»To me, there is something primal about staring at patterns, be they manmade or natural, and getting that satisfaction of letting your eyes and mind get lost in their complexity or repetition.« –Eric Parren
In trying to make sense of the world, patterns play a major role for us humans. On a subconscious level, patterns guide our lives and fascinate us every day, in nature as well as in art. Letting our gaze meander, resting our eyes on something interesting, getting lost in repetition – these are normal parts of human existence. Yet they become impossible in a gaze-based virtual world »for fear of triggering unintended actions,« says Los Angeles-based media artist Eric Parren. »Where you look matters.« What if the pattern you’re viewing changes because you’re looking at it? What happens when patterns stare back at you? In this interview, find out about the virtual-reality artwork the artist created for the web residencies at Solitude and ZKM, this time curated by Claudia Maté and learn about what inspired him to develop it.
Clara Herrmann: From the horizon to screensavers: Why do humans stare at patterns?
Eric Parren: Our brains are fascinated by patterns and are constantly trying to find meaning in them. According to artificial intelligence researcher Ray Kurzweil, the brain works as a self-organizing hierarchical system of pattern recognizers. As kids, we use our inherent capacity for pattern recognition to learn, adapt, and make sense of the world; as adults these underlying systems guide a lot of our subconscious actions. To me, there is something primal about staring at patterns, be they manmade or natural, and getting that satisfaction of letting your eyes and mind get lost in their complexity or repetition.
CH: Since the 2010s, we see the third wave of virtual reality, which also provides new opportunities for the arts. As you write in your web-residency concept text, one remarkable feature that has come out of this third wave is the prevalence and general acceptance of gaze-based navigation. The VR gaze is also the starting point for your piece, with patterns based on what the viewer is looking at. What questions did you have in mind at the start of this project and how did the piece develop?
EP: The initial concept for this project indeed came from my observation that gaze-based interaction has quickly become a default form of interacting with VR pieces. This has a lot to do with the fact that many indie VR works have been developed for and exhibited on mobile phone-based systems (Google Cardboard, Gear VR, etc.), so having controllers isn’t a given. But even in more commercial work made for high-end systems, the gaze is often applied although controllers are available. What I gather from my research into VR in the early 1990s and the periods before that, it seems like gaze-based interaction wasn’t much of a factor. Most often special controllers were developed to give a user agency within the virtual world. I’m not sure if this had to do with computing power or that concept just hadn’t spread yet, but it’s interesting to see it so widely adopted now because it brings up complex challenges when approached from a UX/UI design perspective.
What’s especially fascinating to me is the question of intent. When does a person signal actionable intent, using gaze? Often we just look at things without that »looking« really meaning any action on our part. Since gaze-based interactions are usually triggered by a timer of some arbitrary length that is either set by the program itself or the designer of the system, you also run into the issue that staring can’t just be »staring« anymore. In the real world it is not uncommon to let your gaze wander across the room or landscape and let your eyes rest for a second on a feature of interest. In a gaze-based virtual world this becomes impossible for fear of triggering unintended actions. Where you look matters.
For this project I wanted to flip that notion on its head and push it to an extreme. What if, no matter where you look, you change something about the environment you’re in? What if the pattern you want to look at changes because you’re looking at it? That’s the premise I started working from, but once the system was in place I noticed that it became a little confusing for people to understand what exactly was going on. So now the piece starts off in a classic white cube, in which I make you focus your gaze on a specific spot in the room, which then triggers the pattern-generating system. This process of guiding you from that specific purposeful interaction to a place where your gaze relentlessly triggers change hopefully points people to the mental space I’d like them to occupy when experiencing the piece.
»In the real world it is not uncommon to let your gaze wander across the room or landscape and let your eyes rest for a second on a feature of interest. In a gaze-based virtual world this becomes impossible for fear of triggering unintended actions. Where you look matters.« –Eric Parren
CH: What is the notion of gaze your work is based on, in a theoretical context?
