Virtual reality is art. Treat it accordingly.

Writing about virtual reality, for me, is really just an excuse to hang out with artists. My paternal grandfather was a commercial artist and landscape painter, and some of my most treasured early memories are of sitting on his lap with a big pad of paper in front of us, drawing pictures together. I loved that moment when a collection of lines magically turned into a dog, a house, a little person. If he were a young man today, I suspect my grandfather would be enchanted with Tilt Brush and Paint Lab.

I’ve been following Scobot’s work in Tilt Brush and Paint Lab since I interviewed him last summer. I occasionally pop into the conference room that he commandeers at CoMotion Labs and check out his trippy, 3D alien landscapes. He’s always confronting some sort of technical problem, wrestling with Unity, figuring out how to transfer images he manipulates on his phone into VR.

A common misconception among non-artists is that great art happens in a frenzied burst, a rush of inspiration erupting onto a canvas or in a night owl session of mad banging on a keyboard. I’ve observed that the reality of art creation is far more prosaic. Art can be a grind, the breakthroughs more incremental and cumulative than volcanic. This requires patience and persistence, two of the most unsexy virtues.

This article in the New York Times is a promising glimpse of where virtual reality art is heading. I was particular struck by the concluding paragraph, which I think is worth quoting in full:

What works for video game designers may be less applicable for fine artists, for whom the creation of images is supposed to be a means to something larger, and not an end in itself. That was the great lesson of modernism: Art is more than mere illusion, and it gains further meaning by pushing media to the limits of their capabilities. Virtual reality, by contrast, is a medium without limits — a medium that tries to parallel life itself. The wonder I felt when I first put on an Oculus Rift, and lost myself in Mr. Steegman Mangrané’s rain forest or Ms. Rossin’s floating world, is undeniable. Now the challenge is to put virtual reality in the service of something more complex, for it would be a pity if wonder was all we got.

I see creative people all over Seattle working to put VR in the service of more complex themes, discovering what’s possible with this new medium, trying, failing, trying again. Just like an individual artist working toward mastery, VR artists as a collective are proceeding through the necessary grind of trial and error, imitation, and the slow development of  idioms.

Recently I was thrilled to learn of the existence of a Phd program at the University of Washington, Digital and Experimental Media Arts, aka DXARTS. Students in this program express themselves through installations, sculptures, wearable art, audio, and other mediums that push technology forward. I met the department’s director, Juan Pampin, and was impressed by the daring and exploratory curriculum. One student, Martin Jarmick, who comes from a background in cinema, is seeing where VR films can take him. After talking to these artists I came to appreciate how important it is to set up places where artists can develop their craft outside the pressures of the market. Students at DXARTS are given those most precious resources–time, space, and people not bugging you.

Recently the market was on grand display at Sundance. I’ve spoken to three Seattle artists who attended this year, the filmmaker James Allen Smith, and the VR pioneers Kim Voynar and Nathaniel Luke Pinzon. They each returned from Park City with a greater appreciation for Seattle’s VR community, which they characterized as far more collaborative than our counterparts in LA and Silicon Valley. Temperamentally, Hollywood’s VR community appears intent on dominating right out of the gate, and this hyper-awareness of creating hits has resulted in some fairly boring content. The Bay Area, according to these creators, is steeped in its NDAs and VC funding rounds, and seems overly secretive and protective.

The aggressive virtues that made Hollywood the center of the movie universe and Silicon Valley the locus of venture funding run counter to the virtues necessary to VR’s development as an art form. It’s those unsexy virtues–patience, persistence, sharing–that nurture art. If you’re looking at VR as your next big meal ticket, chances are you’re courting failure and disappointment. There’s no short cut to great art. You have to earn it through constant experimentation and failure, and by contributing to a community that will nurture you in kind.