Art, The Universe and Everything

You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.

– Ansel Adams

I love this quote as it’s such a good reminder that your own art is enriched by everything you experience – which is why you should go out and experience things! Sounds simple enough. However, that can easily slip by the wayside when you’re head down pursuing a creative career.

First of all, it’s very easy to get stuck in a tunnel just working on your craft or on a project. There have legitimately been months where all I’ve done is work the day job and work evenings and weekends on the creative job. I don’t see friends or family. I turn down opportunities to travel or go out to the cinema, shows or galleries. All in the pursuit of my writing career – because it takes up all of my spare time outside paying bills. But this really isn’t brilliant or sustainable long term for your mental and physical health. But just as importantly it can also start to drain your creativity. It’s an old, old adage that life inspires art inspires life. Well, if you don’t get to have any kind of experiences, then pretty soon your inspiration starts to wear a little thin.

Secondly, It’s very easy when you specialise in one medium to just focus down on that. I write predominantly TV scripts, and so I watch a LOT of TV shows. But it’s so important to cross-pollinate your art forms. If you write novels, spend a few hours listening to opera; if you paint go try a VR experience; if you write TV, read books and so forth. We can learn a lot and be inspired by each other – you just never know what may spark that next great idea. Sometimes it may even involve a mash up of different mediums.

This is all to say that sometimes you need someone to tap you on the shoulder and remind you that it’s OK to step away from the drawing board/laptop and go outside – literally just go outside. Even if it’s just for a walk around the park (that’s where I get some of my best ideas at least).

When our mentor Avril gave us homework along the lines of “go see things, go play, come back inspired,” I could absolutely recognise the wisdom in her words.

So that’s what Simon and I have been doing at the advice of Avril Furness, our mentor.

Because we both work day jobs around our creative projects (either 9-5 (Simon) or freelance (me)) and struggle to fit everything in, we decided to split some of our time over the last month between some exhibits as well as going to some together.

Walking through Art

Olafur Eliasson: In Real Life

I was lucky enough to visit the Olafur Eliasson exhibition at Tate Modern twice, and I much preferred my second time, (when I went during the week, without crowds). It was fascinating to see the perfect paper and metal scale models for his installation pieces, and see him using fractals and geometric shapes to great effect.

It was also interesting to see his study of light in so much of his work. Taking sometimes really simple concepts (like a candle reflected in a mirror) and using that to make us reflect on the beauty of this. One of my favourite pieces was aptly titled “Beauty” and consisted of a fine sheet of water in the darkness, lit by light to show the rainbow refraction. I could have stood for hours just observing that.

Impossible to capture with my terrible iPhone was an immersive piece which involved walking through a corridor filled with smoke that was lit by ambient light. As you walked you moved from yellow to blue.

I also enjoyed seeing his research at the end – in fact I was so engrossed with reading his research and watching his films about his process I entirely forgot to take a photo!

Takis

Full disclosure – Takis deserves another visit, as I was only able to pop in briefly to see the exhibit. I will go back soon.

However, what I saw was pretty fascinating, and I enjoyed looking at Takis’s studies into electromagnetic and “movement” in the art pieces.

Walking through History

We were lucky enough to get away for a long weekend to Normandy in August.

I had never been to Normandy before, and the name conjured up vague primary school history lessons around D-day landings and my one viewing of Saving Private Ryan. I was astounded to find Normandy not only actively remembered the D-Day landings but celebrated them, with flyers and posters of the names of officers, and the flags of all the Allies who fought to liberate France. It was humbling and moving to walk through small and large towns and see this displayed everywhere, the lessons of a war never forgotten – when it feels like we in Britain have completely forgotten what was so hard fought-for and at such great cost.

My most striking moment of realisation that I walked in history’s footsteps – and a history that is not far gone – was seeing the rusting, giant carcasses of the Landing Bridges. Rather than “clean them up” they have been left as permanent monuments jutting out of the golden – and now idyllic – sands of Normandy’s beaches. No one walking there can fail to understand that war tore across Europe a mere 70 years ago, and the peace we take for granted today cost thousands of lives.

That visceral feeling, of walking amongst the monuments of history (a history so close I could still touch its recognisably modern remnants) is something I want for those who step into Fractus.

Walking through Mountains

In September we disappeared to the Lake District. Something that I’ve been finding fascinating about Fractals is how they appear everywhere in nature: in leaves, in river tributaries, in the shells of snails. Nature and fractals are bound up together in our perceptions of beauty.

