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April 18, 2022

Is Virtual Reality the New Public Space?

Emann Odufu speaks to Nancy Baker Cahill about how the blockchain can help to turn public art into a new caring economy
Credit: Nancy Baker Cahill, Mushroom Cloud, Miami, FL, 2021. Via 4th Wall App. Courtesy of the artist
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Is Virtual Reality the New Public Space?
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Nancy Baker Cahill is an LA-based, new media artist whose work examines systemic power, selfhood, and embodied consciousness through drawing and shared immersive space. Working at the intersection of art, social impact, and XR, she has developed an innovative and rigorous art practice that invites its audience to imagine more inclusive and sustainable ecosystems. In this interview, the artist discusses her inspirations and aspirations for digital art, blockchain, and NFTs.

Emann Odufu: Your work is highly future focused. Was there a moment when you decided to expand your studio practice through AR and VR technology?

Nancy Baker Cahill: My practice has always had one foot in technology and one in a more analog space, but drawing is at the heart of everything I do. My initial focus was on drawing and video but, to answer your question, there definitely was an “Aha!” moment. This emerged from an amazing conversation I had with a curator friend following a struggle with some of my large-scale drawings. People had intense reactions to these drawings, and I realized that I wanted to amplify and deepen those reactions. 

I tried working with sculpture. I tried making everything in 3D, but I just became frustrated with the limitations of the materials. After complaining about this to the curator, they responded: “I don't understand why you don’t just make it in VR.” This was back in 2015, and I was like, “I haven’t thought about VR since I was an undergraduate. I also hadn’t imagined it in an art context up to that point. The “Aha!” moment was actually when I first tried VR. It was a transcendent, heart-pounding, falling in love, “Oh my God, all I ever want to do is experience this and create in this space” moment.

Nancy Baker Cahill, Siren Songs (Gstaad), Gstaad, Switzerland, 2022. Via 4th Wall App. Courtesy of the artist

EO: How did you begin to incorporate these technologies into your work? Did you jump into it or was it a gradual process? Also, was there a learning curve or any technical barriers to entry?

NBC: In terms of onboarding, I was really lucky that my brother-in-law owned a visual effects company at the time. He and my son built me this amazing sort of Mad Max PC, since it was clear from the jump that my little Mac laptop wouldn’t cut it. Of course, I got my hands on the most user-friendly drawing software I could, which at the time was Tilt Brush, which is now open-source. But it was when I started drawing in 360 degrees that I was a goner, and I’ve had the fever ever since.

EO: What unique qualities do AR and VR possess that can’t be recreated on paper or canvas?

NBC: I think the great opportunity of all immersive media is the ability to tap into a different type of consciousness. I know that probably sounds abstract and strange, but in AR, your sensory information is not only mediated by the added digital layer but by the ground you’re standing on, by the ambient sounds around you, and by the texture and flavor of the temperature of the air. 

VR is such a controlled immersive environment that it can amplify and expand whatever you’re trying to achieve in 2D. There’s so much to be learned and explored around embodied consciousness by placing your body in this environment. You can study how we learn, feel, imagine, and perceive when we encounter these elements around our bodies. I’ve always been interested in how art affects our consciousness regardless of the medium, but VR allows you to turn it up to 11 and get into new arenas and otherwise inaccessible territories. 

Nancy Baker Cahill, Margin of Error, Desert X Biennial, Salton Sea, CA, 2019. Via 4th Wall App. Photography by Daniel Wheeler. Courtesy of the artist

EO: Can you tell me about the creation of 4th Wall App? What led you to develop it and how does it democratize the public’s ability to engage with VR and AR?

NBC: There’s a massive barrier to entry with virtual reality. Of course, we can access it now through our browsers and phones, but at the end of the day, for the kinds of experiences I was creating, you still really needed a headset. You needed this hardware that is inaccessible to most people. This was challenging for me because so much of my work is concerned with issues of accessibility.

I had a great opportunity to exhibit VR drawings on billboards on the Sunset Strip, which was a wonderful experience, but I wondered how we could make it more collaborative and participatory. I wanted to challenge what public art is and what it can be. I’ve never been keen on gatekeeping in general, and I wondered if we could enter into a dialogue and an invitational collaboration. 

I asked myself: “How can we translate these VR assets into AR and allow people to do with them as they wish and to create their own content and context for the work without any prescribed limitations?” 

So that was one of my initial reasons for doing it. But I also always get uncomfortable with the idea of democratizing anything because, ultimately, there’s a vast portion of the world’s population that doesn’t even have access to electricity. So, on some level, we’re relying on a degree of privilege by assuming access to a phone that supports AR software. 

