different mental states. And what I did is I created a living room installation. It's designed to resemble a 90s sitcom type of living room. And when you interact with certain things in the space, you see a really dark additional layer that's the same as what you see in real life but like just a really dark twisted version of it or not even necessarily dark and twisted but like it gives you a different view and an example I can give just like one of the things is there's portraits of people and then for some of them when you scan them the people are now looking back at you yeah so a lot of the work is very very dark obviously Most of us, I think, have struggled with different mental health issues. It's very common. And this is just my way of trying to communicate a little bit about what I've noticed in other people, what I felt. Lots of, like, confessions. In this project, there's a lot of confessions, but there's also a bit of fiction, yeah.

[00:04:34.223] Kent Bye: Yeah, you've had a chance to talk about this project a couple times here at IFA DocLab, where there was a DocLab Live, and then this morning there was an R&D Summit, and so you've had a chance to say a few things about this project, and one of the things that was really striking to me was how you're embracing a little bit more of this dark humor or a tone that is trying to be a little bit more realist than trying to always put a happy face on things, and so maybe you could elaborate on that a little bit of not trying to be an exemplary example of something that's highest manifestation, but something that is maybe reflecting the reality of the different experiences that you have with the mental health.

[00:05:11.926] Aluta Null: To be honest, yeah, so when I speak about Fenton, that is something I try to say quite a bit, that it's a very pessimistic project. And the reason I've even started feeling like I have to say that is because sometimes when people ask me about it, they say like, so what is the message you're trying to send? And I'm like, I'm not sending any message. I'm just showing you an experience of something that I've been thinking about and that I wanted to creatively express. I think it's also quite important for people to be given opportunities to do that. I don't think it's fair that we are often put in positions where we have to inspire other people. Life is hard. Can we sometimes just be a bit honest and say what we want to say and not have to be politically correct? not have so much pressure I guess put on ourselves especially as artists. I think it's important for artists especially to be given a lot of freedom to be honest and I think that's what Phantom was. I was being very honest and I mean Phantom showed me in general with my work I don't really attempt to do anything specific with like motivating people. If someone sees my work and they identify with it and they feel positive then fine but it wasn't my intention you know I was just being honest and making what I want to make.

[00:06:38.510] Kent Bye: So in this installation you have this living room where you have some couches and television set and like you said dress like a 1990s sitcom and you have a like a coat rack with a couple of headphones that are there that have the buttons to either start from the beginning or it's playing on a loop so you can jump in and listen to for wherever it's at and it's this short audio piece that is playing that got this sarcastic dark humor quality but with a sitcom laugh track on the back end so you're saying all these really intense things about it's difficult to get up you know the realities of what your day might be and so maybe you could talk about this juxtaposition of the reality of what's happening in your own mental streams juxtaposed to this 1990s sitcom laugh track and a little bit more about this contrast between those two things that we're very familiar with.

[00:07:30.866] Aluta Null: So something that, like I learned a lot about myself and I'm still young so Yeah, I'm always learning more and more about myself and something that I have noticed about myself is I really do take a lot of inspiration from Johannesburg. Johannesburg is, well South Africa in general is There's just a lot of opposing things that are existing in the same space. And there's a lot of tension. So that's something that I've started to become a lot more aware. It's something that I am very comfortable with as an artist, just tension. And I like seeing contrast. I'm very, very fascinated by things that shouldn't be together. or things that are weird when they're together. I'm very interested in bringing them together. I think it's a very cool thing. So with this whole idea of bringing what is supposed to be a happy, comfortable kind of space and throwing a lot of darkness onto it. And again, it's humor, but it's dark. It's very uncomfortable, and I think that was one of the main emotions I wanted to create for people who see it. I want some people to be uncomfortable, but I also genuinely... I'm trying to figure out how to word this. I myself use humor as a coping mechanism, and my friends and I are always making very dark jokes, and as much as they're jokes, they're still very honest, and I think I just attempted to bring that exact kind of feeling where, I mean, you're saying light-hearted things, but when you actually think about it properly, what you're saying, it's quite depressing and not cute. So I think, yeah, I was really just trying to bring that forward. Yeah.

[00:09:22.651] Kent Bye: Can you talk about the putting together of the living room set and the different considerations you were trying to bring in terms of the aesthetics and design of that?

