When we launched a call for Worlding with the Trouble, we made a rather silly bet: What if virtual worlds could prefigure alternative futures, strengthen possible futures against darker probabilities?
Then we received artists proposals, with answers that made us hopeful we were on to something. Lauren Moffatt’s Of Hybrids and Strings is a great example, now undergoing production. Here is a sneak peek into the work.
Experiencing an ecology that is slowly but visibly changing.
We enter a forest bathed in moonlight. Surrounded by flowers and strange creatures, we encounter a spectral shape, which reproduces our every movement. Soon, threads weave around us, connecting all things to others and to ourselves. We are slowed down, entangled in the environment. Then a crystal wave covers all living things, the whole forest is transformed. We attune into it, until we melt into it.
Of Hybrids and Strings is a trans-species experience in which we slow down, and become entangled with the human and non-human. By confronting apocalyptic visions haunting science-fictions of the 1960s, with Donna Haraway’s contemporary thinking, the experience calls for “staying with the trouble”, deepening our sense of belonging in our infinitely complex and unpredictable present. Of Hybrids and Strings is a virtual space to practice a new way of being- in-the-world, and to acquire new powers of action.
A forest, at night.
The leaves on the trees rustle, the forest vibrates, inhabited. The grass is tall, the trees imposing, abound here and there strange flowers. Animals―dogs, snakes, bats―fly and wander around. The moonlight pierces the canopy, a spectral shape appears, it reproduces our gestures and movements. Its body is nothing but a masked face and two hands. It’s more like a woman, we can’t be sure.
Then the strings appear. White, luminous, similar to the threads woven by the spider, they begin to connect each thing with another. The tree trunk connects to the snake, the butterfly connects to our ghostly double, and little by little it is all the elements of the environment that are caught in this fabric of luminous threads. The forest seems to slow down. Our spectrum continues to follow our gestures but with a delay, an increasing lag, as the connections increase and envelop it.
Soon, a new phenomenon runs through the forest. A wave of crystal spreads among the grass, trees and animals, creating prismatic surfaces between the strings connecting them, freezing the whole in its wake. Pulsating lights travel along the connections of the multiple faces, testifying the vital activity that still remains beneath the fossilized layer. The crystal solidifies, each time drawing new geometric shapes, until the ecosystem becomes a single pulsating and shiny mass.
We then slowly sink into the ground. We pass through multiple layers of soil, compost and ties, before going down again and floating, the forest’s network of roots giving way to the starry space. As we descend, a new forest blossoms, marking the end but also the beginning of a new cycle of experience.
Trigerring invisible realities
Lauren Moffatt: I have always been interested in the way that evolving technologies are generating new subjectivities, and how these new modes of being-in-the-world give rise to continuing innovation in media and technology. With virtual reality, I can build subjective places, entire architectures, which enclose, embrace those who visit them. If the viewing conditions are right then they really feel safe and they feel like they completely suspend their disbelief in this space that I’ve built. It is very intimate, even more powerful than installation, and it’s this intimate relationship between the viewer and the piece that is quite appealing to me.
The places I build are meditative, as if they were apart from the world we know. They echo thesedeeper realities that we keep inside us. In a way, virtual reality allows me to represent these invisible realities, and to make them available for others to connect to.
Lauren Moffatt: With Of Hybrids and Strings, I wanted to create a science-fiction-like experience, but without forcing people into a particular perspective. I wanted to construct a speculative narrative that would shift classic science-fiction themes—such as environmental disorders—by thinking them outside all preconceptions.
My encounter with authors, thinkers such as Ursula K. Le Guin or Donna Haraway, who have each in their own way reappropriated the science-fiction genre, has profoundly guided the conception of my work and the stories I try to tell. Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction retells human origins with a receptacle and not a weapon as the first human invention. Le Guin takes the position that before we were hunters we were gatherers, and before wehad knives and spears we had bags and containers. With this in mind, she suggests a narrative mode that decentralizes stories, pulls their core away from the epic quests of heroes and weapons we are used to. Le Guin sees stories as repositories, places to collect imperfect characters and curious “useful, beautiful” things and mysterious events and allow their shared meaning to stew together in a flat hierarchy.
I think that a virtual reality environment could be seen as such: a room-scale immersive experience is a collection of assets with behaviours and parameters attached, lacking a forced perspective or linear order to the experience. Virtual reality is a place where we can explore and look for connections, we are given our own unique path into the story rather than a seat from which to passively consume the hero’s journey. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction is for me a key both to developing immersive narratives and for reframing the way we are accustomed to fabulating crisis and disaster.
Left: Ursula K. Le Guin
Right: Donna Haraway
Staying with the Trouble
Lauren Moffatt: In the virtual reality experience Of Hybrids and Strings, we observe the slow crystallization ofa forest. Not as an apocalyptic vision, but rather as a new cycle, a relay space where to learn to slow down and merge into a modified life.
The desire to construct this moment of abandonment spring to my mind by confronting the apocaly-ptic tales of authors such as Anna Kavan or J. G. Ballard with “Harawayan” thinking.
Kavan and Ballard, in their respective novels Snow (1967) and The Crystal Forest (1966), detail environments slowly consumed by ice and crystal-lization. While in Kavan’s novel it seems violently impossible to escape from this landscape, part of Ballard’s protagonists decide, with appeasement, to sink into the forest that has become almost entirely of crystal. Understanding the inevitability of the situation, they decide to deal with it in a radical way: by merging into this new state of nature.
For me, the Ballardian prophecy prefigures Donna Haraway’s call articulated half a century later in her book Staying with the Trouble published in 2016. In it, the philosopher invites us to imagine and construct possibilities that feed on actual situations, on inevitable troubles. Rather than making grand apocalyptic or utopian predictions, it is a matter of slowing down and investigating the thickness of the present.
I see the ballardian forest, which crystallizes and takes in its transformation any organic matter, human or vegetal, as a terrain to understand Haraway’s call to reconsider the place of the human being within the world, a place that is relative, connected, interdependent of the multiple parts of living things.
The story I tell here cries out for collaborative and divergent story-making practices, in narrative, audio, and visual performances and texts in materialities from digital to sculptural to everything practicable. My stories are suggestive string figures at best; they long for a fuller weave that still keeps the patterns open, with ramifying attachment sites for storytellers yet to come.
Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, Duke University Press, 2016, p. 76
With Of Hybrids and Strings, I invite visitors to feel entangled, to experience an ecology that is slowly but visibly changing. Thereafter, we could imagine plural stories for the worlds to come.
About Lauren Moffatt
Lauren Moffatt is an Australian artist working between video, performance and immersive technologies. Her works, often presented in multiple forms, explore the paradoxical subjectivity of connected bodies and the friction at the frontiers between virtual and physical worlds. Lauren builds detailed, complex and paradoxical universes, often occupied by misfits and recluses and populated by strange devices and artefacts. Her pieces usually take the form of speculative fictions and environments, conceived using a mixture of obsolete and pioneering technologies, and which often occupy both physical and virtual space. Lauren completed her studies at the College of Fine Arts (AU), Université Paris VIII (FR), and at Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains. She lives and works in Berlin and Valencia.
Lauren’s works have been screened and exhibited most recently at Hartware MedienkunstVerein (DE) Palais de Tokyo (FR), Villa Medici (IT), UNSW Galleries (AU), Daegu Art Museum (KOR), Museum Dr. Guislain (BE), SAVVY Contemporary (DE), FACT Liverpool (UK) The Sundance Film Festival (US) and at the ZKM (DE), at Q21 Freiraum (AT) and at La Gaïté Lyrique (FR).