EP: Two concepts were playing through my mind while working on this piece. First, is this loose interpretation of Lacan’s psychoanalytical idea of the gaze, in which he proposes that we develop an existential sense of self by our awareness—that we do not just look at the world, but the objects in the world also gaze back at us. I like how it emphasizes the importance of objects outside our consciousness and outside our constructs of language and society to make us aware that our reality is a projection of our mind. I think it’s interesting to take this notion and juxtapose it to virtual reality, which is quite literally a projection on our eyes trying to trick our brains into believing it is real. In my project, the virtual environment that you’re in is constantly changing through a self-organizing emergent algorithm. But by directing your gaze around the space, you influence how this process evolves. When you spend some time in there, patterns start to emerge that have taken shape because of your gaze. And, in Lacan’s sense, these patterns are gazing back at you.
»In my project, the virtual environment that you’re in is constantly changing through a self-organizing emergent algorithm. But by directing your gaze around the space, you influence how this process evolves. When you spend some time in there, patterns start to emerge that have taken shape because of your gaze. And, in Lacan’s sense, these patterns are gazing back at you.« –Eric Parren
So there’s this curious interplay between your gaze and the gaze of the environment, which is an inherent feature of this virtual system. The second concept is the idea of what is known in physics as the observer effect. Simply put, it states that by observing a phenomenon you will always change that phenomenon. It’s best known from quantum physics, but it applies to almost any situation. In essence, my piece is the embodiment of the observer effect. You aren’t able to look at anything in the virtual space without directly changing what you are looking at. By tying the observer’s gaze to the interaction with the space, the influence that your gaze has on the processes evolving around you is brought to the forefront.
CH: Humans are amazing pattern-recognition machines, and intelligence might only be a matter of being able to store more patterns and then transform these into action. This touches the field of artificial intelligence and neural networks. Are you also working with questions on AI as an artist?
EP: I’m fascinated by artificial intelligence research, from its initial conceptualization as cybernetics at the Macy conferences, to the current developments with machine learning and its implications for a future full of machine intelligences. A lot of my works are based on processes that are defined as cybernetics systems running on self-governing rule sets and feedback loops. It is not necessarily always made explicit, but I like to introduce a degree of uncertainty into my work in which I define a system and its relations. But the system’s exact behavior isn’t within my control anymore once I set it free.
»The computer, the algorithms, the machine is often an artistic partner in the creation of the work and I definitely feel like I share authorship with them. Ideally, at some point, the systems take over and I relinquish authorship completely.« –Eric Parren
I’ve also explicitly created works about the fields of artificial evolution and artificial life. For Breeder, I created a system in which you can explore the concept of artificial evolution through »breeding« abstract shapes. Elements of the shapes such as their color, movement, and complexity, are all encoded into an artificial DNA; and by selecting two of the shapes, you crossbreed their genetic codes and spawn a new generation. With GenePool, I developed this system further, so that people could breed their own virtual creatures and then have them live out their lives in an artificial world in which the creatures had to compete for resources, fight for survival, and were able to procreate. The patterns of life and death that emerged within the system over time were surprising to witness, and really highlighted the poetic beauty of the evolutionary process.
CH: Does this work also bring up questions on authorship for you?
EP: Definitely! As I mentioned before, a central aspect of many of my works is this degree of uncertainty within the system. I see a lot of my work as a collaboration between me and the systems. The computer, the algorithms, the machine is often an artistic partner in the creation of the work and I definitely feel like I share authorship with them. Ideally, at some point, the systems take over and I relinquish authorship completely.
CH: What creates beauty in patterns for you? What were the defining aesthetic decisions you made for the generative art piece?
EP: For me, a lot of the beauty in patterns comes from rules underlying the systems that create them. Generally, complete randomness is perceived as just noise, and total order can only be interpreted in one way. What interests me is the in-between states; structured randomness or chaotic order, if you will. The rule sets that create these kinds of patterns are the information that the pattern-recognizers in our brain latch on to. I think our brains enjoy trying to make sense of the processes that create these kinds of patterns. For this particular piece, the algorithm is based on the relatively well-known phenomenon of reaction-diffusion, which was first described by Alan Turing in his paper on morphogenesis. It is basically a system that is able to produce patterns out of relatively homogenous state by following simple local rules.