Nevertheless, it did become this impromptu networked collaboration with strangers from all over the world bringing their own imagination, insights, and ideas into this virtual space. When people first started sharing what they were doing with these artworks, I was fascinated about where they were putting them and how they were engaging with them performatively. They were putting their own bodies into these stories that they were creating and telling. It was mind-blowing to me. This was precisely what art can and should be, at least in the public sphere where you want to make these things available to the broadest possible audience.

Nancy Baker Cahill, Liberty Bell, Washington, DC, 2022. Via 4th Wall App. Courtesy of the artist

EO: Prior to this interview, I’d never thought about how VR might intersect with public art. For my part, my first real entry into the art world was touring a public art project called In Search Of The Truth around the US in the lead up to the 2016 election. Your public art installation, Liberty Bell (2020-21), reminded me of that project because of the symbolic nature of the spaces in which you placed it in the turbulent context of the 2020 election. What inspired you to launch this project, and can you describe the process involved in such a massive endeavor?

NBC: I was invited by the Art Production Fund to do this project. By 2018, I had done a series of collaborative site activations, working with many different artists who were incredibly rigorous in their practices but also had a thematic interest that served the work, particularly in the pairing of AR artworks that existed outside of any institutional permission.

In my own work, I was using AR in order to deepen the conversation and call attention to specific issues. This came out of my work during the Desert X Biennial, where I expanded and amplified that opportunity through scaling and dramatic land art-scale interventions. I think it was these works that prompted the Art Production Fund to reach out and ask me to do the project. They wanted to do an AR intervention in Philadelphia, which reminded me of a visit I’d once made to the city when I saw the Liberty Bell. I remember as a kid thinking, “why did they leave it cracked?”

Reflecting on that, it seemed to me that the very concept of liberty is cracked. Liberty for whom? What kind of liberty? And what does liberty even look like through the lens of the challenges that we’ve faced historically in this country — from our genocidal origins to the present? Everything from the history of slavery to the suppression of voting rights, which of course continues, to surveillance capitalism to white nationalism, to the pandemic itself and gender inequity. Liberty gets trumpeted as a founding ideal in order to serve interests that are not always in the public interest. It’s a highly contested term which really got me thinking about this moment of radical polarization.

I chose to animate a very abstract bell as a series of threads and then build on it with an accompanying soundtrack by Anna Luisa Petrisko. Together we mapped out a soundtrack that traces the dissonance of arrhythmia, wanting to summarize a broken moment in order to create an experience that, whilst intact, was clearly at odds with itself. I brought that concept back to the fantastic people at the Art Production Fund, and they wanted to expand it. Together, we determined to trace the origins of this country along the eastern seaboard, ending in Selma, Alabama — the site of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Since it was an election year, we felt that such a placement would tether the work directly to the idea of democracy, or indeed the lack of democracy.

Nancy Baker Cahill, Revolutions, Desert X Biennial, Palm Springs, CA, 2019. Via 4th Wall App. Courtesy of the artist

EO: One of the major criticisms of blockchain technologies, including NFTs, is the havoc they wreak on the environment. Yet, you’re using these technologies to shed light on climate change’s potential devastation of our world and society. How do you reconcile these two realities? 

NBC: I don’t believe that there’s any real way of being carbon neutral — best of luck with that. Of course, GPUs [graphics processing units] on my computer or any kind of digital work exact some toll on the energy grid. But part of what I love about augmented reality as a medium is that, whilst it requires energy to create and produce these artworks, the devices and phones that host them are visual prostheses that we use. We are not digging up the earth. We are not displacing flora and fauna. These things are virtual. They are invisible to the naked eye, and they’re only accessible through a camera lens. So, when we think about its impact on the tangible earth, I think that’s one of the medium’s more unspoken and unsung benefits.

When it comes to blockchain, it’s a fascinating conversation. The more I learn, the more nuanced and complicated it becomes. There’s a real impulse in the discourse — because people don’t like to have nuanced conversations — to say that one type of blockchain is bad and another type is good, and wherever you fall on that spectrum indicates the purity of your ideals as an artist. I think that that’s a real mistake. 

One of the things that I’ve been talking to other artists about is why it’s incumbent on artists to live up to a standard to which no one else is held. What has been beautiful about this moment with blockchain is the scrutiny around how it taxes the energy grid. I’m saying this to you as someone who has chosen to do most of my minting on proof-of-stake blockchains. But there’s also an inconvenient truth about POS chains. While it’s true that they don’t tax the grid or the environment as much, they also have other implications that reproduce elitist structures. All these choices are fraught with compromise. How do these compromises work, and what do they ask of us regarding our intentionality?

