Alan Warburton works with CGI technology to not only build new and imaginary worlds, but to question our own one. We premiere his new project ‘Primitives’, in which a single dancer’s movements are transformed into those of a crowd.
Despite seeming like a natural fit, contemporary art and CGI technology remain at odds with one another. Having not yet been picked up by art schools and embedded as a core part of the curriculum, artists who are intuitively using technology in their work remain in the process of fully integrating the possibilities of CG software within their practice. Defying this categorisation is interdisciplinary artist, animator and conceptualist, Alan Warburton, whose artwork and critical insight on cutting edge software technology is building an astute commentary on art, motion graphic design and contemporary culture.
For his new project Primitives, commissioned as part of an art residency by ENCAC, Warburton worked with dancer Anya Kravchencko at humainTrophumain in Montpellier to capture a series of movements using Microsoft Kinect. This motion data was fed into crowd simulation program Golaem Crowd to generate a batch of experimental 3D renders that explore the possibilities and limits of crowd simulation software.
In pushing this technology, used mainly by the gaming, advertising and film industries, to the limit, Warburton realises that software not only inherits market biases but is structured around them. By testing these programs, he purposefully acts out against the dominant Hollywood tropes of militaristic violence that influence software development to explore the ethical dimension of cutting edge technology. From video games to artificial intelligence, software affects our humanity, and this artist is out to discover how this relationship can work for good.
POSTmatter: What led you to work with new technology and computer graphics, and how have these tools influenced your creative outlook?
Alan Warburton: My undergrad was in a kind of media-agnostic fine arts course called Critical Fine Art Practice. After graduating I entered a competition online and won a three-month intensive course in 3D visual effects at Escape Studios. Then I worked in an animation studio for a few years and began to reconcile my arts background with all the software I was using. So it all happened by chance, but it exposed me to exactly what I needed after being deep in critical theory for three years. I avoided the postmodern paralysis a lot of arts graduates can get stuck in. Software became an articulate cypher for a lot of the ideas I'd studied, and a way of making things without needing lots of funding, a studio or a gallery.
The great thing about making CGI stuff is the scope and control it affords an artist. I remember when I first started modelling 3D objects, I'd come up with an idea for an installation and do a digital mockup of it. But then I would start extending the space, lighting it, and swapping materials, making it move, even playing with physical simulations, breaking the laws of physics as part of the installation. Before I knew it I was creating film worlds to contain all these ideas and that's kind of where I am now, in a hybrid space of cinema, animation, engineering, science, sculpture and conceptualism. Though the more I work with software, the more fascinated I become with it as a phenomenon.
PM: You’re an artist who deconstructs and critically reflects on cutting edge software technology. In what ways is CGI a useful form for examining contemporary culture?
AW: Almost all commercial imagery is routed through CG software and if we want to understand or affect the production of contemporary culture we need to know how the software works. Software isn't this perfect mediator that seamlessly facilitates an individual's creative vision - it's riddled with obstacles, biases and material histories that make it far from transparent. This is really where software technology gets interesting. It's as much about what it does badly as what it does well.
I often imagine the 3D animation packages I use as vast mansions or factories that have been extended, rebuilt and restructured over many years by many hands. There are mismatching fixtures, hidden staircases, rotten floorboards, palatial interiors. Some paths are optimised and reinforced, others are littered with fascinating obstacles. Those obstacles get streamlined out of existence unless users play with them and push tech away from the route of least resistance, which will usually be safe commercial applications. In a way, software is the modern manifestation of cultural production, so mapping the labyrinthine, contradictory spaces of software is mapping culture itself.
PM: You note that advancements in crowd simulation technology have facilitated a kind of “abject meat-puppetry”. In what ways do you find these technical developments in crowd simulation fascinating and disturbing?
AW: Well, the clip I'm referring to is Dave Fothergill's"I've fallen and I can't get up" created using Miarmy. He uses a tilt-shift technique to miniaturise a crowd of almost photoreal human bodies who plough blindly into a rotating barrier and get churned up by it. The figures are pathetic and helpless and we identify with them because the artificial intelligence driving the simulation introduces just enough complexity to imply individual agency. Rendered in miniature in this impossible obstacle course creates a kind of abject meat puppetry that is as hypnotic as it is tragic. Watching this I feel the same uneasiness I'd feel if I found a child waterboarding their teddy bear. Or when I read how some people behave in open world games like GTA or how they torture their Sims. If that's what you like to do for fun, I'll defend your right to do so, but I don't really want to sit next to you on a bus!
In a way, software is the modern manifestation of cultural production, so mapping the labyrinthine, contradictory spaces of software is mapping culture itself.
