Filip Kostic is an artist and educator at the ArtCenter College of Design, and he had a piece called Landgrab: The Musical that was featured in the Sp[a]tial Realities Art Show curated by Jesse Damiani. Landgrab is a post-modern musical that is trying to deconstruct all of the typical tropes of the Western by exploring concepts of storytelling and experience that evoke embodied experiences of anxiety and the empty spaces that ordinary experiences have. Storytelling is typically optimized for conveying a condensed version of the highlights of a story, but an experience often isn’t completely packed with non-stop action, which means that there’s often a contrast between the build-up of tension of nothingness and boredom that’s released when something interesting or intriguing happens.
Live sports and eSports games often have a flow of action and inaction, and it’s these ebbs and flows that make it more of an experience where you have your own experience within it. Walking simulator games like Fortnite or Player Unknown Battlegrounds also have lots of downtime with unexpected bursts of action that has helped these games become such a livestreaming phenomenon as this building and releasing of tension between the mundane and conflict-packed action. From a narrative and storytelling perspective, this means that experiential mediums like VR and AR have the opportunity to start to play with the more mundane emptiness within the context of an experience that could be used to contrast it between more dynamic change and story that’s unfolding.
Kostic explores some of these dynamics within Landgrab as he’s not afraid to evoke feelings of anxiety within the viewer as he’s not trying to present a series of non-stop action within he’s pieces. He’s spent a long time just to even create these different environments, and so he wants to invite the person experiencing it to take in the architecture and environments that he’s created. Landgrab splits up the virtual world into four quadrants where action is only happening within a 90-degree radius at any given time, which allows him to ensure that the audience’s attention is within a predictable 90-degree section, which allows him to explore some more cinematic aspects of spatial storytelling.
I had a chance to catch up with Kostic at the Sp[a]tial Realities art show in October, where we talk about his wide range of philosophical exploration including authority, the contingency connection between physical and virtual space, identity, our expectations of what a story should be, reflections, scale, and how horizon lines and vanishing points provide a metaphor for masculine expression of emotion.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So when I was in Los Angeles for the Magic Leap LeapCon, there's a number of different art shows that I went to, one of which was called the Spatial Realities Art Show, put on by Jesse Damiani. And there's a number of different pieces that I saw there, and I did a number of interviews with the artists that were there. One of the interviews that I did was with Philip Kostik. He did this piece called Landgrab the Musical, and it was unlike anything I've seen in a long, long time. It was kind of like this postmodern Western that was trying to deconstruct a lot of the tropes that you think of when you think of a Western. But it was also doing a lot of really interesting things in terms of it had the entire world was split up into four different quadrants. And so as you look out, there's like a 90 degree quadrant that all of the action is happening in that quadrant. Each quadrant has a completely different architecture, different vibe, different feel. a different song, and you go through this musical experience and see different things that unfold in that. And so I had a chance to talk to Philip Kostik about each of these different four musicals that are put together, but also some of his deeper intention and motivations for creating this art piece. Philip is somebody who comes more from the art world, so he's thinking much more about these issues of what does it mean to kind of deconstruct different aspects of these typical stories and try to really explore what the unique storytelling affordances of a medium are that may be way beyond what our normative ideas about a story should be. So we're covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Philip happened on Friday, October 11th, 2018 at the Spatial Realities Art Show in Santa Monica, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:52.343] Filip Kostic: My name is Philip Kostik. I'm an artist and an educator in Los Angeles. I have a studio here in LA as well as I teach at Art Center College of Design. I've been making VR work for maybe three years or so, or simulations really for about three years or so. And I have a piece at Eisenberg that is a musical, a Western musical with four different songs. And all the songs are more or less about a sort of disposition of the loneliness of digital space and the loneliness of being like an artist in a studio.
[00:02:22.784] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, and so there seem to be different experiments or different things you were trying out in each of the four musicals. So one about scale, one about using flat spaces. Maybe you could sort of describe the different experiments or intentions that you had with each of the four sections of this piece.
[00:02:38.217] Filip Kostic: So I can start with the scale one, that one's easiest. There's one piece that's literally about scale shift. The song is called Scale Shift, in which the scale shifts around you and it's really like my sort of jab at or just playing around with the idea that is inherent with virtual spaces, which is like one thing you can really mess with is just shifting scale and that can really reposition you as a person in space. There's another song about vanishing points, and I was interested in the way that vanishing points in general just function in real life as well as in virtual spaces. It becomes like a horizon line that you can't ever reach, but it's always a sort of goal, so there's like a metaphor there. One's about reflection, and it's a self-reflective song that reflects on itself as well as uses reflections visually. And then the last song is just like a campfire song, and it's really about like the making of the project. At one point the guy sings about the computer that he's working on and the digital space around himself and being able to replicate himself but really not making any friends because of it.
[00:03:36.679] Kent Bye: Yeah, I saw the scale shift first and then went around counterclockwise. And so the second one I saw was the vanishing point. And what I was really struck by was when you took the bridge and you floated all the different individual wood pieces and built a home around me. And I went inside, and then it was like this really interesting context shift of taking an object and recontextualizing it, but also having the difference between closed space and open space. So maybe you could talk a bit about what you were trying to do there.
[00:04:03.598] Filip Kostic: Totally, so that part is similarly I'm super interested in the way that like an object can sort of take shape into anything really and if you sort of break something up into a bunch of puzzle pieces those puzzle pieces can come together into a different object entirely. I thought there was like a sort of funny and a really flat-footed metaphor taking the bridge and destroying the bridge but making a home out of it and in the home is a cowboy singing by himself but also the piece takes place on this platform that's about 12 by 12 feet and right now it's truncated to a smaller space with teleportation but I wanted to maximize the use of the platform in more of an interesting way than just it being empty like how can we break up the space in multiple ways and take the same experience of walking on the same platform and relocate you or reposition you and confront you with another object in the space. And then it's always interesting to see how people don't question the door. They just go through the door rather than going through the mesh. So I like the way in which our body's relationship to space changes when I recontextualize you.
