On September 17, 2015, Paper-Thin will launch as a platform for artists working on the threshold between the material and the virtual. Edited by Daniel Alexander Smith and Cameron Buckley, MFA candidates in photography and digital art at Indiana University taking interest in video, interactive and virtual art, Paper-Thin was initiated as a “modular archive in which viewers can access and interact with art which addresses the simulacral space.” The platform opens with a virtual exhibition featuring the work of Alan Resnick, a member of the Wham City collective taking particular interest in the interaction between computers and (his own) face, and will host the work of one artist every month. While all installations will remain indefinitely accessible “as their own self-archive,” Smith and Buckley will construct a new space after every set of six installations. Exhibiting in the following months are artists Hunter Jonakin, Daniel Baird + Haseeb Ahmed, Rachael Archibald, Andy Lomas, and Hugo Arcier, an artist we’ve already presented on anti-utopias back in 2012.
On the occasion of Paper-Thin’s first installation, we spoke with Daniel Alexander Smith about the newly initiated platform, simulated spaces and his thoughts on the virtual in the arts.
Sabin Bors: How did you arrive at the idea behind Paper-Thin?
Daniel Alexander Smith: Out of a sense of necessity. There are online art galleries, but I haven’t found any that you can “step inside.” I’ve been inspired by numerous artists who render images of installations that exist only in computers. Crystal Gallery and Panther Modern have made interesting work in this vein. I find myself wanting to explore these spaces, but the kinds of art spaces that are navigable tend to look either like Google art or DOOM. Plus, they focus on scanned paintings. I want a virtual space for virtual work — not flat jpegs on flat walls. Second Life has accomplished something like this, but it also has numerous limitations such as quality and access.
Sabin Bors: Could you please give me some details about the software you’ve used to create the virtual space?
Daniel Alexander Smith: Paper-Thin is built with a variety of 3D modeling software and everything is put together in Unity. My associate, Cameron, and I basically picked out the free programs that have industry standard quality. Unity is also fairly compatible with the web — though all game engines currently have major problems online. For instance, Unreal Engine has no web plugin and its HTML5 quality is not currently viable. The primary concern has been getting the space to look good online. Paper-Thin was rebuilt in different game engines several times because of changing web compatibilities. This past month, Google Chrome stopped supporting the Unity plugin, so compatibility continues to be a challenge. Fortunately Firefox, Safari, IE, and most other browsers support Unity.
Sabin Bors: Do you think that this simulated space can account for the experience of actually interacting with a work of art? In what way is this stimulating for the visitor?
Daniel Alexander Smith: Yes. There is an idea that when you look at a work of art online, what you see is a stand-in for something physical. This is not the case with Paper-Thin. The art of Paper-Thin exists only in its virtual format: it is created to be experienced through the computer. In other words, Paper-Thin allows for a different kind of experience that can’t be had in a physical gallery. I am interested in creating this space, because we don’t yet know what the range of these experiences will be. I’m excited to see how other artists will use the space.
Sabin Bors: I find the virtual architecture of the space very interesting. How did you come to this design? Are there specific functions this space fulfils or responds to? What were the criteria you based your design on?
Daniel Alexander Smith: The architecture started as a single room, but incorporating space for multiple artists required rethinking things. I eventually settled on a modular gridded floor plan based on the architecture of ancient Roman homes. A central atrium provides immediate access to all rooms, and it allows daylight to pour in. The paradox of feeling outside in the middle of the building seems appropriate for a virtual building. Building the rooms as modular pairs speaks to how the installations adapt the space and exist in dialogue with each other.
Sabin Bors: I was very surprised to see Hugo Arcier among the artists who will have upcoming installations in Paper-Thin. I have featured Hugo’s work some time ago and I’m very curious about the work he will feature. But how did you select the artists?