Walking in nature I was reminded that our vision for Fractus was always about creating something breathtaking, visually sumptuous. That the Fractals and our Fractal landscapes should be enchanting and captivating. For me, a lot of that will be down to the use of light and colour to soften what can be perceived as quite brutal shapes – it turns out that 3D fractals are quite a different beast on the eye compared to their 2D counterparts, somehow losing some of that innate wonder.

We need to ensure that we add that back in when it comes to our final experience.

Pivot(al) Conversations Part 1

Over the weekend Simon and I had our first mentoring meeting with Avril Furness.

For me, it was really great to have a conversation with someone who is intimate with writing and storytelling in 360 degrees. It was a crucial chance to be able to air some of my concerns and struggles with finding a compelling narrative that would work with our broad theme of repeating patterns in history, linking this diaspora of voices and the abstract Fractal imagery and technology that Simon is working on.

What are you trying to say?

One thing became clear quite quickly – that Avril wasn’t just a brilliant 360 Director, but had extensive experience with being a creative director. She was quick to triage where I was coming unstuck – that our theme was just WAY too large and ambitious, and that we needed to simplify things down and focus on one simple idea to pursue.

We bounced some possibilities around over the conversation, but her advice was for us to step back from the fractals and fractal theme, and just do some concept work and blue sky thinking, and just see what stories we wanted to tell.

She also suggested we take some time out to look around at many different kinds of art and look for inspiration to see what really got us excited – which is something I’ve heard before, and I’ve used in the past, but frankly you do need a reminder when your eyeballs deep in your own project.

What are others doing with Fractals?

Avril also suggested we explore how others have used Fractals to illustrate a point or tell stories, and found some great examples.

What is already possible/being done with fractals in VR and 3D?

The top video “Like in a dream” was a huge inspiration for Simon from the start with our project and pursuing this Fractal imagery. But it was great to see where others had been forging ahead in the VR and 3D world with fractals:

How and why are fractals important? 

So, I added this as it’s something that I’ve sort of been digging into on the side anyway as part of this project. It probably deserves it’s only post at some point, so for now I’ll just pop this video Avril shared, here which is a nice summary for those curious about the story of fractals:

History of the World, Part 2

In 1981 the legendary Mel Brooks released a comedy film called The History of the World, Part I. For those of you who haven’t seen it (seriously stop reading this post and go watch it!) – the film is an irreverent take on the course of human events through history and covers the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution.

As I struggle to draw boundaries around my research for Fractus I find myself musing how and why Mel Brooks choose those times to parody? Clearly a big motivator was his personal view on which comical storylines he felt would be strongest. But coming from the writing perspective, I feel he must have thought long and hard about what his audience would have been most familiar with – only by intimately understanding the canon can you then understand the lampooning of it.

It’s very interesting to note that while the film is called “A History of the World, Part I” it is a film which really only covers certain major historical events in the Western psyche. Off the basis of this, I assume Mel Brookes anticipated his audience would be a largely Western-European and Judeo-Christian educated background.

So this is a long way of saying that I am fast realising with Fractus that when we initially pitched the idea of using VR to show “the repeating patterns of thoughts and events through time,” I was blithely unaware of the dangers of such a vague statement.

This is what my browser looks like every time I work on Fractus and fall down the rabbit hole of research.

And, truthfully, when any of us talk about “History,” we are so often indicating a very thin sliver of human events – not just in time – but also in terms of culture and place. This is often determined by where we are studying this subject. I was privileged to study history in three different countries, and this is what occurred:

As a child in England (5-14),  in formal education I learned about the Ancient Egyptians, The Blitz and The Tudors and Stuarts. In the USA (14-18), I had non-electives called “Modern American History” which skimmed over everything from 1950’s to 1990’s, and then by choice picked European AP History which, admittedly, provided a fascinating overview of WWII from the American perspective. In Scotland (18- 22), studying to an advanced level I had elective and non-elective modules. Non-elective covered British History from 1603 – 1980. My elective choices broadly covered these areas: Japan 1603-1960, The Spanish Civil War, Africa 1900 – 1990 and various gender English medieval history courses from 1200-1700.

It sounds obvious, but unless I elected to learn about history outside of the West, it barely registered on the core curriculum of whichever country I was in. Since then and even around my formal education, I was fascinated by many different times and places and so self-educated myself where there was time and resources. But still…my own knowledge of “the history of the world” is woefully limited. I’m blinded by a Euro-centric education, by my own bias towards my culture’s history, my own intrinsic heritage and the stories I absorbed from my earliest years.