[00:05:05.093] Kent Bye: Yeah, and there is also some moments where there's changing architecture in terms of like, especially in the scale where the whole background starts to move around. But it was a really interesting construct to split up each section into like a 90 degrees of 360 degree circle. So you have these four squares, but you have these distinct lines that have very different architectures and very different scenes. It was very interesting and unique to be in a single space, but feel like I was in almost like four places at once.
[00:05:33.315] Filip Kostic: I was trying to solve an issue of having a piece up at a show for a month without someone being there. Originally, when it was shown, it was just up and running for a month. And how someone can enter it and potentially understand how to interact with it or be clued into it. So I decided to split it up into four spaces. And each space is drastically different than the next in polygonal geometry. Some of them are low poly. Some of them are high poly. Some of them are super shiny. Some of them are super classical. So I wanted to use it as a sort of basis of interaction, but also I was interested in the way that like you can use that as a tool to cinematically cut off a person's point of view and understand that they'll be looking in a certain direction at a certain time. And if you understand that they're going to be looking in a certain direction, you can really manipulate the way the space moves and it becomes a more cinematic experience. If I know I have your focus at least in a 90 degree angle, I know what to do with that 90 degrees a lot easier. So it was really like a technique that I tried to use.
[00:06:30.360] Kent Bye: Yeah, one of the things I've noticed when I'm watching these types of pieces, first of all, I'll ask before I jump into one of these demos in an art scene, like, is this a fixed time? Like, how long is it? Do I know when to stop? Because sometimes it's not clear. Because I think the challenge is if something is happening, but I don't see visual progress of something changing and something that's dynamic, then I kind of lose interest or I'm not sure what's happening. So maybe you could talk about that from your perspective as a creator, how you're able to try to have some dynamic movement throughout the entirety of each individual song.
[00:07:01.234] Filip Kostic: Totally. Well, two things there. One thing is I am interested in the idea that you can take the headset off whenever. There is no beginning and no ending. The only linear narrative in here is that a song starts and a song ends. So you can leave at any point. And I think that's a really interesting way to approach an artwork. But also, I had the benefit of working with songs in it. And there's a general understanding that a song, once it starts, you know it's started, and once it ends, you know it's done. So you can lead between songs kind of thing. So I can cheat with that a little bit, but then the other thing that I'm really also trying to pay attention to is that You can't have a plot line happen in front of you and jump behind you and expect somebody to follow it unless you give them enough time. So for instance, a bridge disassembling and assembling into a home behind you. A lot of the times from user testing, I've noticed that people don't notice it right away. And in fact, sometimes don't notice it at all. And I can't blame them for that because I'm really asking the viewer to do a lot, right? Like to look up, realize that it's going above them, to look behind them, realize that there's something behind them, and follow this plot line. But for the most part, if I can sort of visually gesture in directions, I can hope that they'll follow that visual gesturing and then maybe jump into the direction that I want them to go into.
[00:08:16.638] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a change blindness effect where if you look away and you turn back and something's changed, you may miss the change. And so I found myself not knowing, as you as a creator, if you're going to have other things happening in the other three quadrants. And so I'm kind of checking out to see. And at some point, I see that, OK, in the language of this piece, once it starts, I should pay attention to this quadrant to see what changes. But I found myself sometimes being carried by the music, where I knew that the song was going to have an end, but I didn't necessarily know what was changing or what was happening in any given piece.
[00:08:46.592] Filip Kostic: And a lot of the times there is nothing happening, and I'm interested in, there's an assumption that once you put a headset on that you're going to be delivered this fantastical narrative, right? And I'm interested in what happens when you don't, and let's slow down, put a headset on and just sit there? You're in a Western scene that took a long time to put together. The artist did a lot of work already. Why are we expecting the artist to also now carry me through this fantastical thing? I think we have a lot of a high bar and a high standard for it, and that's totally fair and I think we should continue to. But there are parts in the long piece, the one about vanishing points, that are dead. Nothing's happening. It's a cowboy tapping his foot, looking into the distance, and you're looking with him. So, like, how does that make us feel? And I'm interested in the anxiety that people get, too, of, like, something needs to happen, you know? And nothing happens, you know? I felt that. Yeah, yeah, no, that's totally fair. That should happen. Like, I want someone to, like, sit with that, an experience of an artwork. Like, I felt anxiety and not knowing what to do. Like, that's part of it. You can't separate that from the experience of the work.
[00:09:50.990] Kent Bye: That's interesting. Yeah, but then there was a payoff where there was this weird UFO like object happening in the distance But then it it sort of totally got transformed I felt like there was a bit of I think of a lot of like either concepts of alchemy or clarity points where there's like a Hickory dialectic where there's a thesis antithesis and a synthesis and this process of creating this tension of opposites where there's nothing happening and And then all of a sudden, there's like this UFO object thing that's there. And then all of a sudden, the entire scene is transformed into fog. And there's like these crazy light show that happens. And I'm like, oh my god, this is totally worth me waiting for the nothing happening, because then there was something. So I wonder how far you could take torturing the users by not doing anything versus having some sort of payoff like that.
[00:10:36.020] Filip Kostic: I think this one I was the anxiety that you feel sitting there waiting for it I feel as a creator like making it like what am I asking this person to do and like will they do it and like what if they don't there's a lot of anxiety around that and insecurity as well and since this project like I've tried to explore like both of those like what if I just make something in which like I I set the expectation up, but don't deliver. How does that make somebody feel, and what is that as a virtual experience? And how does that mirror a real experience? Because I feel like this mirrors a real experience, but maybe if you take a lifetime and truncate it down into a 15 minute project, it's like you have the moments of nothing, and you have the moments of payoff as well. And what is that space in between? And that space in between is just sitting there waiting for a cowboy to turn into dust.
