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April 28, 2023

Rebecca Allen and the Birth of Virtual Reality

The pioneering artist shares her story, from MTV to NFTs, with SODA’s curator of digital art
Credit: Rebecca Allen, Kraftwerk Portrait, 1986. Courtesy of Rebecca Allen
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Rebecca Allen and the Birth of Virtual Reality

Few artists have worked across such a wide range of media and had such a far-reaching impact on digital culture than Rebecca Allen. Since the early 1970s, she has fused art, science, and technology to create interactive experiences that engage viewers on multiple sensory levels. A pioneer of digital art who helped to animate the first virtual bodies on screen, Allen continues to push the creative potential of AI, AR, video, and virtual reality today. Her installations often use 3D animation, motion graphics, and interactivity to produce virtual experiences and provoke visceral responses.

Over the years, Allen’s collaborations with Nam June Paik and Kraftwerk have changed the course of video art and pop cultural history. While her work on the Aspen Movie Map project at MIT created the first interactive map long before the days of Google Street View. With many of her most famous works currently on display at SODA’s Modal Gallery, she sat down with Modal’s curator, Valentino Catricalà, to discuss her remarkable career, from MTV to NFTs.

Installation view of Rebecca Allen, “A Tangle of Mind & Matter,” at Modal Gallery, SODA, 2023. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

Valentino Catricalà: Rebecca, you’re known for your pioneering work in the field of digital art and computer graphics. It’s been an honor for me to showcase some of your most beautiful work here at Modal Gallery, part of the School of Digital Arts in Manchester. Can I ask you to describe your work and artistic research.

Rebecca Allen: I’ve always been thinking about the future of humanity, of the world, of nature, of everything. In the early 1970s, I started working with technology because I felt that it was going to be our future. I thought it was essential for artists to work with new technologies such as the computer in order to help define what the future of this human technological world would be. I wanted technology to be both a tool for experimentation and an object of discussion, so I started to devote myself to my activities as an artist to try to create a new aesthetic for our modern time with computer tools.

When I was studying art, learning about movements such as the Bauhaus, Constructivism, and Futurism that were thinking about the future in the machine age, I began to wonder what the novelty was that would characterize our time, and I thought about the computer. I began to explore how computer technology was affecting ourselves, questioning its essence and usage as a new medium. 

In the early ’70s, I began experimenting with motion, producing a kind of experimental hand-drawn animation, which followed a very tedious process that required creating drawings for every fraction of a second. I thought that the computer might be able to help me. At that time, I was making an experimental work called E-Motion that had to do with non-verbal communication. I wanted to focus on how we express ourselves in very subtle ways through our body movements. I was studying at Rhode Island School of Design, right next to Brown University where, to my good fortune, they were doing some of the earliest work with computer graphics. I talked a computer science professor at Brown into letting me do an independent study, so that was where I made my first computer animation in 1974. 

Rebecca Allen, E-Motion, 1975. Courtesy of the artist

VC: What were the main challenges you encountered when you began experimenting with this new medium? 

RA: In the early 1970s, making art with computers was a nearly impossible feat. Getting access to equipment and permission to enter this very technical, very male world of computing was a huge challenge. It was hard to find a university that would allow you to work with their computers since they were incredibly expensive tools. I was conscious of being a woman, having learned about only a few women artists in my art education. I felt like the art world was not so open to women either, and I thought that perhaps if I did something very different, it would be recognized someday. When I was at Rhode Island Design, they said: “No computers in art.” But in my own stubborn way, I did it anyway. 

At the time, the art world was viscerally opposed to artists’ use of computers. Today, when we look at art generated by artificial intelligence, there is still skepticism that becomes fear. In the ’70s, there was a fear that art, technology, and computers would not get along. 

I think I have made my whole career in an area of art that no one accepted as such. 

I would not describe myself as a programmer but rather as a technology expert. I work in an intuitive way, though I’m not a great technician. I often collaborate with brilliant software designers but, back then, we had to invent the ideas for software ourselves. 

A visitor to “A Tangle of Mind & Matter,” at Modal Gallery, SODA, 2023. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

VC: At the time, there were already a number of pioneers generating art using technology, while video art was also emerging.

