The Future of Reality: A Conversation with Kevin Mack
By Julianna Bjorksten
I chat with the Oscar Award winning digital artist Kevin Mack about his life, work, and why he believes VR's unique quality of spatial presence should not be overlooked. We discuss how VR is being implemented in the fields of medicine and mental health, as well as art.
Up until just over a year ago, I had no interest in virtual reality. I dismissed it as a technology that had no use for anyone outside of the gaming community. Then, I gave it a shot. I realized that VR provides a unique opportunity that no other artistic form can afford: to be someone else. The medium is wedded with philosophical questions about the nature of reality, perception, and identity. It makes it possible to step inside someone else’s subjective experience (think Being John Malkovich), or at least to feel like you can.
I was lucky enough to be able to speak with one the artists making use of this immersive medium, Kevin Mack. He is a digital artist who makes abstract virtual reality art. Mack didn’t start out making VR art, in part because it wasn’t available for much of his career. In the 80s and 90s Mack worked in the film industry as a visual effects supervisor. He helped to lay the groundwork for the use of digital art technologies and computer graphics in cinema. Over the course of his career, he worked on a number of critically acclaimed films, including What Dreams May Come, for which he received the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
Since 2014, Mack has devoted himself to creating psychoactive art pieces that are “designed to inspire awe, engage the imagination, and enhance well being.” His VR artworks Blortasia and ZenParade throw the viewer into colorful, psychedelic realms filled with abstract yet lifelike shapes. Mack's work takes a variety of forms beyond virtual reality, including prints, animations, and 3D printed sculptures; it also extends beyond the art world into the medical realm.
During our conversation, I recognized that Mack is largely interested in VR as something of a pseudo-teleportation medium. Virtual reality transports viewers into another spatial existence. Mack’s work hones in on this and uses it as an opportunity to call to attention: one’s spatial presence and the feeling of existing alone within it.
Julianna Bjorksten: Would you first tell me about your personal experiences with virtual reality? When and where did you try VR for the first time?
Kevin Mack: Oh, wow.
JB: [Laughter] It might involve digging pretty far back.
KM: [Laughter] Well, that was a really long time ago and those are long stories.
On some level my first experience with VR was well before the availability of VR. I had an experience when I was about four years old. I was a very imaginative child, and there were these agave plants in my backyard that fascinated me. I saw them as alien or from another dimension. I thought they might be conscious. I imagined them talking to me and telling me all manner of things. The thing that I imagined them doing that really stuck with me was that they projected visions into my head. I was transported fully to other worlds and places and I saw just the most amazing things. Hallucination, imagination or daydream –– whatever you want to call it –– it really affected me. I think the most profound thing about it was the concept of being able to directly communicate a first person subjective experience of reality, and especially one that is unconstrained by reality. And so, I had this idea of virtual reality, long before there was such a thing.
JB: So, you had the idea for VR when you were really young, but how did you actually come across it? When did you first encounter VR?
KM: Years later I encountered the idea by reading about it in science fiction. I was always into the idea and would draw designs for helmets with projectors mounted to them and all sorts of crazy devices for creating a 360 degree audio visual experience. Then in the 80s, I read an article about Jaron Lanier, who had the first real VR company, VPL Research. They made a headset and a glove. So, I got in touch with him (at that point computer graphics and computers were still crude and prohibitively expensive) and said, “Hey, I want to make virtual reality art. Can you help me? Can you give me a headset? I’ve been dreaming of this all my life.” He was very nice and said that what I wanted to do was probably decades away. He couldn’t afford to give me a headset to play with because they were very expensive and hard to produce.
A bit later (the late 80s) an actual VR arcade opened in Hollywood right near the Chinese theatre. It wasn’t there long, but I went there: I had to try out the VR. And it was terrible! It was so disappointing and at the same time so exciting. It was like looking down a hallway to a little bitty window, but it was sort of 3D out the window. The graphics were crude (like checkerboards and spheres with no shading). But it still got me kind of jazzed. I couldn't help but think “Man, is that the best they can do?”
I’ve been going to SIGGRAPH, the special interest group on computer graphics, since the early 90s and I started seeing VR there. It was quite popular there for a while, and I would always check out whatever they had to show, and although it was exciting, I still felt like “Man, is that the best they can do?” By the late 90s it had become almost a joke in the computer graphics industry which I had gotten into doing visual effects for movies. It seemed that VR was not happening. The technology was not there and it was too expensive: it just wasn't viable yet. It kind of disappeared. Around 2010 it surfaced again and people were talking about it. In 2014 when prototype headsets became available for developers, I finally got a headset and started fooling around.
