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Artists or techies: On virtual reality and creative coding in Egypt's art scene

With the growing popularity of Virtual Reality in the international film industry, Ahram Online looks into the present and future of VR and creative coding in Egypt

Ingy Higazy , Thursday 5 Jan 2017
(Photo: still from film Notes on Blindness)
(Photo: still from film Notes on Blindness)
Views: 4898
Views: 4898

It is difficult to match the silhouettes before your eyes to the description spoken by the soft voice of a middle-aged man. At first, you easily mistake the shapes for bioluminescent creatures dotting the shore of a vast sea in the late night. A few minutes later, you begin to slowly decipher a standing tree, a flying bird, and the figures of children jumping from one place to another. The scene is a park and the voice is that of John Hull, an Australian writer who, after going blind in 1983, began orally recording his diaries on audiocassette.

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (2016), directed by James Spinney and Peter Middleton, was able to reconstruct Hull’s vision-scape using not only his original recordings, but also the increasingly popular technology of virtual reality (VR).

VR films have been significantly present in a number of recent international film festivals. The Cannes Film Festival in May 2016 – where Notes on Blindness was screened – the Venice Film Festival in August 2016, the Raindance Film Festival in September-October, and finally the Dubai International Film Festival in December of the same year, have all dedicated sections of their programs specifically to screening VR films.

This recent and soaring popularity of VR technology in filmmaking, however, has not come without much controversy. The extent to which the technology has penetrated art worlds globally is not yet ripe for assessment.

In Egypt, for instance, VR filmmaking has not found its way to the arts scene – yet. However, the use of advanced technology in art is not new to a small but growing number of Egyptian artists. In other words, VR may not have struck ground in the Egyptian arts scene, yet a world of artistic creation that speaks a non-conventional language – one well versed in codes and algorithms – is thriving.

One such language noticeably present in Egypt is that of creative coding. Whether creative coding foreshadows the adoption of VR in Egypt's art scene is a question Ahram Online sought to answer by speaking to a number of artistic producers and practicing artists in the country.

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness VR experience teaser trailer

On VR and Creative Coding

The term ‘virtual reality’ is believed to have been coined in 1987 by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and visual artist from New York who founded the VPL (Visual Programming Language) Research company around the same time. According to the Virtual Reality Society, the technology’s antecedents can be traced to the early twentieth century, particularly to the emergence of flight simulators. In the late nineties, with the growth and expansion of the gaming industry, it reached a zenith of development.

The technology is principally used to simulate real life settings – or construct intangible parallel realities – using the same type of computer-generated imagery found in video games. In that sense, it directly targets most of the human senses in one stroke, and offers its recipients a vibrant, interactive experience.

VR is heavily associated, and sometimes confused, with 360-degree technology. Yet, as Baptiste Charles-Aubert notes in his article, “The Difference Between 360° and Virtual Reality,” on the Raindance website, the technologies are considerably different. The difference, he argues, lies in the modes of storytelling they employ; 360-degree places the viewer at the helm of the camera while VR places him/her within the scene.

Numerous culture critics have celebrated the interactive and multi-sensory VR specifically as “the technology of 2016.” It is not a coincidence, as the technology continues to acquire an increasingly eminent status in the tech-world. Multi-national corporations – most notably Facebook through Oculus, Google through Google Cardboard, and Microsoft through Holo Lens – are currently in intense competition over its advancement.

Creative coding, on the other hand, is simply the use of coding to create visual material; in other words, merging computer programming with artistic creation. It seeks to create interactive performances in theatre and other artistic media, like music.

While creative coding is not synonymous with VR, it is still involved in the construction of automated reality. This is particularly the case in gaming, where scripting language is used to “simulate external interactions,” as Andrew King and Evangelos Himonides note in their book, Music, Technology, and Education: Critical Perspectives (2013). Creative coding, they say, is used mostly in the “music composition and sound design” of games.

People wear Samsung Gear VR devices as they attend the launching ceremony of the new Samsung S7 and S7 edge smartphones during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 21, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

The present and future of VR and creative coding in Egypt

In Egypt, the mantle of creative coding is upheld by Creative Coding Cairo, a group of artists and programmers who specialise in the industry. The group helps bridge the artistic and technology communities by organising monthly meet-ups and workshops.

Mohamed Hossam, an audiovisual and media artist based in Egypt and the organiser of Creative Coding Cairo, spoke passionately to Ahram Online about the inner world of creative coding and the field’s future in this country.

Hossam has capitalised in his art on the accessibility of the technology used in creative coding, as opposed to that needed for VR. “It is more commercial, and almost anyone can buy it,” he explained. The availability of online access to the necessary programs and software, he continued, has made the technology much more accessible to Egyptian programmers and artists alike.

The technology needed for creative coding might be commercially accessible, but the lack of professionals and teachers in the field poses a serious obstacle to aspiring practitioners. “There are no people teaching [creative coding] in Egypt,” Hossam said. As a result, Egyptian students and artists must approach international professors and institutions to help them learn about the field – a growing trend Hossam noted.

Platforms for electronic arts exploration in Egypt are vibrant, with standouts like the Cairo International Electronic and New Media Arts Symposium, and the American University in Cairo's Cairotronica, which was held in May 2016. Cairotronica aimed to create “a new international hub and platform for electronic art in the Middle East,” according to the event's website. With Egyptian and international participating artists, a series of workshops, an academic conference, and film screenings, Cairotronica testified to the growing popularity of electronic arts in Egypt.

This leads Hossam to conclude that there is indeed potential for technologies like VR to develop in the Egyptian arts scene.

The success or failure of VR in Egypt will depend largely on the technological resources available to artists. With no effort to bring this specific technology to Egyptian cinemas looming on the horizon, Mohamed Hefzy, producer and founder of Film Clinic, on the other hand, does not see it happening, “not within the next two years at least.”

Notes on Blindness
(Photo: still from Notes on Blindness)

On art and technology: reception or interaction?

The international popularity of VR films, as well as the growth and development of technologies like creative coding, come with an invitation to expand on the long-standing debate on whether technology hurts artistic creation. It also prompts us – as viewers – to probe at the heart of whether art is, or should be, a mode of reception, interaction or both.

The historical trajectory of modern art in the world is rife with debate between different schools and approaches. In filmmaking, for instance, the techniques used, the modes of storytelling, as well as the role – or presence – of the filmmaker in the narrative are all major points of contention.

The emergence of one cinematic school, the New Hollywood Group (often referred to as New Wave Cinema), is both telling of the diversity of approaches in filmmaking, and starkly contrasted by the current prominence of VR technology.

The advent of the New Hollywood Group arrived in the fifties in response to a faltering cinema scene in the United States. The new school resisted the techniques that major production companies had begun to mobilise in the face of television's apparently unrelenting march to audience domination, such as 3-dimensional technology and Technicolor.

The directors who led this new cinematic wave emphasised alternative narratives in their films and, accordingly, liberated them from the shackles of the studio. Steering cinema out of the studio doesn't mesh with VR technology.

In fact, VR’s critics argue that its demand for sophisticated technology, and its integration of video game technology in film, serves to wholly divert the focus of filmmaking away from the narrative.

However, the recent prominence of VR films in the world may, in the long run, serve to shift attitudes towards video games and electronic art in general, allowing it to find regard outside the worlds of technological advance and pure entertainment, as a valid mode of artistic expression.

The accessibility of the technology and the presence of a culture open to the use of technology in art remain the barometers for success and sustainability of VR technology, in Egypt and the world.

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