RA: Yes, it’s funny because, in the early ’70s, video art using analog video was accepted much more easily. Andy Warhol made films, but he also made paintings so people could appreciate a bridge with digital art. 

The idea of video as a technology was not as threatening as that of artists using computers. 

I worked really hard in my research to find anything that was being done artistically. Of course, this was long before the Internet so my resources were limited. I knew some of the early artists such as Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnar, Lillian Schwartz, and others from the early days. I felt like they were making art that was mathematical, based on geometric shapes, lines, and all these processes. For many years, it was important to me to put the human body into the computer because my interest was in human motion and expression, and I was trying to “humanize” the computer in a way. I was using drawings that incorporated the female form into the computer world, trying very consciously to infiltrate the technology.

Rebecca Allen, Girl Lifts Skirt, 1974. Courtesy of the artist

VC: You were part of a second generation of sorts. If Molnar’s era was more about experimenting with the new medium, you were more interested in how media such as the computer can help us learn more about ourselves and society.

RA: Yes, if you think back to the early artists, most of their work was not in motion. They were producing drawings and printouts from the computer, partly because that’s what the technology could enable at that time. The idea of doing animation was difficult because computers weren’t fast enough to draw frames quickly. It wasn’t until the late 1980s when they became cheaper and more powerful that artists could start working with computers more freely. But I started work with computers 50 years ago; I never thought it would take so long to get there. Now it’s a whole different thing.  

VC: You are well-known for pioneering the use of computer graphics, but you started by making drawings. In your early drawings, your interest in the virtual and the posthuman body is already evident. 

RA: Like many artists, I was drawn to art because I could draw by hand. Even as I wanted to move toward moving images, I was developing experimental animation techniques that involved drawing. I sought to use the smallest number of lines to convey the body and to give it movement. Girl Lifts Skirt (1974), which is part of the new show of historical computer art at LACMA, came out of my early experiments. 

In the ’70s, the computer could only make lines, you couldn’t have any colors or photographic images. Therefore, it was all about line drawings. I made a big jump when I started to work on animation with 3D models because it took me away from drawing — I finally had a representation of the human body in the form of a 3D model. 

I worked with the very first 3D model of a woman, the very first in the world! 

I was most interested in the motion of the body and what that movement expresses about our humanity. But getting a human 3D model to move was one of the hardest technical problems back then. Nowadays, you can get 3D models and motion capture data of anything on the Internet — the body has been transformed into a virtual form that we’re so familiar with through films, games, and visual effects.

Rebecca Allen, (Still from) Swimmer, 1981. Courtesy of the artist

VC: Can you speak about a work like Swimmer (1981), which we have reorchestrated for the facade at SODA? 

RA: Swimmer is an example of what I was talking about when I started working with the 3D model of a woman. It was actually modeled by Ed Catmull, one of the key figures in the field of computer graphics and animation, who went on to co-found Pixar. Yet the model was a frozen body that had never moved. I wanted to bring her to life.

We had to develop software, so I investigated the graceful flowing motions of a swimmer underwater, doing the moves myself. In 1981, Swimmer was one of the first 3D human animations ever created and the first animated female model. That work is very significant to me because it represented a movement that, as a swimmer myself, I was really connected to.

VC: You were using computers to make art when the technology was still in its infancy. How have more recent advancements affected your creative process? 

RA: At that time, if you wanted software, someone had to actually write the program because there wouldn’t be any commercial software for many years. However, it felt good to invent something that was new both artistically and technically. I was one of the pioneers of motion capture, which is relatively easy to do now and you see all the time in films and games. After addressing human motion, we also solved the problem of facial animation. When I did my Kraftwerk piece, Musique Non Stop (1986), I was working in a research lab trying to solve the problem of getting the face to move and express. Now there are much easier techniques, but I guess I wanted to make my life difficult! 

Installation view of Rebecca Allen, “A Tangle of Mind & Matter,” including Musique Non Stop, 1986. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

I like the idea of being inspired by ever new ideas around technology and technological tools to create art. In the 1980s, I started working with generative art, fractals, procedural techniques, and particle systems. These were programs that were being invented to be used for computer animation. I liked procedural techniques that could simulate the behavior of nature and physics — that simulated not only nature’s appearance in the form of trees, grass, and rocks but also its movement. I spent a lot of time doing that. 