Nancy Baker Cahill, Mushroom Cloud, Miami, FL, 2021. Via 4th Wall App. Courtesy of the artist

EO: For me, the most interesting of your public artworks, especially given the current geopolitical context, is Mushroom Cloud (2021). This work recreates a cataclysmic explosion that morphs into a network of mycelial nodes. Tell us about this metaphor. How does the work help us to see the world anew?

NBC: That is a piece with an interesting, long, and evolving life, born of my collaboration with an amazing art lawyer named Sarah Conley Odenkirk. Many of my NFT projects deal with questions of accountability — for example Contract Killers (2021). But this work is specifically related to the environment. I was originally invited by Eris to create a large-scale air intervention in Miami. When I thought about Miami, I thought of its vulnerability, particularly that of its coastline, which makes it really ground zero for our climate catastrophe. I wanted to take a symbol of human-engineered cataclysm — not a natural disaster, an unnatural disaster. 

At the same time, I’d been doing a lot of research on mycelial networks and identifying other projects that engage the idea of interdependence, interoperability, mutual aid, as well as decentralized and distributive care. I was having these conversations with Sarah, my lawyer, and together we realized, “Oh my God, we’re actually talking about two different types of mushroom clouds.” What if we start with this symbol of self-annihilation and extinction and then, while we’ve got everyone’s attention, juxtapose it with something traditionally buried, unseen, and invisible like mycelial networks. 

Mycelial networks are the foundation of all systems that support carbon-based life, so I wanted to have them spread out — as they do in nature — across the sky. At each intersection, we would have a specific node as a nod to node-based computing and our networked future, one that allows us to consider our interdependence and how things that happen in Ukraine affect us in the US. Things that happen in Brazil affect us here. Things that happen in the wider United States affect us state to state. We are not living in discrete bubbles. Our collective survival will depend on working collectively and utilizing decentralized problem-solving. Mushroom Cloud invites the viewer to consider this alternative future, and how they might reimagine themselves as nodes in a network.

Nancy Baker Cahill, Mushroom Cloud, Miami, FL, 2021. Via 4th Wall App. Courtesy of the artist

EO: What role do you see NFTs and digital art playing in the future?

NBC: I’m really interested in what I hope happens. I can’t say what I think will happen because I have no more idea than anyone else. I hope that ultimately we will have far more interoperability so that some of our present decisions and compromises become less onerous. I also hope that the ways in which we can engage with blockchain, whether from the contractual end or algorithmically will be inclusive. I hope that this technology will obviate the need for other types of contractual agreement, that we can continue to move into rich and provocative territory creatively and, in the process, create greater accessibility and equity. I also hope we can innovate new opportunities for art, but not just for artists, for all creatives and creative collaborations moving forward. 

I think we’re still at a point with this technology where there remains an urgency to innovate and push the boundaries of what’s possible. So my hope is that we can familiarize ourselves with these opportunities, continue to educate and invite people into the conversation, all the while being mindful about the impact and externalities and how these things either serve certain communities or don’t. Ultimately, I hope we can be sober and clear-eyed about all this, and always wary of the sales pitch.

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Nancy Baker Cahill is a new media artist and the Founder and Artistic Director of 4th Wall, a free Augmented Reality (AR) art platform exploring resistance and inclusive creative expression. Her AR installations have been exhibited globally and have earned her profiles in the New York Times, Frieze Magazine, and The Art Newspaper, among other publications, and she was included in ARTnews’ list of 2021 “Deciders.” In 2021, Baker Cahill was an artist scholar at the Berggruen Institute, a resident at Oxy Arts’ “Encoding Futures,” was awarded the Williams College Bicentennial Medal of Honor, and received a 2022 C.O.L.A. Master Artist Fellowship.

Emann Odufu is a writer, artist, cultural critic, and filmmaker hailing from Newark, New Jersey. His writing and film work have been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Document Journal, Okay Africa, and other leading publications. He has spoken about his creative practice at universities across the country including, but not limited to, Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and New York University.

Nancy Baker Cahill will exhibit her work across 90 screens this summer in Times Square Arts’ Midnight Moment, the world’s largest and longest-running digital art exhibition. Midnight Moment will feature the video work of twelve women over the course of a year to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the program. At the end of April, she will debut CORPUS, a monumental AR artwork in the atrium of the historic Bradbury Building as part of the Berggruen Institute’s “What Will Life Become” symposium and program launch.