Artists and explorers are not that different. Both face the uncharted space outside and inside of themselves, risking security as an act of faith, and curiosity, that something worth beholding awaits them.
Estella Tse is both, and like most artist-explorers, she talks less about risk and more about discovery. For her, the uncharted space is creating in virtual and augmented reality, where she is helping to reinvent and reinforce art’s place in the world.
Last summer, as one of 15 Adobe AR Artists in Residence, Tse offered a vision of what those new worlds might do. At the Festival of the Impossible, sponsored by Adobe, Tse and her colleagues blended gallery artwork with AR integrations (see the video of Tse’s exhibit above). Behind the scenes, Adobe was learning about the user experience of Project Aero, its AR authoring tool.
Such partnerships are not rare for Tse. In addition to Adobe, she has worked with or presented to Google and Oculus as well as Pixar and Cartoon Network. At a more basic level, Tse has tried to help artists ease the transition into a new type of studio.
“I know being a VR painter can sound scary because it involves a PC, hardware you’re not familiar with, and hella wires,” she wrote to fellow artists earlier this year in her personal blog. “But it’s not that hard!”
When you watch her work that is exactly the way it looks. Whether she fluidly recreates Klimt’s “The Kiss” or Kahlo’s “Two Fridas” as intimate spaces that invite entry, or produces a “plein air” painting (her eyes are looking at a scene in virtual space, but her hands are painting in physical space), she explores the possibilities of straddling new and old realities.
If Tse is easy with new forms, her background might explain why. Her B.A. from UCLA is in sociology, but she is also trained and experienced in illustration, visual design, web design and front-end development. None of that background is left out of her work. The wide range of skills and knowledge seems to ground Tse. Being a keen observer of the nested worlds she regularly inhabits gives rare insight into digital life as most of us live it right now.
“When I talk to people about VR and AR, or even AI, at this point, people are saying, ‘Do you feel that we will have these representations of ourselves in the digital world, where we just exist in the VR space,” she says. “And technically we already do, on the internet and on social media. We already present ourselves differently on social media than we do in real life.” She laughs and adds, “This is my soc brain talking.”
It’s no wonder that just such a brain is useful to software companies. And the experience with Adobe rendered both philosophical and practical insights.
“The discovery process of using AR is very interesting to unveil the hidden meaning of things,” Tse says, “or the underlying core aspects of somebody that you wouldn’t otherwise know to look for, unless you have a long history with them.”
Tse says that AR and VR also map onto the mind, especially the memory, in meaningful ways. For example, she connects her ideas to the places where they occurred to her, so if a new idea forms at a coffee shop, the two link in her mind. And recently, at times, she’s realized those “places” have been virtual. That’s important for what these technologies might mean to human experience.
At the same time, Tse is practical when it comes to the tools needed to make this form of art.
“Right now, in this exploration phase, my limitations are the technology and what is available,” she says. But that’s why collaboration between technologists like Adobe developers and artists is so vital. “Right now, the two are so deeply entwined, they have to have space to play with each other, art and science, in order to produce something new.”
Note: This begins a monthly series exploring the collaboration between immersive technology and art forms.