December 11, 2020
On Virtual Futures and Fortunes: Documenting Talks by Jacki Morie & John Orion Young

Adiba Muzaffar

Let’s Get Real was the MOR’s first-of-a-kind talk event where we were able to bring two trailblazers in a room together to pendulate a new amplitude for understanding VR’s history, and projected future. Our guest speakers Jackie Morie (@skydeas1) and John Orion Young (@JohnOrionYoung) were able to engage those in attendance with far-reaching, infinity-pool immersed perspectives from both their real and virtual investments in art-making.

We decided to document their talks in near-entirety, to be able to allow everyone an opportunity to revisit the spectacle that their combined energy happened to be. Here’s what we learnt on November 25th, 2020.

JACKI MORIE : When Pixels were Precious

Jacki Morie received a Masters of Fine Arts and a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Florida in 1988, and her PhD in immersive environments at the University of East London in 2008. As a result of advancing in this field and her years of studies, she founded (at the University of Southern California) the Institute for Creative Technologies in 1999, and has gone on to start her own company, All These Worlds where she continues to build social-virtual worlds and immersive environments.  

Jacki took us to the “ancient days of VR”, as she puts it. Her presentation captured a fair bit, painting a picture about what it was like in the late 1980s and the early 1990s - when VR got its second wave.

The VR Scene, 1991
“The gear was huge, expensive and no individuals could afford it. You either go to your University research lab to buy it for research purposes, or you put down a lot of money to get into what I’m standing in.” 

Back in that time, few companies had the tech, generally deep inside of research divisions where VR was of interest, largely for architecture or architectural design. A more notable success story from back then was NASA, as they were using VR for teleoperations - to be able to operate space stations from a distance. With how it goes with research, few companies sprung up to supply the needs such as that of NASA and a handful of other companies. Given this early context, it isn’t surprising that there was no VR artwork per say. Whatever did go on or did get conceived was being gleaned for the practical. A few determined artists, such as Jacki, did figure out how to get into the research labs. There were a couple of programs in Europe and in Canada - there was even one at the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) where they were able to secure funds and equipment for programmers and new media artists. In essence, during the years 1992-94, there were individuals making use of early tech to create VR art. 

“I went the way of worming my way into a research lab. We worked on a project called ‘Virtopia’ after hours - a personal art project. In the daytime, we did research assignments for places like the Army Research Institute - who wanted to know if you were legally blind in the headsets of the day - which yes, you were. We put eye-charts in there and you couldn’t really read them. But after hours we were able to use all that very expensive equipment that the research lab bought, to do our own thing.” 
A picture containing indoor, room, sitting, lookingDescription automatically generated
‘Virtopia’ and the spider fear entrainment

‘Virtopia’ was Jacki’s first VR artwork which was designed as a series of digital environments, such that each one was designed to elicit different kinds of emotional responses. There was very little emotion in VR back then, but much interest in experimenting with it. ‘Virtopia’ was the home, for example, to a 30-foot tall spider that had a really interesting part to its body programming. So, if you ignored it, it would ignore you back - and you’d simply hear a spatialized heartbeat slowly. But if it saw you and got interested in coming after you, that heartbeat went really, really fast. And that being so fast, it would entrain your heartbeat with that. When this was shown at the Florida Film Festival - the first-ever festival to include VR art - viewers were really thrown off by the experience, with some viewers even ripping off the headset and fleeing.

There were a number of different environments subsumed within Virtopia. Artist Mike Goslin, who went on to do a range of VR work, imagineered some of the very abstract and very artistic environments for Virtopia with Jacki. The work Jacki spoke of had an invested interest in spatial sound, sense of space, and the body’s surroundedness as feelings. One work had a kind of a crowd sound as if there were people there. In another, there was a photo album on the table and every photo had a snippet of conversation that you could actually listen to. 