JB: When did you get involved with 3D printing? Was it around the same time?
KM: Oh, no, that I got into earlier. It was kind of the same story, I would read about it and I’d see it at SIGGRAPH and think, “That’s pretty cool,” but could you do this or could you do that? And they’d say “Not quite yet”. Or [they’d say] “Yeah, we could do that,” [and I’d reply] “How much would it cost?” “Well it’d be a lot of money.” So it was expensive and not very capable for a while. Eventually it became a commercial, viable thing. I was busy working in visual effects so it took me a couple years to get into it –– I’d skirted it and I’d sent files to people to see if they would print [one]. It was just so expensive and I wasn’t sure how well it would work…Anyway, I think it was about 2006, 2007 when I started actually making 3D printed sculptures.
JB: Going back to your childhood inspiration, I read that you grew up with Disney animators: your parents. Do you consider your work to be animation of some sort? Have you been influenced by Disney animation?
KM: Yeah, that was fundamental. I grew up on Disney animation –– all the classics. My father was a background painter and a storyman (writer/storyboard artist). He painted the inside of the whale for Pinocchio and the Rite of Spring [sequence] in Fantasia. He worked on all the classics. My mother was the original model for Tinker Bell and one of the pioneers of [Ink and Paint] at Disney. So, I was steeped in it. Lots of Disney artists were family friends –– the luminaries of the industry, which of course they did not see themselves as back then. It was just the way they made a living. I was always tutored in art and animation and filmmaking. I was very fortunate –– at my birthday parties my parents had a projector and they would check out Disney classics from the Disney library to watch at home.
JB: That’s incredible.
KM: Yeah, I was pretty spoiled. I grew up on that stuff; it was drilled into me. My parents were real animation snobs so by the time I was five years old I knew the difference between Disney style animation and Hanna-Barbera TV animation. It was a huge influence. Pixar is awesome and they do amazing work. They really pioneered the development of computer graphics animation, but, the cartoon style really hasn't changed that much since Pinocchio or Dumbo. I’m always looking for interesting innovations to animation. Interestingly, this year I thought Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse was pretty mind-blowing and innovative.
JB: Oh, I haven’t seen it! What are some of your other contemporary inspirations for new media art?
KM: One of my great idols is Yoichiro Kawaguchi. He’s a computer graphics artist. I remember seeing his work in the early-mid 80s and being really inspired by it. There were a couple of images I saw in a National Geographic magazine. He’s still working and still amazing. As far as I’m concerned, he's the original master pioneer of computer graphics art. I'm honored to know him and have exhibited my work with him. He’s truly awesome.
JB: I’ll have to check him out. Could you talk a little bit about how you create your VR experiences? Do you have a team or do you work solo? What is your creative process? Is it similar to the traditional artistic process?
KM: I create my work myself, though I occasionally get a little help with the coding of tools I design. My process is different from most traditional computer graphics processes. The way I work is different because I like to combine all manner of different processes and use those processes in unintended ways. I call it the hybridization of means. I combine deliberate design and manual creation with directed randomness, rule-based systems and proceduralism. My process is an exploratory search for novelty. I love generative work, but my work isn’t purely generative. I need there to be an element of personal expression and for the work to be identifiable as my own unique style.
JB: Would you say that’s something unique to computer-based art?
KM: Not entirely. In conceptual art, often the work is a specified process or set of instructions such that the art can be produced precisely, regardless of who is producing it. It removes the artist from the process. I'm a little old school in that I'm still interested in the pursuit of aesthetics. I think contemporary art gave up on aesthetics decades ago, replacing it with conceptual art. It became a popular idea that the possibilities for aesthetic art had been fully exhausted. That may or may not have been true at the time, but it certainly no longer is. The advent of computer graphics opened up a vast universe of completely unexplored aesthetic territory. Virtual reality expands that universe even further. I’m really into the pursuit of beauty and awe. My goal as an artist has always been to make art that's awe-inspiring.
JB: I definitely see that in your work. I’m curious about how your work is shown. Is it shown in exhibitions? Does ShapeSpace have a physical space where viewers can go to experience your art or is it only available online through Steam?
