#862 DocLab: An Oral History of VR Art with MoMA Guest Curator Kathy Brew

Photo: © h. nazan ışık

Kathy Brew tried her first VR experience at NASA Ames in 1985. She’s been at the intersection of art of technology for a long time, and she was at IDFA DocLab scouting for immersive experiences as a guest curator of Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) Doc Fortnite program. I had a chance to sit down with Brew at the end of my DocLab journey in order capture some historical context from her experiences in San Francisco from 1981 to 1994, and then in New York City since 1994.

Brew said that one of the most amazing experiences that she’s ever had in VR was Char Davies’ Osmose at a SoHo art show in 1995, which has the following description:

Osmose (1995) is an immersive interactive virtual-reality environment installation with 3D computer graphics and interactive 3D sound, a head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance. Osmose is a space for exploring the perceptual interplay between self and world, i.e., a place for facilitating awareness of one’s own self as consciousness embodied in enveloping space.

Osmose (1995) – Char Davies – 16 min

This would an impressively ambitious experience if it was released today, let alone for being created in 1995. It certainly left an impression on Brew, as it still stands as the most powerful experience in VR that she’s ever had.

One of the things that really stuck with Brew was that it was an experience that was able to engage people as they were waiting to experience it from within the VR headset. Throughput and waiting in lines in the bane of existence for all screenings of immersive works, and it’s something that doesn’t have a perfect solution yet since there’s always less capacity and less space to handle the demand to see the content. Brew shares her frustrating experiences at festivals like Tribeca, and she’s tired of waiting and wants to just see the work. The Ayahuasca VR experience had an exhibition at the Eye Filmmuseum started to create supplemental content for people to look at within a museum context that including music, videos, and art work. There were a lot of interesting things to look at before the 20+ minute screening, which could help reduce some of the idle waiting time by providing a museum layout of onboarding content.

Brew also serves as a guest curator for MoMA’s Doc Fortnite, and she’s been collaborating with immersive curators for the Non-Fiction Plus that includes NFB Interactive, MIT Open Doc Lab, MIT Co-Creation Lab, Ars Electronica, and this year it’ll be IDFA DocLab chief programmer Caspar Sonnen.

So my DocLab journey ends with looking into the past in order to look into the future.

Overall, I had an amazingly packed 4-day trip where I was able to see nearly all of the experiences, do 17 interviews totaling over 10 hours of conversations. This was edited down to 9 hours, and then I added back 3.5 hours of intros and outros contextualizing it all for a total of a 12.5-hour series. Hopefully you enjoyed it and have been able to get a lot out of insights from it.

Thanks for listening, and please consider supporting this work on Patreon at https://patreon.com/voicesof



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

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So this is the final episode of my series of looking at some of the narrative innovations that were coming out of IDFA DocLab. And I thought I had wrapped up my coverage, and then as the very end of the night of that Sunday night, run into Kathy brew and which kind of fell into a conversation because you know She's someone who's had a long history within the media and arts and evolution of art technology She had her first VR experience back in 1985 at NASA Ames and just has been involved within the art scene tracking the evolution of art and technology She's been a guest curator at MoMA Helping to put together the doc fortnight there and bringing in other guest curators from around the interactive and immersive space so Anyway, I think there's a nice bit of history to kind of end to this looking into the future, but also looking into the past and see what has already been done and looking at the legacy and the history of some of the different projects and innovators. And to just kind of hear some of those different experiences and how some of those problems that we're facing today may have different solutions that we can look into the past to find. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Kathy happened on Sunday, November 24th, 2019 at the IDFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:31.635] Kathy Brew: Well, my name is Kathy Brew. I'm from New York. I'm here at IDFA DocLab at IDFA's International Documentary Film Festival here in November of 2019. This is my fourth time of coming here. I have a long history in media and art and the evolution of art and technology over the years. So how do I even begin to tell you? I put on a VR helmet in 1985 at NASA Ames. So when I come to see some of this work, we're seeing VR art projects. It's great, but you know what? It's not entirely new. The technology is evolving and changing, but in another way, we're not quite there yet.