Jacki has notably helped in the founding of University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, in 1999. When she started working there, she created a project that looked at how one could expand the sensory inputs for virtual reality. And this meant expanding almost all of the emotional vocabulary. ‘Dark Con’, which took several years, was where she built a fully spatialized sound setup with speakers instead of headsets, an infrasonic floor which allowed playing sounds back between 400-420 hertz - which you couldn’t really hear but your body felt. 

“It really helped up the emotional ante of the environments we were creating. We even added scent, by creating in 2004 a scent collar to be able to put scents in virtual reality. And that was really successful - as before that, you could put scents in VR but it would require these huge devices and it would stink up the room and you’d have to get special equipment to get that smell out of the room.”

The scent collar that they came up with was more localized in its function, as it just put the scents very near your neck and it didn’t spray it. It used something called molecular drip to dissipate the odour molecules near the nose.

Scent Release Necklace design sketch and prototype.

Jacki was an artist before there were computer graphics. In 1981 when she was able to buy an Apple II computer, it had a whopping 280x192 pixels to work with. For her Master’s Thesis (1981-84), she drew things onto this Apple II computer using a graphics tablet, basically a bunch of magnetic wires which weighed about 30 pounds and was fairly expensive. She borrowed it from a computer store - and they let her have it for the duration of her thesis.

Jacki using a borrowed graphics tablet to work on her Master’s Thesis.

Jacki has been working on several new projects, while teaching and continuing to share her knowledge via talks and conferences. Her key motivation continues to be around the fully extended experience and how VR tools can positively affect human behavior and social interactions, innovating immersive methods for social connectivity, learning, the expansion of how we relate to the world.

JOHN ORION YOUNG: Ownership in the Metaverse

John Orion Young, or JOY as most people now know him, was making art in VR while Jacki was doing all of the above. John, who grew up in Colorado, looked up to his father - a wildlife artist - as he bronze-casted and oil-painted animals. This became John’s early concept of art through a traditional lens for all aspirational purposes.

When a friend of JOY’s showed him a Salvador Dali book, he naturally reconfigured and reoriented himself. At this point in time he became extremely invested in painting. After finishing high school and throughout, plus much after his college years - he reports having produced thousands of paintings of varying scales and on all sorts of surfaces.

“I first did little canvases, then doors, and I was basically painting constantly. I was just trying to find any surface to paint on. But I kind of started to feel real weird about the environmental impact of making so much stuff. But I just wanted to be making things and so I was experimenting with things like painting with water, like on concrete, and just photographing little explorations. But it wasn’t what I wanted to be. I wanted to make everything from nothing.”

It was after seeing a giant spider being sculpted in VR, that prompted JOY to buy his first headset and build himself a tiny PC with some minimum specs, and get started with making his own stuff. He wanted to work with clay and volume, and that was about when Oculus came up with touch controllers with sculpting in Medium. He decided to do what art education is known to steer you away from - making smiley faces and making peace signs and ying-yangs. But that was what he began with and found a whole bunch of symbolic joy through, by producing them in VR.

JOYs evolved from Young’s rebellious, joyous decision to make smiley faces.

Jump to 2016 - and picture JOY just spinning stuff up in VR air. He got into creating different characters through 2016 and 2017. Crypto Kitties came out then, having invented a way to buy digital cats and breed them. Furthermore, they could be sold and traded on the Ethereum blockchain. When JOY saw this, he thought how this amazing approach is perhaps the first way that we can have decentralized, global computing that is not controlled by any centralized entity. Everyone could essentially put their artworks up and trade them without an institution. But this was before platforms for trading art were conceived.

JOY decided to study the Crypto Kitties contract himself, as it was open-source and anybody was allowed to copy it. He took a bunch of courses online to learn how to program what then became the first JOY art market. As JOYs are basically each a virtual muse that ‘gives you a magic power once it is inside your wallet’, each JOY can only be owned by one person at a time.