For me, being an animator was like being a puppeteer. But when I started using procedural techniques, I could make very complex movements with just a few rules. 

I was also interested in the area of artificial intelligence called artificial life, which involved simulating realistic behaviors in nature, like the flocking of birds. Working with artificial life means you set up a bunch of procedures and then let the system run, which creates much more complexity than one can achieve as an individual artist trying to make images in more traditional ways. That opened up a lot of artistic expression for me.

Nam June Paik, Fin de Siècle II, 1989. Courtesy of the Nam June Paik Estate

VC: Your career has also involved several collaborations, including with Nam June Paik. What can you share with us about such experiences?

RA: In the 1970s and early ’80s there were very few ways to show experimental avant-garde animation. There were a few small festivals but, as an artist, I wanted my art to be seen in galleries and museums. So once MTV emerged, I saw it as a great way to distribute short artistic experimental works far and wide. I ended up working with Lynn Goldsmith, who approached me to do a video for her album with Island Records. I agreed on the condition that I was granted complete artistic control, as I was working in a research lab and could not predict in advance how things would look. She agreed and I ended up creating two videos: Adventures in Success (1983) and Smile (1983). 

It was exciting for me to create these short experimental films that, when they were shown on stations like MTV, received a hugely positive response. That encouraged me to keep going. Kraftwerk and their music producer were familiar with my work and my research lab — the Computer Graphics Laboratory at the New York Institute of Technology, which was the top lab in the world at that time.

Kraftwerk contacted me about working with them, which made for a perfect collaboration because they were musicians trying to create a new digital aesthetic for music using computers and I was a visual artist trying to do the same. 

It was a really interesting collaboration because we were influencing each other while simultaneously making the music and visuals for it. I was creating virtual 3D models of Kraftwerk and they were simulating my voice, singing “musique non-stop” for their song. 

With Nam June Paik, I was in New York one summer in the late ’80s, walking down the street, and a friend recognized him. And then my friend said: “Oh, you must get to know Rebecca Allen!” He was very excited about the work that I was doing. At that time, he was doing analog video work or using other people’s analog video, and he included my work in some of his major pieces. I have a beautiful silk screen he gave me that says, “To Rebecca Allen, who inspired my work.” We spent a lot of time just sharing ideas. When we met, he was talking about the same problems as me — about how people weren’t paying attention to work involving technology. We shared a lot of conversations in that vein.

A visitor to “A Tangle of Mind & Matter,” including The Tangle of Mind and Matter, 2017. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

VC: You have been one of the pioneers of virtual reality (VR). As a matter of fact, your show at Modal is titled after your work, The Tangle of Mind and Matter (2017). How did you get into VR? Do you regard it as a new medium or simply another tool?

RA: When I think of VR, for me it’s just three-dimensional animation that uses fast enough computers to create frames in real time. That is how games work and how anything interactive works in 3D graphics. But in the early days, it could take an hour or more just to render one frame of an animation, and you need 30 frames a second.

It was only as computers got faster that it became possible to think about creating VR experiences. 

In 1993, as computers were speeding up, I actually joined a video game company called Virgin Games with the title of 3D Visionary at a time when game companies were moving from 2D to 3D animation. I’m totally not a gamer myself and I was such a misfit in that environment, but it allowed me to learn about real-time game experiences as well as interactivity. 

Installation view of Rebecca Allen, “A Tangle of Mind & Matter,” including INSIDE, 2016. Courtesy of The School of Digital Arts

Doom (1993) was one of the earliest examples that was able to render quickly enough on a PC computer to be able to do interactive games. But VR also needs a headset, so while I was working at Virgin I was also working with Mattel on some experimental VR headsets. I finally used one for my work, The Bush Soul (1997-1999), but because they were so hard to get and the resolution was so low I also created it as a large-scale projected interactive experience. The interface has always been important to me, and with The Bush Soul I used a haptic, force-feedback joystick as the interface, with an interest in including our physical bodies and sense of touch as part of the experience.