[00:02:21.858] Kent Bye: So maybe you could give me a bit more context as to how you ended up at NASA Ames and how you saw your first VR project and a bit more context as to your background.

[00:02:32.685] Kathy Brew: So, I'm from New York, but I lived in the Bay Area from 1981 to 1994. It was a very formative time for me. I'm a girl from the 50s, so I was in my 30s, in the 80s, and it was a very interesting time in the Bay Area. Still is, but now it's overly Google-ized and too much in the tech land, but I was running a very unusual artist-in-residency project about artists making site-specific installations in a very unusual house that an artist designed that a patron supported. It was called Cap Street Project. And a very unusual and very interesting sound artist named Marianne Amache was the artist in residence who was making a very site-specific sound installation. And she had a history from MIT Media Lab. and brought in people who were very involved in stereoscopic imagery, including a guy named Scott Fisher, who was very important in early telepresence history and stereoscopic imagery. And he was with the Aspen Media Project of the mapping way before Google mapping existed with Michael Namark. So these were all friends of mine. Jaron Lanier with the virtual glove and the goggle in the Bay Area. I was living there all in that time. I met all these people and they were my friends. Armando 2000, a very like kind of alternative multimedia magazine, Wired, all of that stuff was going on at the time I lived there. So, you know, you just absorb where you live and take it in. And the art and technology was a very interesting thing in the Bay Area at that time. I moved back to New York in 1994. I've continued to pay attention to the evolution of contemporary art and media and technology. I ran an art and technology initiative for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council from 1997 until 2001. called Thunder Gulch, and it was when Silicon Alley was bubbling up after Silicon Valley. And I liked always telling friends, I'm from New York, I lived in the Bay Area, and guess what? Manifest destiny reversed. It really was happening first on the West Coast. And New York doesn't like acknowledging that, but it's true. But You know, every place has its note and what's happening more. So maybe in the Bay Area it's more like the techie guys and in New York it's still like, you know, the content cultural creators and art and things are happening more. I've been back in New York since 1994 and I have always kept paying attention. I taught in the SVA computer art department. Graduate students coming to that program didn't even know what computer art was. They thought it was only 3D animation. They had no idea it was about interactive installation, robotic sculpture, web projects. So I kept channeling to them an exposure class. As I said, I ran this art and technology initiative from 97 to 2001, advocating for artists making new work. One day you should interview us together. And he will. No, because actually, as Michaela is pointing out, in 1995, when I first moved back to New York, I experienced one of the most powerful VR pieces that I think any of us have maybe ever experienced. And it was a piece by Char Davies called Osmos. You put on a harness, you had goggles, you had the haptic, amazing, embodied experience with a visual experience. But, if you weren't the one in the harness, you still had an experience. I think that's one of the biggest challenges we have to the work these days still. It's that singularity versus the collectivity of shared experience. And you know, that's what film gives you. You sit in a theater, you watch it. The individual user experience is great, but when you queue up and you can't even get on to the project, it's not that satisfying. So I'm very interested to see what IDFA is doing this year with the Ayahuasca experience over at Eye Museum with the museum experience for the combination of the private VR experience with the possibility of a more expanded audience exposure to the work. I think we have a lot of things to still work out. But I'm always open to and interested in the progression of where we're going.

[00:07:32.397] Kent Bye: And we had a chance to meet the other day and you were telling me that you were doing some work with MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. So maybe you could tell me a bit about what you're doing relative to immersive stories and art when it comes to MoMA.