[00:11:23.755] Kent Bye: Well, one of the things that I found that was particularly frustrating was starting the experience because I went in there and they said, OK, just go in the corner and something will happen. I went in the corner, nothing happened. I mean, the way that this White House boundary is set up is that I have to actually go past the White House boundary. So I have to kind of violate the safety bounds and then even go beyond that and then take my gun and start to shake it in the corner. Seems like a really arbitrary way to kind of start an experience, especially if this is expected to have anybody jump in and start it. I don't see how anyone would actually figure that out.
[00:11:55.682] Filip Kostic: So this is not the way that it's installed usually. This is like a modified version for the show. There's no screen usually in it either and there's no teleportation mechanic either. It's installed usually on a 12 by 12 foot platform that matches the 12 by 12 foot platform you're standing on and the quadrants are the whole thing is mapped essentially one to one so you have full capability of walking to each corner. In fact, if you wanted to, you could walk off of the platform as well, and your height would shift similarly, because the platform's mapped that way. So there's a lot of obstacles in the way of you being able to experience it in this format, and that's just a form factor of the space that it's being shown in. But usually, the idea is, if you put the headset on, and you walk to a corner, whether you know that you activated something or not, it starts. The music starts, the musical starts, and hopefully you realize that it starts in a quadrant. and like you said the language starts to get built around the quadrants and then people start to hopefully understand like oh quadrants mean stuff is happening yeah and there's also like a takeaway with that when it's shown there's like a brochure much like you would get a playbook and that playbook sort of has the language of a play or a musical, but pointing towards explaining the mechanics and explaining the ways in which one would help, like helping someone out. So I try to help them out as much as I can, but this isn't really the form for it. Yeah.
[00:13:17.716] Kent Bye: Well, I think that the music really sold the experience in a lot of ways because, you know, I've seen a lot of visual stuff, but to have the music there as well, it sort of gives this natural narrative dimension to it. So what was your process of creating the music for this piece?
[00:13:30.747] Filip Kostic: So I worked with a guy named Roger Holloway who produced the music and I sang it and it was really like sitting down and thinking about like a couple of ideas that I was interested in and one of them was like scale shift is really effective I see it in every VR project the shift of scale like making me small making me large so it was like okay let's make like a jingle about scale shift. I was also watching a lot of musicals in the process, and there's something really exciting about musicals in the way that they make anything into a song. Like, every moment can be made into a song, and there's a lot of liberty in that. So I just tried to take that liberty and be like, oh, anything can be a lyric, so long as it rhymes. And then, obviously, contextualize that within an experience. So, like I said earlier, each one of them starts with a point of interest and then expands outwards. It's a big push and pull with me working with the producer and us trying to figure this thing out together, never having made music in my life before. Like, how do I do this now?
[00:14:26.943] Kent Bye: No, it was very charming in a lot of ways that it was sort of connecting to what I mean there was a certain part in the song especially in the third piece where it's about reflections and you say I'm controlling your view right now you're fixated on this flat screen you have this like flat reflection and I just found myself like staring at it and kind of being like like okay annoyed that okay I'm in VR why do I need to look at a 2d projection of whatever is happening like Why can't this be spatialized? And then you say, oh, well, I'm controlling your point of view when I fixate on this. And then I was like, oh, then I started looking around and noticing these little flashing lights and stuff. But maybe you could just talk about the third section of the reflections and what you were trying to explore there.
[00:15:04.009] Filip Kostic: Yeah. The reflection song is the one that's the most insular. It talks about itself. It references outwardly, but it references itself so much that it becomes sort of hard. It becomes impenetrable. You can be critical of it, but it's critical of itself first. In that song it's very aware, or I try to be very aware of the construct that you're in. And I try to address these things in VR, or in simulation really, this fantastical autonomy. The idea that the viewer is an autonomous viewer, and that because they have a headset on with six degrees of freedom that they can look anywhere and do anything. But really, you can do anything that you want within the thing that I've made. And even if you break the rules, you're still within a simulation that I've built for you. So there's all these levels of control that are happening. Making you aware of that control like oh like you're fixating your view on this thing because it's all I've provided for you to look at Like what is your relationship to that now to that thing? And then there's like all these like little jokes that reference outwards like artists that have worked with reflection the history of reflection I think I mentioned like Jeff Koons or something like that and then I I mentioned this guy, Sir Sloan, who was an architect who made this convex mirror and used it a bunch. So there's all of these ways to validate itself outwardly by referencing history and art. But it's very much like an insecure song, the way that reflection can be insecure. Not that I'm insecure that I've made it, but I'm trying to access insecurity as a subject matter.
[00:16:33.446] Kent Bye: Interesting. Well, the thing that was also striking was that having the four quadrants, you had very distinct architectures. And so a big open question that I've been asking people is like, what is the process of translating objects in space into emotion or feeling and experience? Like architects have to deal with this and they often do it by iterating and making stuff and seeing how people react and just cultivating a sense of intuition around it. But you have different architectures of like these nature scenes that have something that's far in the distance, something that's close, and something that's more flat. Maybe you could talk about, like, how do you connect the architecture of each of the quadrants into the emotional tenor of what's happening in each of the pieces?
[00:17:11.147] Filip Kostic: Totally. I think where you sort of hit on the head, like, iterative design, doing things a lot, looking at it, having people look at it, sharing what you're doing, but also responding to the thing rather than coming into it with, like, a intention. So, like, a lot of those... The push and pull that happens between design, like doing level design essentially for me is like, I make a lot of stuff, I look at it, I wonder like, what is it doing to me right now? And then I respond to it, and then I make the next step of it, which would be the song, or the lighting, or whatever, the atmosphere. But for me it's really important that the iterative design happens, or the iterative prototyping happens within the engine that you're working in, that happens in VR, that you're not assuming things via the screen. So a lot of it is just like, make something, put the headset on, how do I feel? Put somebody else in the headset, how do they feel? Talk about it for a while. Make changes if necessary. But it's just a lot of trying things out. And a lot of the assets are old assets that have been made, assets that exist online. I'm not opposed to downloading, reusing, rehashing. I think that's, when it comes to 3D modeling something, it's like, why do you need to do it if it already exists? What is your hand being in it? add to it, and I don't think that anyone going through this ever questions, like, is his hand in all of this, you know? So I'm not that interested in that part of it. So a lot of it is downloaded, and then me responding to the downloaded asset, like, what is the asset's initial use? What was it made to be used for? How can I co-op that? How can I undermine that? All of these things I start to play with and think about, yeah.