Daniel Alexander Smith: I suppose you’ll have to wait until January to see his installation, but I can tell you that what he’s planned is very exciting. As Cameron and I have worked through the technical aspects of Paper-Thin this past year, we’ve kept an eye on who is pushing virtual media. The focus has been on art that exists in the threshold of the material and virtual. Tension between the two is exacerbated when you move around in the space and contrast apparent realism in the architecture with the installed artwork, which can depart from that realism. In the early days of Paper-Thin, I had a conversation with artist Jacob Riddle about the “real” and “actual.” He proposed that a virtual space is “actual” but not “real.” It exists, but not in any “real” space. When viewers conflate these two ideas, they construct a mental hierarchy that determines their thoughts and valuation of virtual and physical spaces. I’m more flexible with my terms, but I like the idea that Paper-Thin’s complicated reality reshapes the experience of a work of art.
Sabin Bors: Will there be solo exhibitions only or do you think about hosting group exhibitions as well?
Daniel Alexander Smith: For now, solo exhibitions are the most logistically plausible, but I’m interested in how group exhibitions could work. I think collaboratives are one way to involve multiple artists without things getting out of hand. Daniel Baird and Haseeb Ahmed will be collaborating on an installation in November.
Sabin Bors: How do artists interact with this space and how do they actually “build” their works inside the virtual engine? Do you give them specific details or are they given the liberty to explore the possibilities of this virtual space as they see fit?
Daniel Alexander Smith: It’s different for each artist, depending on how they work and what they want to accomplish. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the possibilities of virtual experience, but it’s undetermined what those possibilities are.
Sabin Bors: I would like to talk about Alan Resnick’s work for a moment, given he will be the first artist to “exhibit” in Paper-Thin… Could you please tell me more about his work and how do you think his work interacts with this virtual space?
Daniel Alexander Smith: Given Alan’s diverse background in video, 3D animation, comedy, and internet art, his work is ideal for the opening show. Alan’s installation uses video and light to expand the space and humour to ground it. That’s all I’ll say for now.
Sabin Bors: I think virtual reality as such remains profoundly unexplored in art, despite numerous attempts to tackle the issues. Why is that? What needs to happen for artists to engage more into projects such as Paper-Thin?
Daniel Alexander Smith: I’ve wondered the same thing. Working on Paper-Thin, I’ve come to two conclusions: there are lots of artists working in VR, and there are lots of technological barriers to accessing VR artwork. My hope is that Paper-Thin provides a means of access for both viewer and artist.
Sabin Bors: I am concerned that should similar spaces open in the near future, there is a risk to reproduce the very politics, ideologies, and economies that some artists try to avoid in relation to the art market today. It is not hard to imagine that the proliferation of such virtual spaces will lead to a series of online events that replicate the shows, fairs or various other events, and to some extent I consider this to be an important step, especially if we consider this in relation to how independent music has evolved in recent years in relation to the music business. Do you think it is possible to bypass the ideologies and politics of the art market and offer artists a means to present their work independent of the art market? If so, how will Paper-Thin “survive” as a virtual “gallery space”?
Daniel Alexander Smith: I have the same concern, but I think existing commercial, online galleries act as indicators. It’s hard to monetize VR galleries, and attempts to do so have resulted in problematic spaces that showcase flat jpegs on flat walls in 3D space. Generally speaking, collectors don’t buy digital files; they buy physical works. However, the work in Paper-Thin isn’t a digital proxy for a purchasable object. It exists only in digital form. The lack of financial incentive (installed work is not for sale) necessitates greater creative incentive and allows for more interesting work. The current question is how to cover expenses without selling art. As a working artist, I already know that selling art doesn’t cover expenses anyways.
Sabin Bors: How do you see Paper-Thin evolving over the next years? Do you think of expanding the project in any particular direction?
Daniel Alexander Smith: Every year the existing architecture of Paper-Thin will be reinvented. Existing installations will remain accessible online, but by rewriting its spaces continually, Paper-Thin will adapt to future possibilities. The primary interest is in engaging more artists, increasing general accessibility, and exploring what is possible in virtual spaces. Additionally, Cameron and I never describe Paper-Thin as a gallery, because “gallery” connotes institutional baggage that Paper-Thin avoids. Paper-Thin exists in ways galleries cannot and has more possible futures.