When FriendsWithYou, the celebrated art collective run by Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, started thinking about creating their first virtual-reality experience, their imaginations were running wild. Here was a blank canvas that was unlike any they’d worked with before. “We were drawn into the idea of creating some kind of empathetic artwork,” says Borkson. “Something that we could dream up outside of any realms of what we can actually produce, material-wise.”
While exploring the new artistic opportunities the medium presented, they also wanted to create a work that reflected their collective’s ongoing artistic mission: to create art that blurs imagination and reality. They came up with ten ideas, and settled on one that would provide an experience that wasn’t passive, nor so interactive that it would feel like just another VR game. “What we ended up developing was this very unique experience — not so much centered around traditional gaming mentality, but more around what we were interested in, which was making very powerful and impactful experiences for people,” says Sandoval. “Light Spirit” was born.
Feeling the Spirit
Everyone who ends up getting involved with virtual reality has a “eureka” moment — an experience that leaves them so gobsmacked with what the medium can do that they become eyes-wide-open converts. FriendsWithYou’s “Light Spirit” was my eureka moment.
Showcased at POP 01, a pop-up installation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox building in Toronto, “Light Spirit” puts you in a virtual space with an ephemeral spirit that looks like the offspring of EVE from Pixar’s WALL-E and Casper the Friendly Ghost. You interact with it via two maraca-like wands (controllers in real life) that allow you to rub it like you would a puppy’s stomach. As you do, it coos and giggles with delight, as its whole body lights up like a Technicolor rainbow.
Once you’ve endeared yourself to it, it does something unexpected and a little strange: it gives you something like a hug that transports you into a meditative landscape full of floating blobs of multicolor light. No description can do full justice to the experience, but it’s beautiful, calming, and utterly delightful. By the end of it, you feel like you’re glowing with light.
This is exactly what FriendsWithYou intended to create: a powerful and impactful experience. But what gave me my “eureka” moment wasn’t just that this nonexistent world felt physically real to me — especially the spirit, which had a tangible weight, presence, and energy (aided, as collaborator Adam Robezzoli later told me, by strategic use of sound and controller vibrations). What sparked my “eureka” moment was how “Light Spirit” made me feel.
One of art’s greatest ambitions, and the greatest gift it can bestow, is to make you feel something. “Light Spirit” made me feel a whole lot. Virtual reality became, for me, actual reality, simply through the power of emotional interactions. FriendsWithYou’s project allowed me to have an organic, authentic interaction — one that developed like any story with characters, and led me to feel like I’d formed a genuine relationship with the spirit, based on building trust and the compatibility of personalities.
So if FriendsWithYou could use principles of visual art — emotion, story, character, design — to this effect, it made me wonder what else art and virtual reality could accomplish together. How will art affect VR, and VR affect art?
New Ways to Create and Collaborate
Sandoval and Borkson are asking themselves the same questions. “Once you’re able to create a space in a real, three-dimensional way, it’s going to change how artists are able to bring their visions into reality,” says Sandoval. That’s especially true because so much of the medium’s ability to be used for art has yet to be explored. VR hasn’t even yet fully developed the tools with which to do so (though projects like Google’s Tilt Brush are getting there). “Once we really crack it and make tools that are intuitive in that environment, God knows what we’ll dream up,” says Sandoval.
Who helps do the dreaming will also provide different artist experiences. Art, especially for FriendsWithYou, can be highly collaborative, and while VR experiences like “Light Spirit” are designed for individuals, they aren’t created that way. The project was created in collaboration with VR studio New Tropics, game and interactive studio Funktronic Labs, and interactive creative director Josh Randall (of Rock Band fame), demonstrating how VR will allow artists to work together using different perspectives and skill sets.
“It goes beyond what we could do as artists,” says Borkson. “This realm is where we can meet with programmers and sign on to different things coming together — to be this futuristic conglomeration of creatives and thinkers making things. It’s like our brains and a programmer’s brain become this beautiful child.”
Samuel Borkson (left) and Arturo Sandoval III of FriendsWithYou
The Future of Virtual Reality Art
The future artists of VR may work with exciting new people and tools, but that doesn’t mean the instincts that guide all great art will become obsolete. It’s because of FriendWithYou’s 15 years of creative experience and knowledge of how to engage audiences that “Light Spirit” is so powerful. “We see it as a natural progression,” Sandoval says. “We know how to create environments and experiences that use the whole human interaction as a focal point.” Virtual reality doesn’t change that; it benefits from it. “We’re still dealing with humans, and how they interact emotionally with a set or a character. It’s the same building blocks, just a different medium.”
It’s also a medium that FriendsWithYou are eager to explore because they believe it will allow them, and other artists, to fulfill their artistic mission more than ever. “We’ve been very much interested in making accessible art,” says Sandoval. “This could be an amazing way to bring our dreamed-up worlds to everyone, as opposed to having the constraints of the physical world, and the monetary restraints that go with it.”
“For us, I think it’s something beyond art. Even ‘Light Spirit’ — it’s an art piece, and it’s emotionally impactful, but the result is this unknown place that we’re shooting for,” says Borkson. “That unknown, new frontier of VR and augmented reality is so vast, but it’s so exciting to be on the precipice of that.”
“Light Spirit” will travel to other locations in the coming months. Check back at FriendsWithYou’s exhibition listings for updates on where you can experience it for yourself. Alexander Huls is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @alxhuls.