[00:18:44.284] Kent Bye: Well, I've seen a number of different VR narratives and in comparing where I think the trajectory of where VR is going is that it's going to be in some ways opposite to what we see normally in the typical hero's journey where there's a lot of going outward and doing a lot of action and like there's a hero that's individuating and what I see is that instead it's like more about you cultivating a sense of embodied presence and exploring emotions that may not be as easily fit into that hero's journey whether it's self-doubt or being critical of yourself and anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, all these things that are like, not the typical hero's journey, but something that is more about you checking in with yourself and connecting to your emotions in a, I guess, a new and different way of how the overall environment can invoke that. So I'm just curious, there seems to be a little bit of a deconstruction of the typical tropes of narrative, and I'm just curious what you think about or what inspires you to be able to explore these different dimensions of narrative.
[00:19:38.658] Filip Kostic: I mean, I think like the most trope-y narrative that exists, it's the cowboy in the West. It's like loaded with a lot of things with like gender stereotypes, misogyny and westward expansion, etc. I mean, it's loaded. So, because it's so loaded, it's like the easiest one to deconstruct, you know? There's so much to deconstruct. So, for me, taking that sort of thing allows for a lot of experimentation, a lot of space to play with these non-stereotypical or non-normalized narratives that exist, which is anxiety and how we feel about stuff and sitting with stuff, to not do the hero narrative. And quite frankly, I don't know that that stuff's that interesting anymore, really. And we found a thing that is vehemently in its core as a media against that. I can't embody a superhero because I'm not one. I can only embody myself. Even when you put me in a body of something else, I'm still me in that body. So how do you deal with that is something I'm interested in. So I don't really give you a body, I give you a hat. And I hope that through that hat you start to maybe Think about, like, what is the hat as a sign? Like, what does it signify and how does it make me feel? Everyone has different associations with it. And then I give you visuals of the West, but it's simulations of the West, right? It's not the West. So I'm interested in the way that we respond to that, primarily, too, you know?
[00:21:02.558] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, there's also, I get the sense that you have like a lot of knowledge of the history of art and art itself. And I feel like virtual reality as a medium is the synthesis of all these different disciplines and domains. And I'm just curious from your perspective, like what domains and either critical theory or individuals, artists, you find inspiration for, for what kind of insights you are gathering and synthesizing into your own pieces in VR. Like what am I looking at what I'm thinking about? Or what other kind of domains or artists that you're looking at and then what type of insights you're getting from them to influencing your work?
[00:21:36.775] Filip Kostic: I'm right now looking at a lot of this guy Ian Chang's work and Ian Chang makes simulations that were like for a while when I was making this project I think I was looking at John Rothman and this guy Joe Sola. I mean it's like really hard to locate exactly where these things come from. I think that, yeah, it's a hard question to answer, to be honest. Like, there's a lot going on in that piece, you know? And this was made two years ago, so, like, I'm not in the same headspace that I was two years ago. But, like, retrospectively, I can, like, assume that I was reading Dave Hickey. He wrote this book called Air Guitar, and he wrote this article for Art in America in which he talks about two truck drivers sitting at a truck stop, looking out at the horizon, and the entire landscape flattening out into a background and a foreground and they're never looking at each other. They're always gesturing towards the horizon in order to like avoid talking about their feelings and seeming like they're interested in each other's feelings. They talk about like, it was a really hot day today, but they're never looking at each other. So like that sort of masculinity was also interesting to me and like exploring that in a virtual space in which you're alone. I was kind of curious about, sorry, I don't know if that answers the question.
[00:22:46.963] Kent Bye: No, it's good. I'm not familiar with any of those people, so it's a little bit of an opportunity to hear who your personal design inspirations are to then go track them down.
[00:22:56.012] Filip Kostic: Yeah, and I'm curious if you were to look at those, how much sense that would really make, because none of them makes, I mean, John Rothman makes some VR work, Ian Chang makes simulations, but visually they don't look anything like this, and then Joe Sola makes videos, nothing to do with simulation whatsoever, but the sense of humor I'm interested in, I really want this to be lighthearted and not take itself too seriously, so I hope it doesn't, but yeah.
[00:23:22.313] Kent Bye: Well, we're here at the Spatial Reality Show, and so I saw this in the context of seeing a lot of other art pieces, and I think that kind of set the context to allow myself to be open to exploring this. But I would imagine that a piece like this, distributed out on either Steam or Oculus Home, it's like this context in which people are expecting a very different thing in terms of games and other things. So what happens to an experience like this?
[00:23:46.015] Filip Kostic: It lives on a hard drive. It gets updated every so often, so it still works. It hopefully makes the circuit of being shown in spaces that I feel like are part of the art world, that are critical, not the art world necessarily, that are part of the discourse that I'm interested in, and that is simulations, immersive artworks, people that are thinking about embodiment and presence trying to push it forward. And then it gets shown between my friends. I send it to my friends. It's up on Itch. It doesn't get very many hits. Like you said, the expectation with VR is very different than what I'm presenting. And I'm presenting it for that exact reason, because the expectation is not something I'm interested in. I don't expect that of VR. I expect this, and a lot of the work here of VR. And that's two very different worlds, as I'm sure you are coming to find too.
[00:24:41.220] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah. So to be able to display it and show it in a show like this and have a conversation like this that's really deconstructing it.
[00:24:47.444] Filip Kostic: That's really what I'm most interested in, is like someone doing it, someone trying it. Liking it or not liking it doesn't matter, but having some sort of reaction to it and then being able to talk to me about it. That's the fun part, the conversation that comes afterwards. Because I don't know how to access this conversation otherwise. I have to make this thing in order to be able to do this. It's more comfortable that way. I don't want to write an essay about it.