[00:07:44.587] Kathy Brew: Okay. So with MoMA, I am only a guest curator. I'm not on staff. I have been curating for the last three years, a series called Doc Fortnight. That's mostly been what they call at Sheffield, flattease. which are two-dimensional films, which, as somebody who still makes those kind of films, I don't find particularly flattering. But, as I pointed out, I have also always still been paying attention to the progression of technology and art and expression, fiction or non-fiction. So, When I was charged with doing Doc Fortnight three years ago, I said, well, we're in the 21st century. I only have theaters, but hello, we have to at least pay attention to what's going on with nonfiction new media. I didn't have time enough to curate films from around the planet and new media projects. A very small staff, me and an intern. So, with my history and knowledge, I said, okay, well then I'm going to curate an entity who's paying more attention to this on an ongoing basis. So the first year I curated Rob, who's here today at IDFA, and a colleague from Montreal, Hughes, and NFB Interactive did a presentation in a theatrical setting, sort of a PowerPoint show-and-tell, with clips and a dynamic range of projects coming out of NFB Interactive. So, interactive docs, AR projects, other things. Second year, MIT Open Doc Lab. Kat Cizak, who's been cited here tonight. Sarah Wollonen, who's with the Co-Creation Lab. And William Riccio. This past year, Ars Electronica and media artist Victoria Vesna from UCLA, who's on the jury. This upcoming year, in 2020, I'm very happy to say it's going to be Casper and Open Doc Lab. And then I am curating four other projects that are non-fiction plus, because I've been now charged to not do the whole film project, but to do a sidebar. And it had to be thematic. Well, I don't go from the top down. I go from the ground up when I curate everything. But once I already knew I was going to have Casper and my own history with new media, I said, OK, I'm going to have as broad a category as I can do. It'll be nonfiction plus. I'm going to have Casper do a spread. I'm going to probably do a very interesting artist web project. I'm going to probably do a performative documentary. like a la Sam Green but not Sam Green. Maybe a multi-channel video installation with show and tell clips and a conversation with the artist and a collaborator from non-fiction. And 360 film, Traveling While Black. If you've seen it, it's an amazing project about the real Green Book story. Working out all the details, but it'll be in February 2020 at MoMA. So I'm going to keep pushing the envelope.

[00:11:06.908] Kent Bye: I had a chance to see a lot of the experiences here and to talk to Casper. And he said something to me that is really sticking with me. He said that maybe the essence of interactive is that you put something of yourself into the experience and that you see a reflection of that in some way. In some experiences you just passively receive, but putting something into the experience means that the experience changes and it gets better in some way. And that if you don't interact, then you don't get as much out of it. So in some ways, the more you put in, the more you get out. And that's sort of the essence of a good immersive experience, is that you try to push the edges of what type of character of yourself that you can put into the experience, and hopefully that will be able to amplify or modulate or create some sort of novelty. I think that there is this shift from the passive reception into this active engagement and participation and so in the art world it seems to be like you're going in and you're in some ways passively receiving art that's hanging up on the wall looking very beautiful but what you're doing isn't changing what the art is doing.

[00:12:05.666] Kathy Brew: That's like William is talking about this today in these panels it's about storytelling versus story finding. And some of us are more into the open platform where we discover and find ourselves in the context of the story and relate to it. So it's not a linear narrative. And I think we're in a very interesting time to look at all these modes of how to present these stories. You know, I will say, I think, you know, sometimes it's, still a value to be led into a story. I mean, traveling while black, I don't know if you've seen it. It's incredibly powerful.

[00:12:48.683] Kent Bye: Yeah. I had a chance to see it at Sundance 2019 and talk to Roger Ross Williams about it. And yeah, it was a super, just to hear about his process of making it as well. And especially in the contrast of the Green Book movie, you know, seeing that sort of an antidote to that, where you have that,

[00:13:03.510] Kathy Brew: I mean, did any of us think the Green Book was the best film of whatever year that was? I don't think so. I mean, those actors are great, but I mean, the contrast of the fictionalized story to the reality of traveling while black, to me, I mean, and talk about, that's where I think the power of even 360 Maybe at the moment is more powerful than VR because yes, you're being led, but you are immersed You are embodied in the story. You are there with the people you are in the physical space with them you move around and you are Empathizing and I know it's an overused word with VR, but you are there You feel it. You're like in the physical space with them in this virtual place that I'm actually more interested in that at the moment and then I don't really need too many joysticks to like point and shoot and like you know trigger you know I think we're not quite there yet in my mind I think you know we'll keep going there and I think we're in the R&D phase but I think something like the 360 films that really bring you to a place and embody you in a place in a different way than a flat screen is really interesting.

