‘Digitally born’: drawing in a parallel plane

This week I attended a one-day drawing symposium in Walsall that existed on another dimension to the one in which I sit now. 

The symposium was held at the base of Urban Hax CIC market space in Walsall, which is a well-hidden hive of creative people from all sorts of disciplines, crossing the boundaries of art, science and technology, who work and play in an old warehouse down a back street in the town.

Where I went to in Walsall

The title of the symposium was Drawing in Virtual Reality. Before I went there, I had little idea of what to expect. I was in the high percentage of people (and even higher percentage of women) who had never experienced virtual reality, let alone used it as an artistic tool. I entered the room blind.

The creative space where we drew using virtual reality

I left the room, eight hours later, floating on a cloud of astonishment and wonder. In that short time I experienced the bizarre hyper-reality that is drawing in another realm, a digital 3D realm, the virtual reality realm. This realm is hypnotic, addictive and beautiful. I left feeling as if I had taken a drug and entered a hallucinogenic in-my-mind state. Yet, ironically, I also left feeling that I had travelled somewhere very real and very concrete. Somewhere I couldn’t articulate.

Me under the influence

The after effect of the day surprised me. I went home and I was completely and utterly mentally exhausted, but in a good way. But it was an exhaustion that I hadn’t experienced before. I wanted to write about the experience that evening but I found I was unable to. I needed time to process the experience in my rational ‘of this world’ head. I couldn’t even write about it on the following day. It is now the day after that. I now feel able to express how I felt about the experience.

The best way to describe virtual reality drawing is drawing in a parallel dimension to the dimension we live in. Paradoxically, a dimension that in some ways is linked to and in others is vastly different to this existence. However, it is hard to articulate in more detail using words of the world I sit in now what being there is really like. It exists beyond signs and symbols. I do not have the language to narrate the picture of what it the beginning-to-end experience is like.

One way to try to illustrate, or narrate, what I went through is to talk about the many philosophical questions which were thrown up by this experience, on the nature of drawing and the nature of the reality and the tangibility of things. These are just a few of them.

What is the relative value of permanence vs temporarility in art? Virtual reality is temporal and ethereal by nature, yet the art created in that realm can be made permanent, as it can be stored and saved, and even printed, yet the permanent record doesn’t resemble the experience so is it the same? No.

The physicality of drawing that the artist experiences in virtual reality drawing is completely different from the experience of drawing on a flat plain in this world. This caused me to ask whether drawing in space in such a very physical, kinetic way is a skill separate from drawing on a solid surface. I think so. I am not a physical person. I am quite clumsy, possibly slightly dispraxic, so I found this element of the excerise quite challenging. 

Is virtual reality drawing in fact sculpture and not drawing at all? Drawing in 3D space feels very much like creating a 3D model, albeit an ethereal rather than a solid one. The drawing the artist makes has three dimensions, it has depth. You cannot draw flat. It is impossible. I am a 2D drawer, I am not a 3D sculpture, I found it very difficult to add the z axis to my thoughts and ideas and movements.

Contradicting the above, virtual reality drawing could be argued as not sculpting either. There is no solid surface, there is no tension, there is no material. Should it have a category independent of any ‘of this world’ artistic endevour? Or is it just another medium of drawing, given that ‘drawing’ is such a broad discipline and can encompass drawing on a steamed window with a finger, creating patterns with a sparkler in the dark (where there is only a tiny feeling of tension), moving a ribbon in space, taking a line for a walk?

Is this an opening into the future of art where all art will one day be ‘digitally born’ rather than ‘materially born’? Could all art one day never go through a material existence? Some art already does exist like that. Could art (or all creativity) be singularly digitally born, kept, shown and archived? I posed this question on social media and the answer was a resounding no. The feeling was that this ‘digitally born’ way of creating will run alongside existing means of creating, other ‘digitally born’ methods such as drawing on a tablet and the more traditional ‘materially born’ methods of creating. I’m inclined to agree. I think this new medium should be embraced and the possibilities of its use alongside material media could be extremely exciting.

Is virtual drawing (and perhaps some forms of ‘real world’ drawing) a form of dance? If you observe someone drawing while ‘under’ the spell of the virtual reality software, they appear to be engaged in a strange, smooth and flowing ritualistic dance. It is quite surreal. They are physically in the world outside, yet mentally elsewhere and this takes away any consciousness of body movement. The artist moves with fluidity. Perhaps even I, as clumsy and dispraxic as I might be, moved with ease. I don’t know. I wasn’t ‘there’ I was elsewhere.

Is there a confining element to VR drawing, in that you cannot draw from observation? This offers both a restriction and a freedom. The only image you have to go on is in your head, whether it be self-generated or memory. As an artist who draws a great deal from the observation of material objects, I found this aspect the most challenging. I had to use my imagination. I had to enter my head. I don’t like entering my head. Is there something potentially probing about the use of VR drawing to generate content from the psyche of an artist?

How should the viewer of the VR-generated drawing best experience it? Is it adequate for the drawing to be printed out and displayed as a 2D frame? Could the drawing be printed by a 3D printer to retain the dimensional element to it? That would give it substance, keeping the dimensions, so would change the nature of the original. Are these ‘copies’, whether 2D or 3D, as valid as the original? Is their difference interesting? Or alternatively, the viewer enter the 3D virtual world and explore the drawing as the artist did? Does it then become an installation and not a drawing? Can multiple viewers experience the same drawing in this way, at the same time? Possibly. There seems to be so much scope for this. How ‘real’ is that experience for the viewer, if it isn’t ‘real’ in the first place? Is it naive to divorce the notions of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ when we exist in both worlds so much already – they blend, they are not opposites, our real and virtual lives coexist and that is a reality that should not be ignored and in fact needs to be embraced more than it  currently is. What is real anyway? Does it matter?

While under the influence of the virtual reality experience, which was only a few minutes, I didn’t produce a work of art, far from it. I tried to ‘draw’ an office chair. It wasn’t a thing of beauty or elegance. Yet it was a thing and my art practice is all about things. As fascinated as I am with real things that I can touch in my real life existence I am fascinated with our virtual possessions and depictions of our possessions in the real and virtual world. In fact, I am more interested in the relationship between the two and whether they are in fact different from each other or not. So a related question could be, was my drawing a thing at all? I can’t touch it. So it wasn’t a thing perhaps, if a thing has to be tangible. It wasn’t even a drawing of a chair. It was a chair in space outside of my mind yet not of this world. It existed while I was ‘under’ yet didn’t once I came out and I can’t reenter that world. There is a version of it as seen on the computer screen but this is not the same as the version of it as I drew it. This mirrors the experience we have when we dream. We cannot record or capture our dreams, yet they are tangible in our minds. It just isn’t a tangibility in the traditional sense.

My chair

Thinking about all of this again, it is no wonder I was so exhausted the evening after the drawing symposium. Cliched though it might be to say, it was mind blowing.

I cannot wait to try this again. In way of conclusion I ponder now whether in the future all artists will have VR technology at their disposal and all museums will have the means to display interactive, drawing installations created using VR technology. That would be quite amazing. I am sure I will live to see this and I hope I can be a part of it.


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