[00:25:10.458] Kent Bye: You've given me an abiding experience that sort of made me think about a lot of things and actually really thinking about what the medium is, what it can do, and you've mentioned a number of different art places, like what is the circuit? Like if you were to list like the top places that if this was like the dream run of a piece like this, where would that be and where would that go?
[00:25:28.882] Filip Kostic: To be honest, it's hard to say. The places that I've shown, I've shown because of the people that run the space. I've come to be close friends with them or had a good studio visit with them. And because of that, the conversation is able to flow. I'd love to show this anywhere, to be totally honest. If a museum was to want to show it, yeah, absolutely. Art fair, absolutely. But there's a lot of spaces, I think, in LA especially, in New York, that are very interested in immersive artwork and being able to show VR as an artwork. One that I can think of immediately in Pasadena is a gallery called Andor that's ran by this guy who was very very prominent in the net art movement in the 90s and really like historically defined net art and continues to show really good net art and VR work as well and stuff that is not going to be on Steam or that is not going to be on not going to reach any expectation that you have of what VR should be or what art should be, but will definitely boggle you a little bit. And that's at home. That's right here, a mile away. Yeah.
[00:26:29.877] Kent Bye: And you may be the first person that I talked to on the record that is distributing your piece on itch.io. I'm sure there's probably others that are as well. But this is, I guess, a realm that I haven't really done a deep dive. And so are there other experiences that you've seen that are available that you would recommend people checking out?
[00:26:45.809] Filip Kostic: Totally. There's a guy named Theo Triantafyllidis. Hard name to spell. He goes by Theo Trian online. He has an itch.io and he had a game that went pretty viral. It was like a VR experience in which you go and explore his insides through his mouth. And people started doing playthroughs of it. And he posts a lot of his VR stuff online. He has like a long person simulator where you just have the body of a tall person. He makes really fun stuff. The thing I love about itch.io is like It's not connected to any sort of monetary value, unless you want it to be. It's super experimental. There's a lot of terrible stuff. There's a lot of really fun stuff. Most of it's free. And all of my favorite things in VR have come out of it. Like, Gorn was an itch.io game for a long time and would not be what it is if it wasn't. It wouldn't be as ridiculous as it is if it wasn't. So Theos is a piece I think that people should check out.
[00:27:36.979] Kent Bye: So you did this piece two years ago. So in some ways, even just talking about it is a bit of a time travel of what you were thinking about back then. And so what's happened over the last two years of what you've been working on in this space?
[00:27:48.387] Filip Kostic: I've made a number of VR works. I've stepped away from VR. I've gotten really Upset with it and then happy with it and you know like the process that everyone goes through with everything they're interested in But I've been making work and trying to show it I've got like a project that I've been doing for a while called executable experience in which I create like these two week-long projects on deadlines that are all either VR or AR or some sort of executable thing and they're really ridiculous and super absurd and kind of fun and experimental and I allow myself to do more things than I usually do and There's one I made in which you're Matt Damon riding on a dragon, so like I don't know if that sets it up for anybody But they're really fun to make but also just making my own work, and I've been teaching it as well full-time so Great, so what do you personally want to experience in either virtual or augmented reality? That's a great question. It's funny for a long time I've been defining that as like what do I not want to experience by like things that I've tried and I don't think that's the best way to do it that's a little bit negative but I'm of the mind of the super popular and well-deserved popularity Jaron Lanier and the way he talks about VR and it's like rather than making me feel like I'm a captain on a ship like what does it feel like to be the sail of that ship or like a raindrop in a rainstorm, or like a synapse in a brain that's firing. I feel like that's a place that we can like, what does it feel like to embody the things that we do not embody? And what does it feel like to have an embodied experience that responds to the thing that's being used to make it? Right now, VR is in a place in which it references everything outwards and tries to bring it in. I want VR to reference itself, because I think that's where things get really magical, you know? and really complicated. That's where language ceases to be able to explain what is happening. And my favorite VR experiences are ones that I come out of. I've completely been disoriented. I think the door is somewhere else than where I'm looking, and I don't know how to talk about it. I don't have language for it yet. And not because it's awful, but because it's really set up a complicated set of procedures and propositions that I have to contend with now. That gets my hair standing up on the back of my neck.
[00:30:03.637] Kent Bye: What's the last time that happened in your experience?
[00:30:07.299] Filip Kostic: My students do this to me all the time. I teach a VR classes at Art Center, and they don't have inhibitions that we come into the field with. And a lot of the times, they'll propose something that's just ridiculous. And you're like, I don't know who or why this would come out of anybody, but I love that it did. So I really got to tip my hat to my students. They're really kind of amazing. I just sit there and watch. I just get to watch them do cool shit. It's fun.
[00:30:34.128] Kent Bye: What are some of the biggest open questions that are driving your work forward?
[00:30:38.733] Filip Kostic: Oh, yeah. That's a great question. I guess with this project in particular, I can say a huge thing that I'm still interested in and I really started becoming interested with it is this fantastical autonomy. Like, what is autonomy? Like, what is my body in a virtual space if not defined by something? Like, are there boundaries that are being defined in this space? As well as, like, I'm super interested in the way in which virtual and physical space are contingent. They're not a Venn diagram that overlaps in only one spot. They are happening at the same time, always, everywhere. You need physical space to experience virtual space. And I'm interested in the way that virtual space influences our everyday life, how it's influenced the way that architecture has unfolded, and how it's now going to influence in the way that we understand space and our relationship to space and our bodies. That's a really large question that I think a lot of people here are interested in, that work with NVR, right?
[00:31:38.532] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, this is quite interesting because it's a huge contrast to my experience yesterday of going to a number of different location-based entertainment VR places that, you know, I saw two or three, like, wave shooters where I go in and I just go around and execute and vanquish all the enemies, and I just feel it really daft and boring. It's, like, not even, like, what the potential of the medium is, and I feel like, for certain people, that's actually the top thing that's going to be the most fun that they can possibly have with other people, and there's a social dimension. and I see that and I get that, but I also feel a little heartbroken that there's not these more experimental pieces that are really blowing people's minds or making them confused or blazing new neural pathways in their brain. And so I'm just curious what your perspective is on the VR market and what the role of this type of art plays in the broader ecosystem of VR.