[00:14:25.934] Kent Bye: Well, because you have had your first VR experience in 1985, and then, you know, I've seen a lot of those early days of VR, I'm really curious, because you have such an inclination towards these artistic storytelling type of experiences, like, when were some of the first artistic pieces of virtual reality that you started to see?

[00:14:46.497] Kathy Brew: I will tell you one, and actually, Michela, who's doing the beautiful dome work here at IDFA, I went up to her because I was very inspired by her presentation the other day. Were you there? And I worked at the Museum of Natural History, co-directing a documentary film festival, but we have the big planetarium shows, and I'm friends with the guy who produces them, and he does, besides the canned shows, which are very highly produced, well done, But to me what's the most interesting thing what he does in the planetarium is these live fly-through in the data kind of digital storytelling. So I just went up to her because I actually have a friend who's making a theatrical piece about Kepler in domes and she did it in the California Academy of Sciences and she's having trouble finding venues. So when I'm thinking about my friends and their artwork and I meet people, so I introduce myself to Michaela and then we sat next to each other and we had a great chat and then she turned to me and she said, have you ever seen Char Davies' Osmos? And I said, yes. I saw it in 1995 in a gallery in Soho. And Char Davies was one of the founders of Soft Image, which is a big thing with Daniel Langlois. And Michaela and I both have admitted, and we just talked to Casper about it and said he should bring it to IDFA next year. It was, almost 25 years ago, one of the most powerful VR experiences I've ever had. And I'm seeing a lot of new things, but I'm not an anachronist, but in terms of embodiment of physical experience and giving people 25 years ago, you're not queuing up and waiting to put the headset on yourself. You're having a tangential experience while you're waiting to go strap yourself in. It was really prescient.

[00:16:59.615] Kent Bye: So you're, you're kind of floating and what are the people doing? Are they like, how are they interacting with you? Cause they're not in VR. There's one person in VR, but there's people on the side and what are they doing?

[00:17:08.660] Kathy Brew: Well, they're, they're witnessing a projection and having a visual experience. I mean, I haven't gone, um, I'm hearing as we're here this time that the Ayahuasca VR piece, have you experienced it?

[00:17:22.288] Kent Bye: Yeah, I've seen it a few times, yeah.

[00:17:23.429] Kathy Brew: Well, I've seen it in New York, and I will actually say off the record, I've had the... We're on the record, so... Well, I've had another kind of experience. But I am very interested because of this discussion about the singularity of the VR experience with the line and the weight and the blah, blah, which I'm hearing that they're trying to have a different paradigm at the Eye Museum right now. And I am going to definitely go over there. I'm here till next Sunday, so I'm definitely going. I want to see the Tarkovsky show, but I want to see how they're presenting the possibility of having the singularity of the VR experience if you have that time slot. But if you don't, and you're still in that environment, you can have an experience without having that ticket. And I think that's one of the biggest challenges of this work. Because, I mean, We like collective experience. If you're going to a public space, we can all log on to our computers and look at links. But if we're going to see something, I mean, this is, I think, the hugest challenge of this work, is how to present it the singularity of the personal experience, but if there's more people waiting to have it, how can they have an aspect of it without the full-on thing? And I think some of the conversations today have been discussing that.

[00:19:02.374] Kent Bye: And is there any other Experiences that stand out or like because I know there's been a lot of people like Ben Delaney with cyber edge journal and a lot of like at that time it was so expensive that a lot of it was like research and military and enterprise applications, but you know for So like what else was happening in terms of art that was happening? I?

[00:19:24.372] Kathy Brew: Well, do you know about the whole like Aspen movie mapping project that people were doing? Well, look into it. I mean, it was a really interesting way before Google mapping, people were doing these Michael Namarck, Scott Fisher, these people were doing all of this early research and presentation of locating spaces in this other way. The Exploratorium in San Francisco had one of Michael Namarck's projects, flying over the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, there's a lot of historical precedence.

[00:20:04.542] Kent Bye: Well, for you, what are some of the either biggest open questions that you're trying to answer or problems you're trying to solve with the work that you're doing now?

