• Grae Burton with VR headset and wands in the digital studio.
  • Grae Burton with VR headset, about to enter the digital studio.
  • Amy Bratton explores VR at The B:Hive.
  • Artist James Lawrence demonstrates the digital studio technology at The B:Hive.
  • Christine Young experiments with VR.

Digital art – past meets future at Lake House Arts

Lake House Arts manager Grae Burton stands in the centre of the new Lake House Arts digital studio. He’s donned a virtual reality (VR) headset and even without the wands that will shortly create real magic, he’s like a kid let loose at Rainbow’s End; his excitement is palpable.

A watching observer can only see, on a small screen in the corner of the studio, an artificial background that seems to move on odd angles while Grae moves around in a space defined in VR by a virtual red “cage” and in fact by a Persian rug in the centre of the studio. He reaches for the VR wands – and lines appear on the screen, squiggles and swirls in Grae-defined colours and dimensions. His enthusiasm reaches a crescendo.

What on earth is going on? What is so exciting about this new studio? Grae proffers the headset to the watcher – and as she puts it on she is transported into a new reality. She’s in a house with futuristic creatures in cubicles on the wall; birds fly above a ceiling skylight (with the volume up, she would even hear them as they go) and as she turns within the VR cage, she looks out into a mountainous landscape, then back in to the quirky interior.  It feels real; she suddenly embraced in a new 3-D environment. As she steps forward the walls move closer, as she steps back from the exterior view the landscape becomes more distant.

But wait, there’s more. Grae hands over the wands – one of which is effectively the design menu and the other your VR paintbrush. The room disappears and the surroundings are transformed into a blank canvas: it’s time to start creating. Even the least artistic can’t fail to be engrossed as lines emerge and swirl at every wand movement; change colour as you choose and select different motifs at your whim. But best of all, it’s all in 3-D and the artist can step forward and back through her own creation.

After just a few minutes, it’s easy to see why Grae is hooked – and how easy it would be to spend hours engrossed as you learn to effectively and creatively manipulate the wands, to create artworks worthy of the name.

But let’s take a step back and explore how Grae and his colleague Andrew Norman (a technician at Lake House Arts and IT facilities manager at Orewa College, as well as an actor) have created this new facility.

The space at Lake House Arts is, Grae thinks, the first digital art studio in Auckland, at the cutting edge of AR (augmented reality) and VR, and it’s his brainchild. It came out of his working with an art experience with the AR/VR Garage, a collaborative digital R&D workspace set up by ATEED to “grow talent, capabilities and innovation in the creative tech sector”. That space was for VR and AR developers, especially those involved in the film industry, and Grae’s role was to curate the digital art created in that space for the Wallace Arts Trust. Grae, a talented video and digital photography artist as well as an actor, with around 160 of his own pieces in the Wallace contemporary art collection, was smitten with the potential to create a studio that could be available both to working digital artists as well as to the public.

Back in February, the Lake House Arts staff repainted the main foyer entrance walls and stripped out and painted the soon-to-be digital studio. In the last month, with all the equipment (monitors, headsets, wands, and cabinets of technical gear) set up in the studio, he and Andrew started “beta testing”. More than 200 artists and members of the public (aged from as young as four and as old as eighty, singly and in small groups) have been asked to explore the possibilities of this new art form. They have tried and tested the VR program being used (Tilt Brush), “with entirely positive outcomes”. Grae and Andrew have developed and tested health and safety processes and a simple questionnaire that members of the public will complete before being able to use the space.

In late April, Grae took the concept and a presentation out to the B:Hive at Smales Farm and entranced workers there with a hands-on experience that demonstrated its possibilities and potential.

The studio is primarily intended as a space for artists, says Grae. Called the Wallace Foundation Digital Art Studio, its use will be free for artists, supported by a grant from the Wallace Arts Trust for the first year. But it will not be exclusively for artists.

“The whole point,” says Grae, “is for artists to create and the public to be engaged. But it’s such new territory; it’s all baby steps, until we have a deeper understanding of how people respond to the technology and the possibilities. “We’re still experimenting with what’s possible….”

Grae envisages hosting Lake House Arts’ already popular Arty Birthday Parties as digital experiences, either in the studio, or in another of the Lake House spaces. He’s already talking with Mapura Studios about the possibility for some of their clients (with cerebral palsy, recovering from stroke etc) to explore their abilities and create art with the wands. Future plans also include a VR club. Starting this month, says Grae, “We will be setting up access for classes and groups of all ages over the next 12 months”, with the aim that “people go away with a greater knowledge of using technology for creative activity and that digital artists and artworks emerge”.

Members of the public wanting to experience the technology will pay – a way to further help cover the costs of hosting the studio. The first public exposure for the studio was in early May, as part of the Sausage Sizzle exhibition at Lake House, where people could book a 15-minute slot for Grae to guide them through the use of the equipment and transport them to unknown worlds.

Lake House Arts has also already hosted its first resident digital artist, Alex Plumb, a featured video artist in June’s Auckland Festival of Photography, and is ready to show Alex’s works on three monitor screens set up in the main entranceway and on monitor walls in the digital studio.

The next artist-in-residence, for Matariki, is Toi Rankin, who’s been one of the testers over the last four or five months, and whose multi-coloured and multi-layered design has been adopted as Lake House Arts’ Matariki logo.

The possibilities are endless, says Grae enthusiastically.  An artist can save their work and when they reload it, reload it brush stroke by brush stroke if they wish, allowing for refinement and editing. Mechanisms for the sale and purchase of digital artworks are emerging and being explored by artists and members of the public. An image created in the studio could be sent to a 3-D printer to be created as an object. Exhibitions can and will travel: watch for a VR exhibition that combined VR and 360O webcam footage, hosted by Mairangi Arts in April, to be shown at the Lake House, and for artworks created in the digital art studio to travel beyond the confines of Lake House Arts. More partnerships and collaborations are on the cards, including perhaps a VR portal as an introduction to all arts facilities on the Shore.

“It’s been an interesting journey,” reflects Grae. With the Lake House a heritage building and many of its values centred around preserving that and our artistic heritage, he and the team have had to ask themselves how to balance the excitement of introducing this cutting-edge technology with presenting the past.

He believes that balance is certainly possible and that Toi Rankin is already demonstrating how the traditions of Matariki can be translated and enriched through the technology. “Toi is bringing his artistic experience and cultural eye, creating traditional Maori symbolism and motifs [with the technology] and transforming them. It’s very exciting.”