So what does this mean for Fractus, a project with such lofty ambitions? To accurately research and show the “history of repeated thoughts and events” requires knowledge of global history and philosophy – this is going to take a huge amount of work – years, decades (that’s possibly why so many professors spend their whole academic lives focusing down on one very small part of the story of mankind)…it’s fairly impossible for our timeframe.

Just starting to try and write up a visual map of major themes across time and cultures (even just tracing back to Britain) begins to be overwhelming.

I’m also not able to accurately represent “the world” in my writing. That’s not to say that I don’t want to try my hardest to make this for as diverse audience as possible – but that I’m admitting the hard truth – I’m one white woman, and I bring my own cultural bias to this project. And I can’t solve this through research – because the sheer volume of research needed to ensure I am covering voices, views, history and philosophy from across the world throughout time is enormous.

I know, you’re probably thinking – well, duh, didn’t you think about this sooner? The truth is…yes, a bit. But It’s like the proverbial loose thread. Until you pull on it, you have no idea just how much of your jumper is going to unravel!

Coming back to Mel Brooks, I am reminded that A History of the World, Part I, was entertainment not history (and very entertaining at that).

Fractus is the same. The harder I try to cling to the factual side of the project, the more I try and make this historically accurate, the more impossible it seems.

But art is about metaphors and representation. It is also, fiction not fact. In order to move forward with the story side of Fractus I need to stop trying to make it a history project. In short – I need to stop trying to chase the facts, but instead concentrate on telling a good story, which reveals the underlying metaphor of our project.

I think I also need to stop feeling like I should be the only one to “write this.” The idea with this project has always been that we would create an initial prototype to test it, and hopefully expand the project once we had a proof of concept.

Fact or fiction, I can only write from my truth, my viewpoint. It’s a valid one, but limited. And I can recognise that.

The history of our world, the history of thought and repeated events, belongs to many voices, views and cultures. I feel that to ensure authenticity and diversity, after this initial prototype phase, Fractus should be opened up to other writers – it could in fact become a VR experience built out of monologues from writers across the world, threaded together by theme.

Right from the start we wanted Fractus to build empathy as a VR experience; perhaps that should be embedded into the very creation of the project itself.

Fractus: A new brief

Fractus is a VR experience that explores the repetition of history through a powerful audioscape inside a wonderous, infinite fractal universe.

What R&D can teach you

When you pitch a project it’s perfect – in that small paragraph vagueries are glossed over, and ideas sound pithy, streamlined and even…easy.

It’s only when you start to unpack an idea, when you begin to drill down into the nuts and bolts, that you realise you’ve actually built a house out of cheese and only brought spaghetti for a hammer.

And that’s OK.

Because more often than not (once you’ve stopped panicking), after you’ve taken some time to explore how this baby idea may actually grow into a concrete piece of art, you end up discovering  and learning all sorts of things about yourself, your artistic process and your idea that you never knew before.

So what have we discovered through our R&D so far?

  1. Fractals are hard to code. If you want to learn more, check out Simon’s blog series.
  2. Fractals are SO beautiful – people want to look at them and are genuinely excited to play with them in a VR space.

With both these things in mind, and a realisation that we are time limited on this project, it seemed much smarter to concentrate on the fractals rather than add additional illustration and animation requirements to the project. To this end we have refined our brief:

A new brief

Fractus is a VR experience that immerses the viewer in an ever mutable universe of thought, colour, noise and passion. Exploring how our heritage shapes us and how we in turn mould the future.

Viewers are invited to don a VR headset in a curated space and enter Fractus.

The experience is presented as a navigable abstract, fractal world. Viewers can hear a steady soundscape which they can tune like a radio by making gestures in the air.

As they tune and change the soundscape, the fractals themselves react, shifting and dancing in sync with the audio, voices then begin to subtly drift into audibility at certain “frequencies”.

These voices come from many times and places throughout history and they speak candidly about their experiences and feelings towards others and the great events of their day.

As the viewer tunes into more of these voices, they discover similar themes that play-out through the epochs, tying our own experiences to our predecessors in ever-repeating patterns just like the fractals that roll off into infinity around them.

At the end of the experience viewers should feel a sense of wonder at the beauty and scale of the fractal landscape and intimacy with the voices who spoke to them. From a cognitive rather than an emotional view, they should find in equal parts that there is hope in the future, as well as warnings to be drawn from the past