[00:20:13.452] Kathy Brew: Well, in relation to this work, I think I've even said some of it. I think the biggest challenge is how to engage audiences beyond the singularity. And the lineup and like, I'm waiting and I can't get, I mean, I've gone to the New York Film Festival. I've gone to Tribeca Interactive. You queue up, you sign up for your slot. You're waiting. You can't get in. And it's like, I'm over it. I don't really want to wait any longer. I'd like to experience it, but we don't know how to quite deal with this form yet as a collective public experience. Yeah, we can all log on, we can all jack in on the computer, whatever. Eventually we'll all be born with third eye cameras or goggles, but You know, there's something about the collective experience, like going to a film, like going to a performance, like going to a conference. And some of these VR and new media experiences want to capture some of that. And yet, figuring out of how to do that, I don't think we're there yet.

[00:21:27.999] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of immersive technologies, immersive art, or immersive storytelling might be and what they might be able to enable?

[00:21:39.594] Kathy Brew: Well, that's a very big question. I mean, let's save the world. I mean, I don't know. I mean, I think the word of empathy is overused, but I think, I think traveling while black is a very good example of the feeling of really being there. I mean, you can watch a film and you can, you can feel like you're kind of there, but when your work, even like a 360 film, which isn't full on VR, but, You are in the environment. You are there with the people. They're telling you their story. You can almost touch them. You are embodied in the environment of the story, and you do have a deeper empathy and connection to it, I think. I think that's the strength of this, and we're going to see more and more of it.

[00:22:39.252] Kent Bye: OK, awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you.

[00:22:42.719] Kathy Brew: Thank you so much. Pleasure.