KM: [laughs] That’s a good question, and I don’t have the answer I’d like to have yet. Currently ZenParade, my first released VR piece, is available on the Oculus Store for the Gear VR and the Oculus Go, and my real-time experience Blortasia, is available on Steam for the HTC Vive. I’ve shared both of these experiences around the world at art exhibits, events and tech expos. Blortasia was featured in a Museum exhibit last Summer. It's also available in some VR arcades. My latest piece Anandala, I haven’t released [yet]. I’ve been previewing it at a few events. I’m still trying to find more and better ways to share my work. We’re planning a museum exhibit for Anandala and I hope to find more museum exhibits. I’m also interested in licensing it for medical applications. My first piece ZenParade was used in a clinical study as a hypnoanalgesic during awake brain surgery. It was used in 30 awake brain surgeries to alleviate pain and anxiety. Anecdotally it was very effective, but I’m still waiting to see results from the study.
JB: That’s interesting because I was wondering if you saw your work as restorative and somewhat spiritual. On your site you describe Blortasia as “rejuvenating” and you also named Anandala after Hindu and Buddhist words. Also, the background sound –– which is an “om” noise –– reminds me of a religious chant. I found your work to be calming and psychedelic. (I should mention that I haven’t actually experienced your work in VR, just through videos online). It definitely inspires awe of beauty. It feels like a spiritual experience.
KM: Yes, I'm interested in trying to understand the neurological mechanisms by which these “spiritual” practices and sounds and techniques work. I’m trying to harness the power of those things: combining the power of VR and the power of art. I'm not sure it's specifically “spiritually intentioned”, but it is intended to generate a transcendent experience, which can often be a spiritual or religious one. But not necessarily so. There are people who are not spiritual who still have transcendent experiences. Where that line is drawn is more of a philosophical question.
JB: Would you say that with your work you’re trying to provide psychological alleviation? Maybe a stress-reliever or agent of relaxation?
KM: Yes, but I think it’s important for that to be in the context of the primary intention. The goal of my work has never changed: when I was a little kid I loved to make art. I had a vivid imagination and experienced transcendent visions that filled me with awe –– from imagination or from reality –– looking at clouds, or crowds of people, landscapes, the ocean, plants and animals. All of these things are so inspiring to me. I always wanted to be able to share my experience with people. I want to be able to say, “Here, have this experience! Look at this!” It’s a natural human thing to see something incredible and turn to the person next to you and say, “Wow, look at that!” I make art to give form to my experience and be able to communicate it. When I was a kid I would make drawings of Superman flying through space, or whatever inspired awe in me. It’s no different now. I have a lifetime of experiences of awe and I want to share that with people. Over the last several years I’ve learned about the science of awe and that it’s this hugely beneficial thing: it’s therapeutic and has wonderful psychological and physiological effects. My primary motivation, though, hasn’t changed. I always wanted to share the state of awe because I enjoy it. Learning that it can actually help people is an incredible bonus.
JB: Aside from the therapeutic aspect, how is your work generally received? Since it’s offered on Steam and carries with it the associations of virtual reality media, do people see it as other than art, maybe more akin to games? Has this helped or hindered your work?
KM: I’d say it has hindered it quite a bit. In many cases the worst audience for new media art or computer graphics art is gamers. Most of the people who own virtual reality headsets are gamers and they are indoctrinated, in a way, to a particular mindset. Gameplay is everything and the art doesn’t matter. I believe that attitude formed initially because computer graphics were so crude. Developers constructed really compelling games with extremely crude graphics, and they were appealing. That continues now with the low-poly style –– it’s a beloved, classic style in computer graphics, even though it’s not really necessary anymore.