[00:32:29.413] Filip Kostic: Yeah, I'm sure this is a narrative that gets spun a lot, like every keynote that I've ever seen about VR has started with like the history of VR, right? And like the 80s, like the first people that were messing with it was like the military and artists in Canada, artists at the Banhof Center. But they were like doing really experimental stuff it worked for like 10 minutes at a time and they really blaze the trail for what it's done so far and Then it came back full circle with like this all this other stuff but the things that you went to those location based things They pander and cater towards a specific audience, like you said. And it's not that there isn't a lot of experimental stuff. There's loads of it all over the place. I'd argue more of this than anything else. It's just there's not platforms for it to exist as vocally as these other things do. And that's understandable. And I don't know that I want it to exist as vocally. I think there's value in niche spaces and niche groups seeing things. And I think there's potential for this stuff to scale up as well. But I'm really, really weary of when the market starts to swallow experimentation, things get a little bit, they get really uninteresting. You start to see filtration of experiences, people making the exact same thing because the market has deemed this as an important thing. And we see this a little bit already in VR, as you mentioned, like wave shooters. Popular, super easy to make, a lot of money, potentially. I don't know that there's any money in VR to be totally honest. But I'm happy with where this stuff exists. I would be happy if more people saw it. I'm always happy when people see experimental stuff and react to it in a positive way. But I worry about its scalability. I worry about people scaling it up, really. I know it's scalable. Everything's scalable in a market-driven economy. But, like, I just don't want it to scale. I don't know, like, what would happen if somebody hired me to do 40 versions of this? It would suck. Similarly with a lot of the work here, a lot of the beauty in it is its uniqueness, its failures, the fact that it wasn't made by a programmer, the fact that it was made by one person. When you put a team of 40 developers on something, it's going to look slick, but it's going to lose a little bit of the grit. So yeah, it shouldn't scale up.
[00:34:48.040] Kent Bye: Yeah I think that there's this natural tension for all of like what is the consumer market and also what is the art or the avant-garde or the thing that's really experimental in that way and obviously there's going to be temperamental balances for people for what they're drawn towards. What I find interesting is that that these types of pieces that you made I feel like push the medium forward as to what's possible in terms of What type of ways that you move objects through space? How does that make me feel? How could I abstract this out into some sort of experiential design framework and then apply it to other experiences that may catalyze some idea for me of like, oh, I think this sucks. I'm going to do something better. This is my idea. It sort of creates this dialectic.
[00:35:24.603] Filip Kostic: Yeah, I think that, for instance, my students, not to like plug them constantly, but they're really great, are doing that. We are all doing that, what you're explaining, which is like pushing the thing forward in ways in which we're interested in it moving forward. I think it's now down to like I want to place the responsibility on the publications and the people that are writing about this to really be critical of the world that we're creating with VR and AR and immersive technologies and start to look elsewhere outside of Silicon Valley or tech spheres. There are other people working on this with way less money that are doing way more interesting things. So I want to see more diversity in the representation of it. Absolutely. And I can't be my own PR person, nor do I want to. But what I'm arguing for is that these people should look further and harder and more outwardly. I would love them to feature my students' work. I imagine a world in which I don't know, tech insiders like looking at a bunch of schools that are using VR and AR in their curriculum and like what projects they're coming up with in like 10 weeks, you know? Super interesting stuff, like really fascinating. But it's hard to get there. We're working really hard.
[00:36:47.578] Kent Bye: Yeah, you know I was collaborating for a long time with Road to VR and then I've sort of just started to do my own thing because I felt like there's a little bit of like I was more interested in the more avant-garde art and other more esoteric topics and so there was a little bit more of a deviation but that what I see right now is that with web VR about to come up online I expect to see a lot more smaller scale experiences that may be easier to get out there but that It's an opportunity to do a lot more smaller experiments that really push the medium forward. But there's also this larger need for the curatorial process of each individual to be able to see experiences and then just spread the word amongst their own friends or some sort of other formalized ways of maybe creating a virtual world that is like a portal into these different experiences. So if you wanted to be like, oh, here's all my students' work, and categorize it and match the temperament of each of the pieces into the architecture of the space that allows you to kind of discover things. And I feel like there hasn't been that natural discovery component to this medium because it's been in these walled garden app ecosystems without that open-ended connecting to these different worlds.
[00:37:53.077] Filip Kostic: Yeah. I mean, there are some, like there's this thing called the Digital Museum of Digital Art, DeModa for short, that curates I think twice a year, like, virtual art shows that you can just download and a bunch of artists make virtual spaces within it that are some interactable, some not. And that's exactly what you're talking about, sort of, except for the, like, ability to reach a lot of people. Like, a lot of people know about it, but not the entire world. Like, not everybody that knows about Gorn knows about this as well. And I'm just using Gorn as, like, one example. There's plenty of other games that people know about. But... You know, that's hard because right now it's really inaccessible. Like, who has headsets? A bunch of developers and our friends and institutions. It's not the cheapest thing to get a hold of. It's not easy to distribute. And WebVR, frankly, right now, is not there quite yet. So there's a lot of catching up that we're doing, and we're getting there. But I think you're right. WebVR is an inkling of an opportunity for us to be able to democratize this thing a little bit more. But again, I worry about the scalability of these things. With WebVR comes, like, With large, democratic, easy-to-access things comes like ad space and incentivize projects that are paid for by big corporations that may have certain agendas. So that stuff scares me a little bit. So I almost like it as small as it is. It's antithetical to everything we've been talking about, but it's in a nice spot right now where people can make these really experimental gestures that can literally change the fabric of the time that VR is existing in and not suffer for it. And those gestures cannot become commodified yet, which is important, I think, for the growth of it. The reason why it's slowing down, I think, is because of the way in which it's being commodified. It, like, obviously doesn't work. Like, why isn't there a headset in every house? Because, like, that's not practical. Yeah. You know?
