Australian artist Lauren Moffatt’s experimental and immersive work spans film, VR and web performances, deconstructing how we perceive our surroundings and engaging with all our senses. The ‘earthy’ quality of her creative process, Octavia Butler’s book The Parable of the Sower, the role of ‘motion’ in VR; A.I.; tulpas, are some of the ideas we touched on in this interview.
The word ‘parable’ comes from the Greek ‘parabole’, a beam of light. In Latin, it took on the meaning of a ‘word’, related to the French ‘parler’, to speak. Like a ‘language’ of its own, light is a kind of enigma that makes things visible to us, but deconstructs how we see them. It’s the raw matter of film and photography, ever-changing, transformative -not to mention artificial light that evokes tech.
In Lauren Moffatt’s VR installations, we enter an immersive realm of light, somewhere hybrid and fragmented, a poetry of space 2.0 -and this is just one way to interpret her work.
We were curious to find out more…
I. Earthy inspirations
Air, fire, water, earth… which of these elements would you choose in relation to yourself and your creative practice, and why?
I guess I’m into earth. If we’re talking about the elements in the context of the four temperaments then I think I mostly tend toward the earth, autumn, the melancholic end of things.
I really like muted and desaturated palettes and choosing repetitive and lengthy processes that allow me to meditate with my work.
I like to develop my projects for a long time, it’s rare that I finish something in under a year.
I like writing quiet, thoughtful characters and I like older faces.
I’m not good at game playing or personas and I don’t like taking shortcuts with my work or my life.
I think all of that is pretty earthy stuff, to the point that it’s almost comical. I’m aware of how a ‘stick-in-the-mud’ I can be, and how the gloomier parts of some of my works might be a little confronting for some people, but I’m okay with it these days and can find the humour in it, because it’s also there.
Do you consider yourself spiritual and how might this feed into your work?
If I’m spiritual it’s in a pretty chaotic way.
My father is agnostic and my mother is both passionately religious and a retired scientist, and the apparent incompatibility of those belief systems made for a pretty strange childhood.
Logic, faith and method lived in close quarters.
The hours spent in church and studying the Bible created a space inside me that will always be filled with some questions and wonder about the invisible forces in life, but those aren’t solely sourced from certain books or prophets or performed in only one type of building.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the mind, and perception.
I’m trying to make peace with the fact that there are so many things our own minds and our intersecting experiences we don’t know about.
Those mysteries drive my work to a considerable extent.
Lauren Moffatt, Photo Credit: Josie McCoy
Is there a literary genre you enjoy most at the moment?
I will read anything, but I’m mostly into science fiction and fantasy. I just finished the Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents books by Octavia Butler, they broke my heart.
She is such an important writer in so many ways, but I am blown away by how she wrote about relationships.
I’m not sure if all readers have this same kind of experience, but for me she is able to strike these notes I was previously unaware of in the way people or entities exist together in such paradoxical connections.
Her characters can be simultaneously seduced and disgusted by one another, or they can depend on each other and simultaneously feel proud and terrified of each other.
Only a magician could build such subtle architectures in the minds of readers.
Does nature have a ‘cinematic feel’ for you -the jungle for instance, with its eerie kind of beauty in Flowers for Suzanne Clair?
This is an interesting question. I feel really overwhelmed by my wonder at nature: you know that feeling when you are so in love with something that you are unable to hold, it makes you clench your teeth a little, or curl your toes inside your shoes?
That’s the sort of response I have when I feel like I’m absorbed in a landscape or ecosystem.
I’m a sucker for that feeling, I am always looking for ways to describe it or recreate it using audiovisual language. I think it is a really difficult thing to achieve. For instance Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s films can do this for me, his work is an important influence for my new work Of Hybrids and Strings (Flowers for Suzanne Clair).
When I watch his films the sound and images tap into senses like smell and touch that shouldn’t normally be implicated in a film experience.
I feel so immersed that the story becomes a place. Time unwinds differently, in a way specific to the film.
It’s a maze trying to unpack how to do that.
II. Tech rhythms
The ‘walkthrough’ pieces you create in VR are immersive and mobile, seen and felt in motion. Are you drawn to dance or other aspects of movement that can amplify our experience of space?