Virtual reality was developed by the video game industry, and so consequently, it is marketed, talked-about, and largely considered only in that context, even though there are many other applications. Of course, there’s education and medicine. Then there’s the cinema standpoint. Many filmmakers think it’s only good for storytelling: the movie of the future. I have a very different perspective based on the neuroscience of how we process attention. The fundamental innovation of virtual reality is spatial presence, which is the sense of being present in a place. It’s a very specific kind of attention. We have different ways that we process attention, and we only have so much attention to divy up and it tends to be an all-or-nothing situation, where if you’re engaged in one type of attention it suppresses other forms of attention. For instance, if you're deeply engaged in a narrative, say a movie, you become unaware of your surroundings. When you are engaged by something your attention becomes very focused and your brain shuts out irrelevant sensory information. Likewise, if you’re deeply engaged in an experience of spatial presence, like hang-gliding or scuba diving –– something that really engages your attention to your spatial environment, you can’t also be engaged in a narrative experience. We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. It's the same with gameplay. If we’re engaged in solving a puzzle or trying to shoot zombies, it greatly inhibits our experience of spatial presence. So, even though you can make engaging games for VR and you can tell engaging stories in VR –– you can do anything in VR you can do in reality –– you’re essentially throwing away the fundamental innovation of virtual reality, its greatest power, which is spatial presence, the sense of being in a place. That’s not to say it can't enhance the experience in an unconscious way. In 3D movies, if you’re really paying attention to the 3D and thinking, “Wow, what great 3D,” then you’re not engaged in the story, and likewise if you get really caught up in the story, you will no longer notice that the film is 3D, but it can still affect you on an unconscious level and enhance the experience. Unconscious enhancement, however, is a far subtler thing than being able to directly communicate the subjective experience of reality, of actually being somewhere.
JB: So, you don’t see VR as a innovative vehicle for storytelling?
KM: I don’t think VR is a storytelling medium. Storytelling is always a third person objective perspective. You’re a voyeur, you’re hearing the story, it’s being told to you. It’s a verbal medium. Even if it’s told with pictures, it’s still a verbal medium. It’s very different than a first person, subjective experience of reality. That said, it’s not that different, because you can still have characters, events, settings, environments, drama –– almost everything that makes up a story could be part of a virtual reality experience. And yet, it’s fundamentally not storytelling. It would be more appropriate to call it “storyhaving.” It's virtual reality, not virtual storytelling. Storytelling comes after the fact of reality. It’s someone relaying or conveying a specific interpretation or perspective of a specific sequence of events that took place in reality, so it’s always third person. In VR we are able to directly share an entire reality. The perspective, interpretation, and sequence of events are determined by the viewer. I think this is important to consider. There are so many people who don't understand this and assume that VR is just a new medium for storytelling.
JB: What do you think about VR being used to stimulate empathy?
KM: Yes, it's became a bit of a trope. Certainly it has some validity in that VR allows the direct communication of subjective experience, but often the people making these claims are actually relying on narrative to inspire an emotional response to stimulate empathy, though VR may enhance this somewhat. The problem I have with this idea is that many of the so-called empathy inspiring VR experiences simply exploit our emotional response to human suffering. For me, and I would think for anyone with much empathy, exploiting the suffering of others as entertainment in the guise of inspiring empathy seems distasteful. Many people respond very powerfully to these experiences, and I've heard they've been effective in raising money for good causes, but I'm skeptical about the motivations of people claiming to use VR as an “empathy machine”.
JB: Maybe one benefit of the intersection of VR with this kind of medical and psychological research is that it could begin to dissolve the stigma surrounding VR as a technology exclusive for gamers.
KM: Yes! VR is actually growing fast in the medical field now. There are companies popping up every day. Unfortunately the medical industry, like many industries, often favors profit over benefit or innovation. I’m sure there are great people doing great things, but it seems like a lot of people are just looking to raise money and making fantastic claims when they have very little to offer. Most of the therapeutic VR apps I've seen are just video games. They call it distraction therapy and it can actually be effective for relieving pain and anxiety. There are also quite a few VR guided meditation apps which can be effective at teaching meditation. But the potential for therapeutic VR goes way beyond distraction therapy and guided meditation. My work is focused on harnessing the spatial presence of VR to induce awe and other profoundly therapeutic states of consciousness. I'm really excited to find ways to have my work used in the medical field.
JB: VR and other immersive new media technologies seem to have the stigma that they make the user isolated or cut off from the “real world.”Do you agree? Do you think VR instead does the opposite by providing community?
KM: VR isn't necessarily isolating. It can be a social experience as well. More importantly, both solitary and social experiences are fundamental to human well-being. Sometimes we need to be alone and sometimes we need to be with other people. Balance is the ideal. We get into trouble when our activities become unbalanced and we do too much of one thing or not enough of the other.