»For me, a lot of the beauty in patterns comes from rules underlying the systems that create them. Generally, complete randomness is perceived as just noise, and total order can only be interpreted in one way. What interests me is the in-between states; structured randomness or chaotic order…« –Eric Parren
Reaction-diffusion systems are thought to underlie the formation of patterns such as stripes and spots on fur coats and shapes such as spirals in sea shells. The patterns that emerge through these systems can be really intricate and compelling to look at. I thought it would be interesting to bring such a system into VR and tie it to the user’s gaze. The system has been tweaked so that it is not constantly evolving, but comes to rest at a certain moment after you’ve looked at it. If you spend some time in the piece, you can see these patterns stay put in places where you have looked before. However, once you look back at them you set the system in motion again and it will be inherently different than before.
CH: Your general practice is situated at the intersection of art, science, and technology. How do you combine those different fields?
EP: A lot of my work is inspired by some notion from either science or technology. It can be some article or experiment that triggers my imagination or just the physical existence of certain materials that I want to explore further. Because a lot of my thinking is in systems, I naturally gravitate toward dynamic and programmable media to implement my ideas. I think that art and science are in many ways two sides of the same coin; trying to make sense of the universe by throwing problems at it and using human creativity and ingenuity to create meaning out of the chaos. In essence, all of my work is about perception and how our senses are the only tools we really have to construct our reality.
CH: What projects and topics have you worked on so far? And what inspires you?
EP: As I mentioned before, artificial intelligence is one of the topics that is deeply fascinating since it’s such an interdisciplinary topic that combines knowledge from a lot of different areas. I’m not so interested in its practical applications, but more in the potential to create systems that create by themselves. Another interest is the concept of visual music and its manifestations as abstract film, kinetic light sculptures, and live cinema performances. For instance, Drifting is a film I made a few years ago in which the visuals and the sound are tightly intertwined. It was produced by using an unstable feedback system of video and audio synthesizers. Undulator is a light installation in which elements of chaos, motion, and flicker interact with each other to create a complex dance of patterns. I also have an interest in synthetic biology and how it can be used for creative applications. A.C.I.D. is a ten-channel sound installation based on the metabolic pathways of the e. coli bacteria. And Gut Feeling is the sister project to A.C.I.D. and in which I use time-lapse microcinematograpic visuals of genetically modified e. coli bacteria in combination with the sound for a live audiovisual performance. I’m part of an art collective called Macular which I cofounded when I was still living in the Netherlands. The collective functions as a research group, collaborative entity, and brain trust for a group of like-minded artists. All of us make work in the same vein and there is a lot of cross pollination of ideas and inspiration that goes on between the individual members.
CH: How long have you been working with virtual reality and what does it offer you?
EP: In 2010, I rigged up a DIY Augmented Reality headset out of a webcam, video glasses, headphones, and a microphone. It was a crude contraption, but I was able to run it off a laptop and walk around freely. I wrote software for it that mixed the input of two sense modalities; what you were looking at influenced what you would hear and the sound around you changed the visuals you saw. I later made a slightly nicer version of it and called them the Synesthesia Glasses. As for proper VR, this project is actually the first VR piece that I have publicly released.
»Ultimately, it is a suite of technologies that tries to trick our senses into believing they are experiencing some kind of stimulus. I think exactly that aspect should be explored to the fullest extent.« –Eric Parren
I’ve been doing experiments with VR for over a year now, but I am still very skeptical of it in its current form. There is a lot of hype surrounding VR at the moment; Los Angeles, where I live, seems to be a hotbed for VR development. But except for a few pieces most of it is still quite underwhelming. Nevertheless, I’m still interested in virtual reality as a medium because I can clearly see its potential. However, I haven’t settled yet on how to achieve this. We might have to wait another five to ten years before the technology is finally there.
CH: Virtual reality is a medium that tries to parallel life itself, but it’s often only used for the immersive experience as just another technical tool. How could VR be used in a more complex way for art?
EP: Personally, I’m the least bit interested in the »reality« part of virtual reality. I’d much rather dive into virtual unreality. Ultimately, it is a suite of technologies that tries to trick our senses into believing they are experiencing some kind of stimulus. I think exactly that aspect should be explored to the fullest extent. Just as abstract painting, abstract film, and electronic sound are really about the essence of the media itself and the unique possibilities they have to offer, I’d like to see a more abstract VR that deeply investigates what it means to have this virtual reality available, especially in relation to our prime reality.