[00:09:31.205] Aluta Null: So the phantom installation that's here at DocLab, it was very similar to the initial phantom installation. and that one was honestly created with a lot of borrowing of items but i mainly just wanted to have like the old aesthetic there so i knew that my mother had some really cool furniture a friend of mine borrowed me like her dirty old couch that was in her garage. And I said, this is perfect. You know, some of the things I got on secondhand marketplaces and people were confused why I was buying them. And I was like, it's perfect for my exhibition. So yeah, constructing it was really a thing about what I had access to initially. And then when we brought it here, it's not all the same items, but we try to keep it as accurate as possible. And I did just want to mention, with the audio, there's actually a friend of mine who I got to narrate it. And yeah, he did a great job. So I just wanted to touch on that. What was his name? His name is Rome the Black. That's his artist name, but his name is Rome. Yeah, and he did it perfect. Like, we hadn't seen each other in a very long time at that point. So it was all virtual. I sent him a script and he just sent me the audio and he did it so perfect. Yeah.

[00:11:00.880] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there's an augmented reality component where you have four pictures on the wall and a couple of phones that people can walk in after they listen to the audio and then start to look at these pictures of people and so maybe could elaborate a little bit about the contrast between what you're able to do with augmented reality with what is maybe on the surface but then be able to unpack this other meaning behind that and the different effects that you were trying to go for to communicate this contrast between what's on the surface and what may be lying deeper with the mechanism of augmented reality So it really was just about me having a space where things are hidden because I feel like AR

[00:11:40.137] Aluta Null: It exposes, it also hides, like AR is a very, very beautiful medium. And I really liked that I felt like I was able to have it such that things are being exposed to the viewer. So that's why I specifically went with AR. At the initial Phantom, there was also a VR component where the entire room was, like if you go look at some of the Phantom pictures, you'll see where the entire room is is like just a mess. There's alcohol bottles everywhere. There's clothes. It's just a mess.

[00:12:13.764] Kent Bye: So is this a contrast between they would see the living room installation and then they go into VR and see all this additional stuff that may have been hidden?

[00:12:20.669] Aluta Null: Yes, yes. It's the same idea that I was trying to have with the AR, where you're being exposed to a very ugly, dark version of what you're seeing physically. But we didn't bring the VR here because, yeah, it was too much. Yeah, I used both VR and AR. But with the AR pieces, I don't know if you saw the newspaper, but the newspaper is actually a censored newspaper, and when you scan it, it shows you the real full article. Yeah.

[00:12:50.929] Kent Bye: Yeah, I actually have a picture of that here, because it's the Phantom Times, and the headline is, everything is perfect, and then it says censored for your safety. And then what happens once you get the AR version?

[00:13:03.983] Aluta Null: The AR version says, everything is perfect because we're all going to die. And there's an article where I'm basically rambling about how nice it is that nothing matters because we're all going to die and that's perfect. Very dark. And again, I think they used it as the cover picture. Yeah. So I mean, seeing the uncensored version, it's possible you can find it somewhere on my something. But yeah.

[00:13:37.559] Kent Bye: And then there was another section that said, your phone contains drugs, may likely be causing addiction. So there's another article in there that's talking about how your phone is basically a drug.

[00:13:50.263] Aluta Null: I feel like I'm addicted to my phone. I mentioned that there's an artist called Father who I was inspired by one of his songs and I say I'm addicted to my celly. It's just like the lingo he uses. With Phantom being designed in a way that's very old, I also wanted to bring current day references into it. So yeah, that was one of the things. Yeah, just, you know, addictions of different kinds.

[00:14:22.803] Kent Bye: Yeah. In the DocLab Live, you had also shown a little clip of a TV or at least an ad of having Froot Loops and alcohol. Maybe you could elaborate on what the installation piece was and then how, again, it was maybe revealing more information about this recipe that you had there.

[00:14:41.423] Aluta Null: Yeah, so again, A lot of this was based on the initial phantom so one of the TVs I created an infomercial type video for happy food which is a very toxic concoction of I mean I describe it as a recipe for a meal that's supposed to make you happy but it's really just very toxic and I mean it's drugs and alcohol and like fruit loops because they're pretty so it's yeah it's a very dumb silly thing but that was just like about substance abuse and harmful coping mechanisms and also like self-destructive things yeah happy food is one of my favorite things i've made also because of how like quickly i made it it felt very easy when i was recording it and I think it also shows my humor and an interesting way.