[00:39:56.708] Kent Bye: Anyways. It seems to me, or what happened with film, with the cinema of attractions phase, where there was a lot of experimentation, avant-garde, but then once it got commercialized, then a lot of those people that were interested in that tended to go away and start to be interested in other things. There seems to be always this avant-garde antithesis to the commercialization, but that it does feel like we're in that cinema of attractions equivalent phase right now.
[00:40:18.739] Filip Kostic: I mean, there's like the Hollywood of VR as well, and there's the same way that Hollywood monotonizes and like flattens and makes algorithmic a film, the same thing happens in VR. And that's largely to do with like who's being publicated, where the money is right now, and who's working with the technology. I don't think that people ever left from the cinema, the people that were being experimental and avant-garde. I think it's just like they went out of the public eye, not the public eye, but like out of the like larger consumer eye and has survived because of it, you know, like you can't do crazy things in Hollywood. You have to fit a certain budget. You have to meet a certain demographic. There's check marks you have to check off. And those check marks are really the things that like within every field make it more difficult to make growth happen. You can't grow while you're consistently trying to check off diversity. Not that diversity shouldn't be checked off. It just shouldn't be a check mark. It should be like the default. We should diversify spaces. But when we make them a check mark, progress doesn't go anywhere. You know, it's hard.
[00:41:24.608] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:41:33.942] Filip Kostic: I think we're still figuring that out. I don't want to like coin it yet. I don't want to say it's something and then get there and then be like, okay, we got to do something else. I think the biggest potential for VR though is like us not responding to it attached to something else. So not like what a VR movie is, but like what is VR? And like, so long as people continue to use like iterative prototyping and make work by responding to the thing they're working with, I think the like we don't know and that's the exciting thing like we have yet to find out and like I would go as far as to say that like anyone that says that like this is the ultimate thing is like kind of full of themselves maybe and Is really wrong and stifling us and like actually moving forward It's more exciting to not know
[00:42:29.916] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the VR community?
[00:42:32.897] Filip Kostic: No, but thank you for interviewing me. It was a pleasure.
[00:42:36.618] Kent Bye: Awesome, great. Well, thank you so much. Yeah, appreciate it. So that was Philip Kostik. He's a virtual reality artist as well as a teacher at the Arts Center College in Design. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, the fact that Philip is trying to do what is essentially a deconstruction of the normal tropes that we see within these Western stories. And so he's taking a topic that's usually very loaded with either colonialism, misogyny, masculinity, and he's trying to break it down into these different component parts and do something that you wouldn't typically expect within a story. I mean the thing that was really striking about this experience was that you're sitting there looking at something unfold within this virtual reality experience and there's like nothing really happening. There's like a cowboy who's like tapping his foot and maybe a minute or two there's like no change and typically within a VR experience you expect to see something happening. And so Philip wanted to communicate this anxiety that he has in the process of creating something like this to be able to see if he's able to, you know, have something that's really able to actually connect to the audience. But it also was invoking this tension as I was watching it. You know, it turns out that he was actually able to have this really amazing payoff by it does turn into this really dynamic and changing experience. But if you would have just jumped right into that, it wouldn't have had the contrast of the nothingness that is happening there. And so he's really trying to use the spatial computing medium of virtual reality to try to mimic what actual experiences are. A lot of times when you have an experience, you go into an experience and there may be periods and times within that experience where there's nothing much that's actually happening. and you have this consonance and dissonance cycles of building of tension and then releasing of that tension and sometimes that building of tension is that there's nothing really happening and so he wanted to really capture that and I thought that this is one of the first pieces that really embraced that and wanted to try to really play with exploring these feelings of anxiety and it makes me think of what I've been referring to as this yin archetypal dynamic which is that it's more about the reception and the ecosystem and it's less about you becoming the hero and it's about you receiving a larger experience and you seeing how you as an individual are connected to a larger whole. And so for anybody that's seen Bandersnatch on Netflix, it's an interactive film and part of the experience that you have while watching Bandersnatch is that there's different moments that are asking you to reflect upon you as a participant within the process of this experience, and that it's really kind of breaking the fourth wall in those ways and asking you to think about your participation within the context of this experience, especially when it comes to the balance between fate and free will, but also how much agency do we actually have within our lives? So I think the nature of these interactive media are that it's asking you to reflect upon you as an individual, but it may be less about the hero's journey of what's happening in the story, but also asking you to reflect upon your own direct experiences. And I think that as a medium, that's one of the huge things that virtual reality does, is that it's asking you to be a participant. Philip said that you know it doesn't work for him to become a hero within a VR experience because he's still embodied within his own experience and that it takes quite a lot of Context shift for him to jump into a context in which he actually does feel like he's the hero And so he said it's still about primarily my own direct experiences and so maybe there's something about these typical heroes journeys types of experiences that maybe that's better for a 2d medium in a film and and that the virtual reality medium is about something else or something different. Maybe you can still do that. Maybe you can still have this fantasy fulfillment of you being able to actually step into the shoes of your hero, but it's possible that it has a completely different strength as a medium, which could be exploring these different feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame, and trauma, and depression, or these other aspects that are kind of hard to grasp within the context of a 2D film, but that once you're immersed within the ecosystem and environment, that it can actually be a little easier to evoke these more nuanced and complicated emotions that don't necessarily fit into the formula of a hero's journey. So for me, I see that this is part of the larger trajectory of breaking out of these linear dichotomous simplified models that fit into what we call tropes or these story structures of these characters that are going to these different situations. And you have predictable interactions that happen in that. And I think that in some ways, the virtual reality medium is able to break apart and deconstruct a lot of those typical tropes and to maybe create new tropes or to really focus on how you as an individual are connected to the larger whole of an ecosystem. So It's moving beyond these simplified linear models and moving into these more complicated nonlinear network graph processes. So it's more about you being in relationship to a larger ecosystem and how you're connected to those individual parts, but also seeing how the ecosystem is unfolding in different ways that are bringing about these different emotions. And I think that architecture is a huge part of where this is going to be a fusion of all of these different disciplines, whether it's architecture or game design or music design, you know, how