Even though I knew it was the future, I always sort of disliked VR because I felt that it was just in our heads, excluding our bodies for the most part. 

But when the new VR systems came out in 2015, the quality was strong enough that I could see VR works as art pieces. That’s when I started making INSIDE (2016), The Tangle of Mind and Matter (2017), and Life Without Matter (2018). I also made a very early work in augmented reality (AR) in Italy, called Coexistence (2001), which also used a headset.

When I got back into VR more recently, I began reflecting on what philosophers, neuroscientists, and AI researchers were saying about reality. Through my research, I’ve found that, even today, nobody knows how consciousness works and yet we’re developing virtual and augmented reality. I find it interesting that we’re doing all this without really even knowing how our own reality works. There is a big philosophical discussion that is still ongoing, involving such questions as: “Is the mind in the brain? Is consciousness a physical thing in the brain or does the mind lie outside of the brain?” No one really knows. My three VR works from 2016, 2017, and 2018 are about consciousness and reality, and about how virtual reality is just a powerful illusion machine. Two of these works incorporate 3D models of an actual brain based on MRI data — I wanted to literally take the viewer into the brain.

Rebecca Allen, Limbo, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

VC: Finally, one of your recent works, Limbo (2022), is a crypto art project that uses unique AI research software to help a computer learn to move like a human body. What has been your response to the explosion of interest in digital art that has followed the NFT?

RA: NFTs are financial crypto. An NFT is a financial product, and that is really what it is all about.

Sometimes I feel that the push to focus on digital art as an NFT is a way of trying to find something interesting in a financial product. 

I feel conflicted about NFTs and the whole crypto area because I’m somewhat old-fashioned. Even though I make virtual works that aren’t physical per se, such as projections and works that are part of installations, I really like the social aspect of showing work in galleries, museums, and spaces that the public has to go to. I guess it’s great that so many people are now experiencing art on their phones or on their computer screens but, for me, it just wasn’t part of my dream. 

I feel NFTs are just another outlet to make people aware of digital art, which is probably a good thing, but there are a lot of things I don't care about NFTs. Maybe because I create work on the screen, I communicate on the screen, and everything is done on the screen, I kind of like my art to be somewhere else in the physical world.

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With thanks to Costanza Mancuso.

Rebecca Allen is an internationally recognized artist inspired by the aesthetics of motion, the study of perception and behavior, and the potential of advanced technology. From the mid-1970s, Allen was a rare female artist working in the early stages of computer art and digital technology. Her pioneering artwork, which spans over four decades and takes the form of experimental video, large-scale performances, live simulations, and virtual and augmented reality art installations, addresses the future of gender, identity, nature, and what it means to be human as technology redefines our sense of reality. 

With degrees from Rhode Island School of Design and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rebecca moves fluidly between her artist studio and research lab, using her research to inform her art. Allen was one of the first artists to utilize the computer as a tool to make art involving human motion simulation, AI/artificial life algorithms, and other generative techniques. Allen’s work is exhibited internationally and is part of the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Centre Pompidou, Paris; Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Previous collaborators include Kraftwerk, Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), Peter Gabriel, Carter Burwell, Twyla Tharp, and Nam June Paik.

Valentino Catricalà is a scholar and contemporary art curator. He is currently the curator of Modal Gallery at The School of Digital Art (SODA) and a Lecturer in Curating at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is co-curator of the D’ORO D’ART Project, in collaboration with Marian Goodman Gallery. He is also the curator of the Digital Art department of the Fondazione La Quadriennale di Roma. Valentino has curated globally in important museum and private galleries, including: the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco; New York Media Center, Stelline, Milan; MAXXI, Rome; Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; Ca’ Foscari, Venice; and the Italian Embassy Cultural Center, New Delhi. He is the author of The Artist as Inventor: Investigating Media Technology through Art (2021) and Art and Technology in the Third Millennium (2020), as well as numerous essays. He also co-curates the Art and Innovation section of WIRED Italia.

Rebecca Allen, “A Tangle of Mind and Matter,” runs until April 30 at Modal Gallery, SODA, Manchester.