[00:15:41.251] Kent Bye: So that was a part of the original Phantom installation, but it's not showing here, is it?

[00:15:45.567] Aluta Null: I tried to make it work on one of these TVs, but I don't think it's been working. And it's just because of the way that I do my AR, like how I created the platform I use. So I think if I were to take Phantom elsewhere, I'd also like to get more people to help me work on it because there's so much that I think can be done with it and so much that I want to do with it. But I'm a one man team. Yeah.

[00:16:13.745] Kent Bye: And so there's a TV that's also in there, and it says, with every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me. And then it was occluded. I don't know what else. But it's called Phantom, and there's a theme of phantoms that is repeated throughout the course of this piece in different ways, both in the audio and different statements. And so maybe you could elaborate a little bit more about what you mean by phantom.

[00:16:36.878] Aluta Null: So I wanted to use the idea of ghosts. as something that was recurring because my main feeling, well I mean there's lots of feelings that like I was trying to showcase or just explain, but one of them is this feeling of kind of being very detached and feeling like you're floating through life and half dead, half alive, like I don't know, ghosts, like just ghostly visuals and references is something that I felt was very appropriate for what I was trying to say and the kind of emotion just like that fleeting like not really being here very passive kind of feeling that was a very big part for me and I also thought that with the AR that also felt like a ghost like it's there but it's not like there were many ways that I just felt like the phantom idea was just perfect for this and so that's why we entered that name.

[00:17:42.201] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, the theme this year for IfADocLab 2023 is phenomenal friction. And it was a topic that was brought up today at the R&D Summit in terms of just all the things that are going on in the world. And being from Johannesburg in South Africa, there's certainly been a long history of phenomenal friction. And I think even in your piece here of Phantoms, there's this friction that you're creating this contrast between the idealized sitcom world that we all project as some sort of idealized state to get to, but also the visceral reality of our direct experiences that can be a pretty stark contrast to that, which I think your piece is exploring here. But I'd love to hear you elaborate on any other dimensions of phenomenal friction as it is reflected in both the cultural context of where you come from in South Africa and Johannesburg, but also the work that you've been working on.

[00:18:32.396] Aluta Null: That's a big question. Again, I really think daily, just like leaving your door, like I live in a white neighborhood in an African country, like, I mean, there's just so much that's Yeah, I don't know, there's just a lot that feels very uncomfortable and you know I still try to make sense of a lot of it which is also why I just know that the feeling of Friction as we say I know that that feeling is something I feel a lot But I'm trying to find different ways to show it and different ways to understand it myself Yeah, so I yeah, I don't fully know how to answer that question because It's just such a big question Yeah

[00:19:23.161] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think it's something that Caspar Sonnen was saying that he picked this as a theme a long time ago and that just so happens that there's a lot of exploding conflicts that's happening there in Gaza and Palestine and Israel. So yeah, that's sort of a whole other dimension that I think is helping. set the broader context of this gathering here. And yeah, I guess as we go back to Phantom, are there other aspects of this piece that you hope to continue to expand upon or think about how to recontextualize it, you know, since there is a VR component, if you've thought about translating some of the installation components into a pure VR experience where you could maybe switch in between these different realities. But yeah, just curious to hear a little bit about what's next for Phantom.

[00:20:08.253] Aluta Null: So what I started with Phantom was this whole idea of dead things. I refer to them as dead things which is specifically when I take old broken TVs and put AR on them. So that's definitely something that I want to keep playing with and I guess framing certain gadgets in different ways. What my friend Faye said to me is one of my pieces is called please stop watching my breakdown and it's a tv that's breaking down and just malfunctioning and like just complaining the tv is not okay tv is very emotional and my friend faye said she really liked it because she said that It kind of framed the TV in a different way. We look at TVs but we don't necessarily... We're not looking at them, we're just looking at the visuals. But with that piece she felt like she was seeing the TV in a different light. So I think playing with just gadgets more and how they are framed and different ways that I can try liken them to humans because I think there's a lot of similarities. I think that's like the main thing from Phantom that I want to keep exploring is old broken objects and how I can recycle them and make them relevant.

[00:21:35.103] Kent Bye: Well, you've had a couple of times where you've been able to show Phantom as an installation back in 2021 and now here at DocLab in 2023. So I'd love to hear any of your reactions of what it's like to show this piece in public with other people co-present at the same time.