to basically translate the modulations of space, these spatial experiences and objects moving through that space, you being able to make choices and take action and interact with the environment in different ways. And somehow that mysteriously gets translated into a direct experience and an emotion. And when I suggested to Philip that this is a very iterative design process, and if he had any insights into how to actually make this translation, he agreed that it is very much an iterative process where you are calibrating your own sense of design intuition as you're creating these different virtualized experiences. you go in and you see how you feel and then you show it to other people and then over time you sort of build up a deeper intuition for how to create these interesting or striking types of experiences that are trying to draw out these very specific emotions. And Philip said that he wanted to create this experience so that he could then afterwards have a very specific conversation with people and that he found that it was much easier to create an embodied virtual environment and simulation for people to go through and that that would give them a very specific experience. And then after that, he was able to have a very specific conversation with them that he would have never been able to have without them having that embodied experience. And I think that's a fascinating idea, just that if you want to actually explore some different concept, then Maybe it's you starting with a philosophical idea and then you embodying it within the context of an entire ecosystem and you build up this world and you give someone a direct experience of it. And then after that, that leads to some interesting conversations that you would have never had otherwise. in that Philip's really interested in the contingency or the relationship between the physical space and virtual space and how those are related to each other and that how you can't actually have a full experience of the virtualized space without having access to some physical space and so this piece was specifically designed for a virtual installation that had a platform that was supposed to be one-to-one. The context in which I saw it was reduced in some ways and so you actually had teleportation but just a point that in order to really explore different aspects of virtualized space he was having you walk through the physical space and that he's building up a whole self-enclosed shelter right behind you and it's quite a stark experience to be able to be in this vast virtualized western environment and then to then walk into this very enclosed shed that has been just constructed from wood that is coming from a bridge that you see fly over. And so that was certainly a new experience I've never had, which is to see a bridge in one context and see that architecture be deconstructed and have new architecture behind me formed so that then I could then step into that little space that had just been created in this kind of ad hoc magical fashion, and then to see the next phase of the musical unfold with the main protagonist cowboy there singing. And that Philip also wanted to deconstruct your own sense of identity where the only thing that you have is like this cowboy hat on. And so you can see your shadow of a cowboy hat with your controllers as you're walking around. And he was really asking you to think about the symbolism of what that cowboy hat represented. And I think it's part of his larger deconstruction of the Western trope and asking you to jump into these different contexts within those normal associations and to show you something that's completely different. That's trying to be pithy and it's self-reflection as you walk and see and listen to the music You're like experiencing different things that may be feeling frustrating and then the lyrics of the song are talking about how he's deliberately trying to make you frustrated or talk about these deeper philosophical ideas about reflections or thinking about the horizon line and the vanishing points and this exploration of the expression of emotions. You know, you're sitting there and seeing the cowboy with his back turned to you and he's like starting to kind of hum or sing a song. It's sort of like you're staring off at the vanishing point. And he was very much inspired by this metaphor as looking out into the horizon of how things that are so far away that you're never actually reaching there. And that being kind of a reflection of how men connect with their emotions in different ways. So there's actually a lot about this piece that I wouldn't have necessarily like said that that's what the artist's intention was to be able to do this. But there's my own direct experience that I had in the experience, which is that there was a number of really interesting things that I had never seen before. But there was also this deep philosophical intention that the artist had embedded within the context that I would have never known about if I wouldn't have had the opportunity to talk to the artist right after I saw it. And so. That's typically why I like to do the type of journalism that I do, which is to go to these different environments that in some ways rely upon other curators to be able to put together a series of different experiences that they think are interesting in some different ways. And then I'm able to go in and have these different experiences and then have an opportunity to directly connect with artists who created it within that context. And I think That's a big reason why I like going to Sundance and Tribeca and these types of art shows is because I have an opportunity to see these diverse sets of types of experiences that may go beyond what is typically available on Steam or itch.io. Now, that said, I think there is a role for people to really do this deep exploration of all the different latest experiences and If you are creating VR experiences, then I think it's up to you as a creator to start to go out and find those things on your own or to listen to people who are helping to curate these different types of experiences that have different things that are interesting about them in different ways. And I think there's a huge role for people to serve in that curatorial process of going out there, having these experiences and sharing what is interesting or intriguing to you. There is this tension between the economically viable types of experiences that actually do have a large budget and are trying to, in some ways, serve a very specific purpose of a market and, you know, create something that is going to be interesting for enough people for them to be self-sustaining in that venture. And I think Philip's approach is almost like the opposite. It's, you know, in some ways, some of the themes that were covered in Bandersnatch, which is. you know, whether or not you as a game developer are going to go off and create something completely on your own, that is trying to push forward the boundaries in different ways. Or as soon as you start to have larger and larger teams start to work on something, then you have to have lots of more resources. And it becomes harder to have this balance between this innovation that you're doing and trying to push the edge of what's possible and be really experimental, which is risky versus doing something that is going to fit into what has proven to be a market demand previously. So, you know, from Phil's perspective, he's not so much interested in the commercialization of virtual reality, but he's really on the more artist avant-garde realm where he's trying to push the medium forward in ways that he finds interesting and to be working with other artists and helping guide and direct them into. exploring the medium and seeing what's possible and to really be on the bleeding edge of trying to create something that maybe no one else in the world has even thought of doing before and to really push for the medium in a way that is trying to really discover the fundamental characteristics of what the medium really is. I think everybody in the industry is still trying to figure out what those fundamental component parts are. And it's hard to both do that exploration of the medium and do something that's a smash commercial hit. And for Philip, he's not necessarily interested in the commercialization, but he just wants to really continue to push the edges of what's even possible within the medium. So, that's all that 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 listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.