Art

8 Artists Pushing the Limits of Digital Effects and VR

Artists have long been the pioneers of the , pushing its technological, aesthetic, and critical potential. While the of the 1990s was the first to fully embrace and popularize “new media” in an art context, digital image-making hails back to earlier artists like , who, in the late 1980s, transferred the critical concerns of into a digital reality.
Today, digital image-making is found increasingly everywhere, from advertising and gaming to Hollywood cinema, while the internet, once a subcultural and peripheral space, has become a global connecting condition of humanity. While still considered a marginal technology to most, virtual reality (VR) is rapidly entering everyday life, be it through shopping, entertainment, communication, or education.
While the virtual sphere is a place for radical social and political imagination—challenging how we perceive the constraints and limits of the physical world—it also increasingly implies the surveillance and control of people, bodies, and places. Art offers a way to articulate this complexity as it’s still being understood.
Below, we feature eight artists who address the ambiguous status of the digital image today—a time where the digital is fully enmeshed in all aspects of life, fusing the real and the virtual, the human and the inhuman, the body and the screen.

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The London-based artist Cecile B. Evans brings traditionally humanist themes such as love, memory, and consciousness to a speculative, technology-driven near-future, where wetware, software, and hardware commingle. Her ambitious video projects examine subjectivity and agency in the digital sphere, proposing the hybridity of organic and technological life.
Evans’s 2014 animated video Hyperlinks or it Didn’t Happen compares the obsolescence of digital life forms, such as spambots, render ghosts, and holograms with that of human life through an animated avatar of the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman—a figure that has since been joined by a range of other virtual characters who appear in her artworks.
Since then, Evans’s ambitious architectural video installations such as What the Heart Wants (2016), as well as the trilogy “Amos’ World” (2017–19), have fused spectacular digital animation with live-action video, stop-motion sequences, and found footage, depicting complex and fantastical virtual universes where the politics of technology are repeatedly un-done and re-considered.

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As an aesthetic cybersurfer, Jon Rafman’s techno-ethnographic projects examine the darkest corners of virtual spaces such as Second Life, Google Street View, and YouTube, scavenging for ambiguous and often unsettling images that underline the eeriness of cyberspace. The Montreal-based artist highlights the funny, violent, erotic, and surreal intersections that occur between physical and digital life.
Rafman’s ventures into VR include his 2015 installation at the Zabludowicz Collection, which invited viewers to navigate a dimly lit maze through Oculus Rift goggles, occupied by digital sculptural busts. His much-lauded commission for the 9th Berlin Biennale in 2016 furthered this haptic surrealism with a dystopian, site-specific VR animation in which uncanny physical sculptures of animals swallowing each other come to life, and the balcony on which viewers stand begins to crumble.
For Rafman’s recent commission for the French fashion house Balenciaga, the artist produced a screen-based tunnel that served as a runway, through which models emerged from what seemed like a void of collapsing cyberspheres. Rafman offers no redemption from these unsettling and dystopian media worlds, only a persistent manifestation of how these spaces already engulf human existence.

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Cyberspace has always served as an important space for queer minorities, and the hypnotic videoscapes by New York–based artist Jacolby Satterwhite perfectly encapsulate this tradition. A performance artist with superior digital animation skills, Satterwhite produces hallucinatory virtual architectural underworlds occupied by cyberfreaks, leather queens, and other sexual deviants, presented in spectacular, orgy-like parades.
His Blessed Avenue (2018), presented at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, is the artist’s magnum opus as of yet: a laborious, multi-year production realized through the 3D animation software Maya, allowing for complex modeling, rendering, and simulation using both green-screen and purely digital images. The work is not only a breathtaking testament to queer digital labor, but also a joyful reminder of how all emergent spaces—physical as well as virtual—are ripe for occupation by radically transgressive communities.

Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang

While not usually considered in the canon of digital art, the American filmmaker, composer, poet, and multimedia polymath has never been shy of experimenting with emergent media forms. This includes VR, a venture that Anderson commenced in 2016 with renowned Taiwanese new-media artist Hsin-Chien Huang. Their collaboration, La Camera Insabbiata (2017), unfolds as a breathtaking VR environment in which viewers levitate and float freely through a vast eight-room architectural environment, contrasting the mission-based format of many VR experiences.
The piece was awarded “Best VR Experience” at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, and led to the realization of The Chalkroom (2017), currently on permanent view at Mass MOCA in Massachusetts as a part of a larger installation devoted to Anderson’s work. Devoid of any techno-futurist paranoia, The Chalkroom is saturated with breathtaking panoramic vistas and set to the artist’s compelling poetic narratives, encouraging the viewer to meditatively drift through cyberspace.

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VR was embraced by the porn industry before the art world, and in the last decade, the medium has been both lauded and criticized for its potential to revolutionize erotic image-making by partially or fully replacing “real” human bodies. The London-based artist Sidsel Meineche Hansen poignantly tackles the sociopolitical consequences of VR pornography in her research-driven work, drawing connections between the ethics of flesh and digital bodies.
Her 2016 exhibition “Second Sex War,” at Gasworks in London, included the abstracted pornographic CGI animation DICKGIRL 3D(X), featuring EVA v3.0, a royalty-free product sold online by the digital media company TurboSquid. Through EVA, as well as appropriated “genitalia props” sourced from CGI stock image sites, Hansen explores the complex commodity status of 3D bodies in porn, reading it alongside past feminist struggles so as to define a progressive body politic under digital capitalism.

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In his career, New York–based artist Ian Cheng has continuously pushed technological limits in order to examine the potential of digital imaging and VR. His biggest work to date is his “Emissary” trilogy (2015–17), a series of live simulation videos based on a video game engine that enables the game to predict and react to its own scenarios, such as climate change or war.
By assigning a certain set of behaviors and properties to virtual objects and characters—some ripped from video games, others self-produced—Cheng’s simulations quite literally form a life of their own through the work’s own feedback. While evoking the cartoon-like appearance of gaming landscapes, his work touches on fundamental questions about human consciousness, existence, and survival—anxieties that are often acted out through digital animation and gaming more generally.
But by creating closed virtual systems, where the viewer is reduced to mere onlooker of a self-generating dramaturgy, Cheng shifts away from an anthropocentric perspective of the virtual, and shows, with humor and wit, how machines should increasingly be understood as narrative-producing and cognizant entities in their own right. And by extending his artistic presentation into online gaming spaces such as Twitch, Cheng connects his digital art practice with broader digital communities, whose efforts to advance an appreciation of the cybersphere remain equally important.

In a time of virtual influencers such as Miquela and Shudu, who quite literally lease their CGI bodies to brands for sponsored content, the division between subject, object, and body is rapidly blurring. With acute technical ability in CGI rendering, the London- and Amsterdam-based artist Kate Cooper explores how the ethics and politics of digital bodies—such as those found in advertising, video games, and on social media—echo that of human ones, and asks how we might learn tactics of resistance against systems of oppression through virtual agents.
Cooper’s 2014 series “Rigged” features a series of CGI-rendered women in a sterile virtual studio space, seemingly anticipating—but never actually commencing—any narrative as such. The work has since become a seminal work to the “” art canon, and has toured a plethora of museum shows. In Cooper’s 2018 commission for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, we encounter another female computer-generated avatar, this time wearing a translucent suit continuously inflating and deflating. As the avatar begins to get sick, bruise, and bleed, Cooper confronts us with how we perceive digital bodies as beyond mortality, and thus beyond care—and with a subtle radicalism, she speculates how we might learn political refusal from our digital counterparts.
Jeppe Ugelvig