“What I did with my contract was that I removed the part that allowed true ownership, and so if you’re willing to pay more than the last person paid, you could steal their JOY. So that’s why each JOY had a next price on it. The current price was 0.632 for ‘Overcome the World’, but if you bought it the price would automatically go up to 0.815 which was about $1000 at the time. And so with that idea, you could steal someone’s JOY and you could never have true ownership - and there was a lot of fun with it, so 81 original JOYs ended up trading about some 1440 times which is more than any other body of artworks that has been traded.”
The ‘About Page’ for the JOY ‘Monster Whale’.

Each JOY from JOY World has its own ‘About’ page and unique magical power. A ‘Monster Whale’, for instance, has the ability to enable its owner ‘to roll through any obstacle on the adventure of their dreams’. Now, if Jimmy owns it, he can choose to just send it to a friend or list it for a higher or a lower price. This, in essence, is true ownership - and JOY collectors have taken these concepts forward in their own ways. One of the collectors who owns ‘Whale Shark’ has built his a coin on top of the JOY. So with his own money and all the other NFTs collected - he has accrued millions of dollars of NFTs and then built a currency. Another case in point is a person who took their JOY and shattered it into a million pieces, such that if you buy all those pieces, and collect them, only then can you put the JOY back together.

The Trading History of the JOY Donk.
“I really try to think everyday about the conversation of art and where I’m adding my voice to it, and I like to think of Warhol’s obsession with commerce and multiples. And then even Takashi Murakami built on top of that with the idea of how everyone wants to have toys and every level of accessory from bubble gum, and all the way up to one-on-one sculptures and paintings. So this to me is a very fascinating side of art, that we kind of don’t talk a lot about but it is so fun and important that - when you make something, you’ve created an asset; you have taken your energy and your energy is an asset. And that then becomes like a tradable thing. So here we have the price history of the JOY art market. And you can see how it changes over time.”

At different times, all of the JOYs collectively have been worth over a million dollars depending on what is being traded and at what rate. So it’s amazing and kind of strange that as artists we try not to think about things this way, but it is always going on, and you can see on the far right (table image) - this is just the trading history of one JOY, over time - so you can see when somebody has made an offer, and then somebody else has accepted the offer, and they then sold it and transferred it. But what we have here is a gigantic, public ledger of artwork - when it was created, who owned it, how much they paid for it, and then how much the next person had to. This is the first time in history that there are public ledgers of everything being created and where it is going.

New Flexes in Art Creation, Collection, and Ownership

When thinking about the long-term in such programmability of money and art (that John has so expertly explained) the economics of action figure collection may come to mind. With similarly projected bumps in value onto what figuratively begins with plastic toys, an aspect of collection and trading is what takes the transactional value of the art to obscene extremes. Sellers and buyers ascertain not the market price but ‘value’ (a good chunk of which may just be nostalgic) based on their own affordances. These figures too, in a few ways like JOYs, rely on extensive narrative (comics, movies) before becoming objects worth affection and ownership. In a larger discussion about price v/s value in media and popular culture, there’s generally 1000x reproduction (and you can pay a price to touch and hold your figurine) or owners earn revenue from ticketing viewers and charging them by the eyeball. With what JOY creates, there’s an interplay to make note of, plus an added advantage of these virtual characters never quite having to bear damage or become dated. They may be intangible but aren’t they indestructible? While JOY has had to redraw contracts in the last few years itself, the question is what might happen when the file types that these JOYs inhabit evolve? And what, when Ethereum grows beastlier new limbs?

The confluence of our two guest speakers was unendingly intriguing, as these sorts of redundancies were exactly what Jacki’s art has had to bear the brunt of. A lot of the artwork she created is inaccessible and uninhabitable purely because of file formats having evolved into completely new species. So there’s that furthermore conversation too, about the ownership of technological tools, and how those govern what digital assets can be created and sustained in the contemporary art world.

Over and above the ways in which these two artists have earned their living through artmaking, they’re also both rigorous researchers going above and beyond what is a given. We celebrate how they’ve both taken stakes in the future (doesn’t come sans risk) and not quite adhered to known formulas by any measure.

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