JB: That’s true. Have you considered working with multiplayer so that multiple viewers can experience one of your pieces at the same time or even interact with each other during it?
KM: Sure, I’ve considered it from the beginning. It’s a very interesting and powerful idea. It has many obvious benefits, but there's a trade-off. I’m most interested in states of consciousness that tend to occur in isolation. Social experiences are wonderful and necessary… they’re essential for human wellbeing, but so are solitary experiences. For now, I’m focused on generating transcendent visionary states of awe. Social interaction, like narrative and gameplay, inhibits spatial presence and transcendent states. At some point I'd like to explore the multiplayer option. I'd love to be able to give guided tours to groups through my worlds –– I think that would be so much fun. I’m also drawn to the idea of providing fantastic VR environments for people to meet up in.
JB: So, while the VR experiences you make are a way to look into your world or your head –– a very private, intimate space –– that intimacy is being shared with someone else, who’s experiencing your headspace while they are also alone (wearing a headset). That seems like a very interesting tension to me.
KM: Yeah, that’s a really good observation. I agree one hundred percent. I’ve created a virtual amalgamation of my transcendent visions. It’s an endless source of inspiration. Being able to use VR to share my visions with others is a dream come true. I just wish I could make this stuff faster!
JB: Sound seems to be particularly important for all immersive media to be effective. How does sound play a role in your pieces? Do you make your own soundtracks?
KM: Yes, I make them [myself]. I’m really into sound, music, and the power of sound. I'm interested in understanding the mechanisms behind sound healing, from the ancient, historic perspective as well as modern processes like neural entrainment. I’ve been trying to work out what's really happening, how much is suggestion, and how much are actual neural mechanisms at play. I’ve created my own system for neural entrainment. I'm using what I've learned from experimenting with traditional brainwave entrainment to inform a more aesthetic approach. You can use isochronic or binaural beats and entrain people's brainwaves to specific frequencies associated with particular brain states like alpha or theta. I found that I had better results when I was playing with it more and not worrying about trying to achieve and maintain a specific state, more like what music does. The fact is that music is neural entrainment, that’s why we like it: it makes us feel interesting things. On the visual side, there's been some scientific research into how we are entrained to various brain states by looking at water or fire. The combination of audio and visual stimulus for entrainment is very powerful. My approach is a hybrid: I use science, but I’m still making art.
JB: You said that you were still working on Anandala. What other projects are you currently working on or about to release?
KM: Anandala is the main one –– I’ve been working on that for over a year now. It’s getting to be pretty complete. When I did Blortasia I had to learn to develop for realtime using Unity [game developing platform] and since I was just experimenting I learned a lot. But by making it naively and just building as I learned, I quickly reached the limitations of the that approach and couldn't add anything else without starting over. With Anandala I was better at planning ahead and building tools and systems that allow me to continue to expand the project, to add more creatures and environmental complexity (Anandala is 8x the complexity and much bigger than Blortasia). I imagine I’ll hit the wall with this one as well and then I’ll start something new. For now, I'm still expanding it.
JB: Generally, how would you like to see VR art develop within the next few years? Do you have any hopes for VR in the future?
KM: I’d like to see the power of VR art be recognized for both its artistic value in terms of being able to inspire contemplation and awe, –– things that art generally inspires –– as well as its ability to entertain. I'd like to see VR art make its way into popular culture as a popular form of entertainment. I think good VR art has the potential to be even more compelling than traditional popular entertainment like movies and games. There was a time when fine art was the popular entertainment of the day. TV and movies didn't exist. Painting and sculpture were some of the earliest forms of popular entertainment. I think VR has the potential to propel a new renaissance of fine art into popular culture.
JB: I hope that happens soon.
KM: Me too. I’m excited for people to embrace VR as a medium in and of itself. Rather than calling it the “future of cinema” or the “future of gaming,” let's call it the “future of reality.” It warrants being considered an entirely new medium. Movies are their own medium. I wonder if anyone ever called movies the “future of radio” or the “future of books.” Sometimes I equate the idea of telling stories in VR to the early movies that showed the pages of books for the audience to read. That was how storytelling was done in early movies. Because they were silent, much of the story –– all of the dialogue –– was shown in text on the screen. It was a new medium. Early filmmakers didn’t understand it or know how to use it. With VR, we're witnessing the birth of a new medium with unimaginably vast potential. I'm so excited to be exploring it!