That said, I think someone like Dave Fothergill wasn't marshalling Miarmy towards sadistic ends – he was simply testing some inbuilt functionality. And this is the important point, I think – one that sets apart the ethics of software from the ethics of gaming. Crowd sim software originally emerged from a tool called Massive developed by WETA for Lord Of The Rings to simulate vast armies of battling orcs. Massive, Golaem and Miarmy all work along the same lines. The software favours militaristic configurations of humans; there are built in functions for bodies being hit and crushed, formations marching and fighting, target based navigation. This bias isn't anyone's fault per se, it's how the market works – tools are developed for the sort of requirements people have for those tools. Hollywood likes to produce spectacular blockbusters full of militaristic conflict, action and death, so that's the software functions we get to play with. My point is that software inherits these market biases and is structured around them. Then users reproduce them. Part of my “Primitives” project was to try and expand the parameters of the software – push it away from its inherent bias toward grisliness
I realise that from a certain perspective these questions seem absurd, perhaps even as conservative as the lobbyists who oppose videogame violence. But at the frontline of tech, where visuals start to blend into reality, there's a sharp ethical dimension. What's more, the code that determines how a digital crowd behaves is part of a growing suite of techniques - chatbots, supercomputers, machine learning - that attempt to parameterise humanity. These are the principles on which artificial intelligence is built and I think it's worth - even at this stage - asking questions about how and why we marshall AI technology.
PM: What do you think is interesting about the crowd as a lens through which to examine human nature:
AW: This is an interesting question. Crowd simulations are limited by the parameters of the software. You can push against or work around those parameters, but it's easier to work with the functionality. Go with the flow. The funny thing is that when I was learning the software and trying to push for some sort of “emergent” or unexpected behaviours, I constantly felt directed, herded, kettled into certain workflows - just like the crowds I was trying to control. The software was shaping my behaviour as much as I was trying to shape the crowd's behaviour. I felt a strange solidarity with the “primitives” and started to consider how culture itself is like software – parameterised, full of norms and conventions for behaviour that it's hard to operate outside of. It was a Borgesian, Charlie Kaufman moment, for sure.
The code that determines how a digital crowd behaves is part of a growing suite of techniques - chatbots, supercomputers, machine learning - that attempt to parameterise humanity.
PM: When working with dancer Anya Kravchenko on Primitives, what kind of movements were you looking to capture and choreograph?
AW: I initially was reacting against a lot of the preset motions that are included with the software or available on commercial motion capture libraries. Instead of these dramatic movements full of conflict and drama, I wanted to start from the ground up and build a library of more subtle, ambiguous movements - ritualistic gestures drawn from work, religion and everyday communication. It sounds silly, but I wanted to give them purpose: themselves, work, a higher power or each other, maybe. So Anya patiently performed a lot of these ritual motions: discovering her body as if for the first time, reaching out to touch someone, gesturing towards the heavens as if communicating with the software itself.
Some of the motions were too subtle to make it through the conversion from Microsoft Kinect toGolaem, so I ended up using some mocap library stuff as well – Disney-style motions that looked fantastic when performed by a crowd of hundreds. The best motions came when I let Anya do her own thing. Her knowledge of movement was both intuitive and mathematical, so she ended up contributing a range of really interesting dance motions to the crowds.
PM: In what ways do feel that art and CGI, a tool so heavily employed by commercial movie and advertising industries, could work better together?
AW: Contemporary art and CGI seem made for each other, but they are worlds apart culturally and institutionally. The artists working across these disciplines are tiny miracles in a lot of ways, venturing across boundaries that are difficult to cross. I had to do an intensive VFX course and spend two years working alongside other professionals to absorb enough knowledge to execute anything with any scale or ambition. I think that learning curve is what's holding a lot of art students and graduates back from a more articulate investigation of CGI. There aren't many courses out there that synthesise art theory with CGI practice successfully. I hope that'll change.
There's certainly a need for that kind of articulate intervention into software, as well. As much as I love vaporwave and net art, it fails to really interrogate the technology it uses. It feels almost dissociative, like zombie CGI: retro, ironic, faux-naïve, jaded, self-referential. This kind of work is interesting in it's own right, but speaks volumes about the need for software to become more embedded into arts curriculums. I'm sure new generations of digitally savvy artists will delve deeper into software, they'll come up with articulate, incisive and avant-garde uses for industrial technology. I'm looking forward to seeing that shift, and maybe helping it happen.
PM: Do you have any future projects or residencies lined up?
AW: Yes, quite a few. I'm working on a residency at BBC Television Centre for a project called White Noise. There's a modernist tower being demolished that I'll be replicating in CGI to preserve as a kind of ghost building. I'm also doing some work for an augmented reality project that Hugo Arcier is curating in Paris, and I'll be scanning and animating the head of gay rights activist Peter Tatchell for a project where a bunch of LGBTQ artists do an animated exquisite corpse of “Queer Heroes”. I'm also helping filmmakerPia Borg with a commission where she'll be merging live action and CGI in an investigation into opal mining in Australia. Once I've done that I hope to initiate a short period of conscious uncoupling with my computer, for both our sakes.
This interview is published in partnership with WeTransfer, as part of our series exploring the creatives who push the boundaries between digital and physical space in new and surprising ways. See Alan Warburton's work custom moving image piece on WeTransfer here.