Thanks so much for asking this, it’s something I’m really enjoying thinking about at the moment. Many times people assume that room-scale (walkable) VR is a natural offshoot from cinema, that it is like a film that surrounds the viewer and that they can walk around in and interact with.
But I think there is more to it than that.
With film the audience is seated and passive but with VR they actually perform their experience of the story through movement.
I find that phenomenal, it is so cool watching people move as they explore VR:
it becomes part of the narrative and you can see that the person is transformed by the experience, not just because of what they saw and heard, but also how they moved.
I think there is an instinct in our species to use our bodies to tell stories, and VR is able to engage with that part of our minds.
In this sense I see VR perhaps eventually taking its place alongside contemporary and classical dance disciplines and theatre as a cultural technique that provides for spatial narratives, and that can go even further and provide new experiences of the body.
It’s something that I really want to explore with my VR work.
I draw as a collagist, juxtaposing images and styles of mark-making from many sources. I lasso thoughts with a pen.” [Grayson Perry] What is your creative process like with drawing and sketching -also in tech, as ‘spatial collages’ perhaps?
When I’m sketching I’m usually using 3D modelling softwares like ‘Maya’ or ‘Unity’.
Since I am working three dimensionally it is the easiest way to be able to look at what I’m doing from multiple perspectives, but I feed the software with scanned scribbles or bashed-out paintings, also sometimes with photogrammetry scans or found assets, so actually they do end up kind of like collages or digital/physical assemblages.
It’s pretty rare these days that I’ll do a pure drawing sketch for something I’m working on, but it still happens sometimes, for storyboards or so.
VR being totally immersive is also like a ‘soundscape’, as in Beyond the Rubicon. What type of music, a particular piece or tune do you like to listen to or integrate in your work?
It is an ekphrastic piece that describes a Polish peasant driving an ox cart through a country road.
It begins really gently, with the tune of a folk song the driver is whistling and the rhythm of the oxen’s feet in the distance, then it slowly grows louder and stronger until these rolling snare drums come in and the melody reaches a crescendo.
You can feel the oxen struggling and the mud splattering off the heavy wheels as they pass you.
Then it slowly grows quieter again until all you hear is the faint tune and the hooves trudging, then there is silence.
I love how it places the listener at particular coordinates in this imaginary scene and how the sound creates this spatial story around him or her, it is virtual reality built with music.
Landscape-wise, can you tell us more about the three settings you chose for Local Binaries: Rijeka, Valencia and Jerusalem?
With Local Binaries I am collecting glitch 3D scans of cities in states bordering the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas , and then altering them slightly in given ways and populating them with characters that recite texts I collect on-site from locals.
The choice of these places began as a way to reflect on the immigration crisis and on xenophobia and it quickly expanded to incorporate ideas about collective consciousness, networked life and how emotional states can be expressed in landscapes.
So far there are editions in the works for Rijeka, Valencia and Jerusalem but I want to build it to somewhere between five and ten places, each with a particular theme, over the coming few years.
III. Alter Egos
Your installations transports us to these parallel worlds where on- and offline, virtual and real personas mix and collide… What do ‘avatars’ represent for you?
I’m interested — both fascinated and terrified — by the way that we can use the web to nullify our geographical limitations and project ourselves into a parallel realm.
For many people, and sometimes when I’m not careful for me too, that realm is the dominant reality. People come to value their cyber-personas more than their physical selves.
Somehow, being excluded or derided online can feel just as bad or worse than it does in physical reality.
I keep a respectful distance with online media for this reason, I think most of the time people don’t realise they are being toxic and likely that has been the case with me too.
In so many ways the internet is such a brilliant technology. It has allowed me to maintain relationships that would otherwise have laid dormant for years, and perhaps some of the people and events that inspire me a lot could not have existed without it, or at least I wouldn’t know about them.
I can’t imagine my mind without it… but I am not always convinced that the way we’re using it is making us better.
Through these mental spaces in VR or film your art shifts and reinvents our perceptions of time as well. What does the doppelgänger mean in Image Technologies Echoes, and the ‘tulpa’ in your video installation The Tulpamancer?
I’m interested in something called the ‘Cartesian Theatre fallacy’:
it’s the idea that there is a second, smaller self inside the body called a ‘homunculus’, a mini version of the person, that is perceiving the reality of the person as if it were a little cinema.