[00:21:51.241] Aluta Null: Very uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. The reception has been like surprising because I really didn't know that people would like it as much as people do. Again, I was just making things so that's definitely been like encouraging for me as a creative person. Just seeing how far something that I made has gone and like how much it's done for me. So yeah, but I think I like phantom more for what it's done for like my career and just people Encouraging me, but the project itself is It's very uncomfortable to have people interact with it and then come speak to me It's just very uncomfortable because I feel like I've just exposed myself And again, there is some fiction in this like of course But it's, yeah, it's just uncomfortable. But I'm just glad that people like it. Yeah.

[00:22:49.344] Kent Bye: Well, what's next for you? Do you have any other projects that you're working on? Or what are the other types of things that you want to work on next?

[00:22:55.918] Aluta Null: I definitely want to focus on games. Again, I studied game development, that's a very big thing for me. So I definitely want to get back into honing my game skills and designing better stories. Yeah, I think at the moment my focus is back on games. The roundtable discussions today were actually very insightful for me because I'm now just like thinking about different ways to package games. I mean, some people were explaining how one of their games, it's like on different devices. It's almost like it's the same game, but it's different depending on the device that you use. And not just like, OK, the input is different, but the actual game itself. And I thought that was very interesting. So, yeah, definitely focusing on games.

[00:23:44.255] Kent Bye: Well, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive media immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable I Mean I can only speak for myself and what I've seen Definitely.

[00:23:57.579] Aluta Null: I think this entire space is very powerful for helping people Understand other people's experiences because Like, immersive media specifically, you're almost being put in someone else's shoes, but not really. But I think there's an interesting way that, like, just interactive technology at large can help you understand other people's stories a lot better, because you're actually, like, engaging with things. not just watching a film and taking it in, but like when you play a game, you have a more active role in the story. And I think using these spaces as storytelling tools and like specifically for personal experiences, I think it's very powerful in helping other people understand each other. Yeah.

[00:24:48.721] Kent Bye: Right. Is there anything else that's left and said that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:24:55.706] Aluta Null: I just hope that people keep pushing themselves and learning because I think if people start becoming complacent or not really testing any new waters, then that's kind of where we all become stagnant.

[00:25:15.858] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, Aluda, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and help to unpack a little bit more about your process and your experience. I know it is covering a lot of more darker sides, and like you said, it can be uncomfortable to unpack and have different interactions with people, especially here at the festival. But yeah, just appreciate you being willing to sit down and help break it down a little bit for folks who may not have been able to have a chance to see it yet. And yeah, just talk about your process and where you want to take it all in the future. So thanks again for joining me. So thank you.

[00:25:43.220] Aluta Null: Thank you so much. It's nice to sit down and have someone ask me this in depth, because a lot of the conversations I've had about France Time have been virtual, by email or whatever. So this was very nice. So thank you as well.

[00:25:59.731] Kent Bye: Yeah, you're welcome. So that was at Luton Knoll. She did a piece called Phantom, which was showing at IFA doc lab 2023 as a part of the digital storytelling selection. So of a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, just the idea that you could create a physical installation and then add different augmented reality layers to Pierce some of the surface level of what's going on and to dig into some of the deeper meanings of whatever you may be seeing So in this case, there's pictures of people who are smiling or there's a newspaper and then you use the augmented reality filters to see another take of Dark humor or just exploring elements of darkness or complexity around mental illness mental health issues and drug addiction In the synopsis, she says it's very hard to explain, let alone understand, what it feels like when your head is falling apart. This is the reason for Noel's choice of ghosts as the main characters. Their elusive state between life and death focuses attention on the confusing or frightening emotions that mental health problems can bring. So yeah, I think it's a piece that's really exploring some of those darker elements that people either Don't feel like it's okay to talk about or even create art projects around I think this is a piece that doesn't shy away from Exploring darkness or dark humor or absurd humor that for her she describes as having a fact of being both supportive and relieving In the virtual reality component that wasn't here, there's also another dimension of being able to have a physical installation and then to go into the VR component and to see maybe a state of disrepair of the same room being in a state that may actually reflect symbolically and metaphorically what is actually happening in someone's lived experience of darkness or depression. And so, yeah, just the idea that you can flip between different layers and levels of reality and having a physical context, but then to use the medium of virtual and augmented reality to overlay the deeper story of whatever might be happening and using the ghost and the phantom as a metaphor to talk about some of these different liminal spaces. 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 enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of supported podcasts, 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 voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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