[00:22:45.448] Kent Bye: So that was Kathy brew. She's somebody who's a guest curator at the MoMA for the doc fortnight, and she's got a long history and media and art and the evolution of art and technology. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, I always like to get little aspects of the oral history and to hear Kathy's story of her time that she spent in the Bay area from 1981 to 1994. Hanging out with all these different people in the VR scene the technology scene that sounds like she's talking about, you know Scott Fischer and working with Marianne Emissie and Looking at bringing in the different aspects of stereoscopic art and VPL's Jaron Lanier but she ended up going to NASA Ames and seeing one of her first VR experiences in 1985 and and then eventually moved back to New York City back in 1994. She's been there ever since in New York City and just saw Char Davis' Osmos in 1995. And yeah, it's one of the best experiences that she said she's ever had. And it sounds like that there's ways that they were able to incorporate people as they're waiting in line in order to be engaged with looking at the spectacle or looking at some sort of projection map. I thought that the Marshmallow Laser Feasts show at the Saatchi Gallery of We Live in an Ocean of Air, I thought they did also a great job of creating kind of a spectacle of interesting things to look at while you're waiting in line. Or just if you're at the museum, you'd be able to come in and see other people watch VR art piece and that within itself becomes an art piece. And so kind of having a meta layer of how do you make it interesting for people who are not in the VR experience to have either something to do or something interesting to look at. So it sounds like the osmosis was doing some of that stuff and also just integrating different ways of being able to detect your breathing and having this whole haptic experience that seemed to be pretty advanced for that time. And even to this day, I've heard from a number of people that was one of the most impactful experiences that they've ever had. So yeah, the distribution and showing of immersive content is a huge challenge. Each of the different festivals take a little bit of different approach. She was mentioning like a little bit of the, the panic of Tribeca where you wait in line, you get in and then you, there's like this mad rush. You go to these different immersive experiences and you basically sign up and then, you know, sometimes you have some wait list or ways to drop in. But I think this past year at Tribeca, there was a lot of things that were pre-scheduled. So you had to like deal with this huge rush and then you'd get to see a handful of experiences, but you know, you do all this waiting and it's almost like waiting for Black Friday and you have to do this mad rush and, you know, not being able to get into the different stuff that you really want to see. For me, I like to always say that there's some good balance between just being able to do a waitlist or drop by or have two separate lines with one side people just be able to wait there for however long it takes to get in there and then having some level of waitlist. And the challenge with the waitlisting is that if you go in there and have a bunch of people who kind of spam and sign up for a bunch of stuff, then it can be difficult to be able to see the stuff that you want to see. But the basic constraint here is that there's always more content than there's time to see it. So it's just a matter of capacity planning for a lot of times. But I think that a lot of what Kathy was saying is that, you know, there's gotta be other ways to kind of like create a pipeline where it feels like there's things for you to be engaged with or doing that doesn't necessarily mean that you're just kind of idling around and just waiting. I do think that the Ayahuasca experience at the Eye Museum was starting to experiment with that a little bit more with having like more of a public art showing with different artifacts and music and some different videos that you can watch before you actually go into the VR experience. And there's also this whole installation with people inside of it. So that becomes an art piece within itself to see this artifact of people that are sitting around in the circle that are completely unveiled within a virtual reality headset. And they're having this shamanic journey within a VR headset. So, yeah, I think talking about just some of the biggest challenges of how to keep audiences engaged beyond the singularity. And yeah, just thinking of other ways that you can actually start to solve that problem. So yeah, I guess the big takeaway here is just that, you know, there's things that seem very new and innovative, but they've also been happening in the past. And I think it's worth going back and hearing some of the stories. And, you know, I think like Kathy said, it'd be great to be able to have some of these experiences come back and for a new generation to be able to experience them because, you know, I wasn't necessarily thinking about virtual reality art shows back in 1995. So it'd just be nice to be able to see what the other stuff that was happening out there. And, you know, generally for all people to think about in the future, how to preserve and archive these different digital experiences so that people in the future, like I'm, you know, I'd love to be able to see this piece by Shara Davies and you know maybe there's other stuff from the early days of VR I'd love to be able to look at it but you know it's just difficult to get your hand on it especially if it was like using equipment that was like millions and millions of dollars so finding ways to like port it and get access to some of these different experiences. So anyway, that's sort of just a closing thought and yeah That's sort of wraps up my coverage from the IDFA doc lab and I'm doing about 17 different interviews there over nine hours with the conversations in the four days and over 30 different experiences that I got to see and participate on the whole day long IDFA doc lab and conference and so just a very packed schedule when I was there, but was able to really see that there's a lot of innovations that are still happening. For me, actually, some of the biggest takeaways were looking at the look inside and being able to try to characterize something that was not even necessarily like a virtual reality experience, but it was an immersive experience that was an audio tour and just helped me start to articulate what it is about the essence of an immersive experience and how to start to break it down and start to think about it. and just to see what's happening in the dome experiences and expanding the audiences. And I'm excited to see what types of narrative innovations are continuing to happen. A lot of experimentation and I've got lots of other coverage from the past year, but I thought this was a good self-contained series that actually had a lot of critical discourse and different theoretical thinking and trying to bring a larger context to a lot of this and looking at the history and the theory and the practice. of the creation of immersive storytelling and to try to draw out some of the different highlights of the experiences that I had there and to talk to the creators and kind of unpack their own process of experiential design and all the variety of different scopes and modes that they can use in order to construct these different types of immersive experiences. So that's all that I have for today and that's all for this whole series into the IDFA doc lab and if you've enjoyed this series then please do spread the word, tell your friends, share it with folks that you might think that they might be interested in and please do consider becoming a member of this Patreon. I really really do rely upon donations in order to bring you this coverage and I'm at the end of the year and needing to up my number of different donors. And so if you've been listening to the podcast for a while and if you listen to a lot of the series and you've thought, oh, I should probably do that. Well, now's a great time to do it. As I move into the new year, I've got a lot of big plans for what I want to start to expand out and to start to provide different recordings of different lectures I'm giving, perhaps doing some more live interactive stuff, but certainly just try to get out a lot of the content of these different series like I'm doing here. And I've just got a whole multitude of different series that I'd love to be able to dive into, different podcasts that I'd love to get launched up. So just a lot of big plans in the future. And yeah, just come join and help support the work that I'm doing here of independent scholarship, trying to facilitate different aspects of the community and research into ethics and privacy within virtual reality, and just generally tracking the evolution of the patterns of experiential design, different insights into storytelling, and the future of spatial computing in general. So if you like that and you want to see more, then please do become a member of the Patreon. Just $5 to $10 a month is a great amount to give and just allows me to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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