This weekend, as part of Brighton Digital Festival, the team at The Old Market in Hove is hosting a range of new games and art projects using VR. So by the time I met Tilt Brush, we’d already played a few games and been very impressed by how quickly the VR world is progressing towards fully immersive and convincing environments. It’s dizzying in more ways than one, even where the actual gameplay or artistic depth is still relatively basic.
But Tilt Brush was like actual pure magic in my hands. Like hallucination. If you don’t know, it’s Google’s ‘paintbox’ in virtual space – a three-dimensional ‘painting-in-the-air’ system. As soon as the headset is on, you’re standing in a grid, like you’re on the Enterprise Holodeck, with a ‘brush’ in one hand and an already sophisticated ‘palette’ in the other. Then you literally sculpt paint into the air and it stays right there, as you walk around and through your work-in-progress.
It’s very intuitive – I had the hang of it in seconds; flicking my ‘palette’ to rotate it around my right-hand to access different tools, splurging colours and textures across the room like mad, like Pollock or Van Gogh in a movie, like a conductor. Luckily there’s an ‘undo’ function. Also, in the ‘backgrounds’ there’s an option for a plinth – like an ancient Greek stone plinth, roughly waist-height. This helped tame my initial (almost ridiculously emotionally intense) burst of raw creative outpouring: with the plinth in front of me I stabilised and could concentrate on making some small abstract paint sculptures on it. Working with a couple of textures (‘tape’ and ‘paper’) and just two or three colours, using a small flat brush shape, struggling to tie myself to good taste, a few minutes later I’m looking at perhaps the most beautiful single object I’ve ever made in my life.
Well, honestly it looked sort of like an elaborate modernist hat you might see on someone who wanted to show off a bohemian edge at Ascot. But I MADE THIS. Out of NOTHING. Obviously I’m no painter, not much of a visual artist at all. But I cannot convey how deeply this experience caught me.
Never mind first seeing Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, this is how it must’ve felt watching your first moving picture, in 1895. Right now it feels as if it impacts everything. Surely as significant a new addition to the toolkit for artmaking as the invention of photography? And if it’s already this good, this soon, where can it go? Compare 1980s Paintbox to its modern day descendants and the breadth of potential simply explodes.
I wasn’t there long but completely lost all track of the world outside. I hit that almost mystical creative ‘zone’ (where your full consciousness is ‘inside’ the work you’re making, all sense of the external self lost) faster and more intensively than I can remember in a long, long time. Then stumbled back out of the room, out of the grid (“sorry sir, we’re closing now!”) to where my friends – who are real visual artists and also more versed than me in the ways of VR and AR – had a good old laugh at my mind-blown face.
I know I’m lucky. 2016 has been an exceptional year for arts experiences. Yet this was (easily) the most impacting, tectonic plate-shifting arts activity I’ve done this year. Big love to Rifa for taking me, when I hadn’t clocked the vrLAB and a big thank-you to James Turnbull and the team at The Old Market for putting together such an astounding room of possibilities. Brighton, don’t miss this, if there’s any way you can still get in (though I suspect it’s sold out already).