The term is derisive, and the concept, which originated with Descartes, is scorned by modern theorists because it suggests a sort of duality between mind and body and that has been debunked.
Still, I like this idea, that my body is an architecture and that there’s a little person hanging around in there trying to make sense of the story it is getting fed through my senses.
It somehow worked as a comforting allegory when I have felt lonely inside my body, like my body was a huge building, or a labyrinth, with only one person living inside wandering around the halls.
Lauren Moffatt, The Tulpamancer, 2019, web performance and immersive video
In The Tulpamancer I talk about how when I was trying to manage my first encounters with depression.
I developed this Cartesian Theatre idea into a sort of personal mythology and a strategy for defusing anxiety.
I made up this story about five homunculi that lived in different parts of my body, with each one responsible for a different aspect of my personality, they also had certain colours associated with them, certain seasons and so on, and when I was painting I would attribute certain palettes and tonal variations to each of the characters.
When I was freaking out about something I would imagine dialogues where I would ask one of the characters to help me figure it out.
A few years ago, actually I think I was in Dublin doing the first development work for Image Technology Echoes, I heard a podcast about tulpas and online tulpamancy communities and was really amazed:
finding out that this slightly creepy thing that I did when I was younger — I thought I was the only one in the world who would cook up something so weird —
actually has a name, and today there are people all over the world doing this thing and finding each other in forums and talking about it.
The Tulpamancer Exhibition View at Eikon, 2019-2020
But as I explained a little already, with online life there is often a darker side too, and the tulpamancy communities aren’t immune to that. I’m not sure if, had I had access to these online communities when I was a lonely fifteen year old, whether I would have had the same problems anyway or had even worse ones.
This is what I wanted to explore with The Tulpamancer.
How does chance and experimentation fit in to your creative process, as in Rose, Coloured? And potentially A.I or biology?
I really like chaos, and I think the nature of chaos is most palpable when you try to frame it with control and watch it blow everything to pieces.
I made Rose, Coloured when I was studying painting in Sydney.
I had to sit through lectures about expressionism and Jackson Pollock’s masculine energy revolutionising painting, all that jazzy stuff.
I liked some of the painting, but the idea popular among many of my teachers was that aggressive gestural mark-making using the entire body was superior, since it supposedly allowed the viewer to access the emotions and primal person-ness of the artist more directly.
The way I wanted to paint — figuratively and using highly controlled techniques to build obsessive details — was considered pretty daggy in that context.
“Crafty”, “Decorative”, this kind of thing.
This made me mad -for me one gesture of mark-making isn’t inherently more expressive than another.
So I started making miniature paintings using transparent pigments on slides and on 16 mm film.
When I projected them these tiny brushstrokes I was making blew out into what appeared as broad and frenzied streaks. Rose, Coloured was destroyed at some point not long before I left Sydney.
I only have it as a digital file now, but I’ve still got the slides and they’ve now been integrated into Image Technology Echoes.
I’ve experimented a little with deep writing frameworks for The Tulpamancer and Image Technology Echoes, it’s been a really interesting way for me to work with text. I’m also working a little with machine vision for Local Binaries
I like reading about AI and keeping up with what is possible and what other artists are doing, but so far I haven’t had any really big ideas about it for collaboration. I’m not quite sure I am on the bandwagon, I don’t know if I believe it is much more than human intelligence extrapolated from data we are giving away for free.
Data visualisation works can be just gorgeous and so visually seductive but they either conceal the menace that is beneath the surface or they sort of glamourise it and I’m a little uneasy with that for now.
I’m open to finding ways to express these thoughts in work though, that’s why I try to learn about it as much as possible, hoping I’ll find a form for that apprehension.
With bio work, I am so terrible with keeping my houseplants alive that it is kind of laughable to think that I might make create artwork with living cells, but unlike my response to AI art I unequivocally love good bio-art and bio-design work.
For Hybrids and Strings we are working with bioacoustics from plants for part of the soundtrack which is really exciting, I can’t wait to hear what we get with it.
A quote or word of wisdom that guides you these days…?
“All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change.”
― Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower
Header Image: Lauren Moffatt, Of Hybrids and Strings, Flowers for Suzanne Clair, 2020
Author: Alexandra Etienne