Augmented and Virtual Realities in the art NFT ecosystem

Looking at how the medium’s interaction with crypto ecosystems is liberating artists from traditional confines

By Brassard, March 2022

You’re basically transitioning from a human into a god-like creator” says Sam Arsenault-Brassard, an artist and mentor on VerticalCrypto Art Residency Program and a long-time practitioner of extended reality practices, both pre and post NFTs. 

No small claim, but not necessarily hyperbole either, given the liberating force that AR/VR is seemingly giving artists in the crypto ecosystem.   

Of course, the broader use of AR/VR in artistic practises is not new; since the term was popularised in the 1980s, artists have experimented with its potential, initially in producing immersive audience experiences and, more recently, as Sam explains, VR approaches which have “moved away from its use as a method of consumption, towards its use as a means of creation.”

From sculpting in VR like crypto artist Luminokaya, to the augmented layering of futuristic make-up in 3D by Paris-based artist Ines Alpha, and the exhibiting of AR artwork on billboards, by artist and researcher Dr.Helen Papagiannis; there is a growing body of established artists exploring the future of these technologies.  

The transposition of the medium to NFTs has opened even more doors. Not only offering a way of attributing financial value and means of ownership to such digital works (and thus economic freedom for its creators), but also in the development of metaverses and Web 3.0 and the creation of a utility and space for art in mixing realities. As with much work in crypto, there’s also a sense of democratisation to practices.

But let’s not be fooled, the world of such AR/VR gods is still small. Sam estimates fewer than 200 full time artists are regularly using VR tools in the productions of NFTs.   

So, what’s stopping more artists getting involved? Cost of technology is one key issue but, with the growing number of affordable products joining the market- notably the Oculus Quest 2- accessibility is on the up, particularly for virtual reality. Skills and training are potentially more of a challenge, with most higher education facilities still shying away from the mediums or treating it as a ‘novelty’, rather than part of core curriculums. 

As Sam notes: “It’s still the early days, so there people out there that should be doing it but aren’t yet- because they either don’t know it’s possible or simply can’t afford the technology.”

In the artist’s words

We caught up with three leading practitioners of AR/VR in the NFT ecosystem to learn more about what motivates their practices and how they view the future of this field…

Fabio Giampietro 

Postcard from Exodus [2020]

“I started making art with virtual reality in 2014, using the Oculus Dk1, with my first significant exhibition in Milan in 2016 and, in the same year, winning the Lumen Prize with a VR project.  

In a way, I’m still developing that same project today; using VR headsets to allow people to walk inside a 3D environment of a physical oil painting. In this translation into VR, I try to remain as faithful as possible to the gestures of the painting, using a mix of canvases shaped as equirectangular maps, hand-painted textures and 3D graphics. The result is so real that the sensation of walking inside a painting is dizzying, almost scary. 

I approached the NFT scene as a means to give value to the digital aspects of my work, but soon realised that, aside from VR galleries, the limitations of technology were still many. So, nowadays, I’m working with a team to make my own world online, which will certainly include the use of NFTs.

Due to the central role that artists are carving out for themselves in this evolution, we will probably see worlds in VR that hopefully will not be mere reproductions of reality. It will be exciting to see things like open-air art museums in AR, a sort of Cyber Street Art movement- creativity, imagination and experimentation will hopefully bring to the fore, new digital parallel worlds with never seen-before physics, dynamics-that can also be inspirations for the real world.”

Lucas Aguirre

A Constructive Instability [2021]

I was introduced to VR in 2017, thanks to an art and technology grant which allowed me to be able to buy a decent computer for the first time in my life. Together with two friends, (a psychologist and a coder), we created a VR experience-called Alteridad (Alterity)- where you were able to see yourself through the eyes of another person, while at the same time touching this person. 

To be honest, the results of the piece surprised us, and the reactions people had were amazing. It showed me the potential of VR practices and I spent two years experimenting with the medium, but nothing was satisfactory. I was anxious because I had this amazing tool but couldn’t find my own voice with it.

At the end of 2018, I started experimenting with photogrammetry and VR, and it instantly clicked. Suddenly I could capture pieces of everyday reality that could be subverted into virtual space, with the easy and untechnical way of the VR approach. I started doing scans with cheap cameras and phones, and the pieces felt human and mundane. I was then able to mix them with the fantastic possibilities of the virtual space and create new worlds for these pieces of reality to inhabit.  

 
My current workflow is capturing a model in 3D, working on the results of those scans in VR, and then exporting them to a render engine software for the final image or video. If it’s a still image I export it to photoshop and start a process of overpainting. I love the grey area between 3D and 2D. Sometimes I print the image on canvas and continue it with analogue materials like acrylic and oils. That result can be scanned again into the digital realm.  

A work in progress: Raw scans by Lucas, created in Codame and shared online via Sketchfab


Prior to NFTs, I had some experience with galleries and art prizes, but couldn’t find a space where I felt comfortable. When I was allowed into SuperRare and sold my first piece, it gave me the economic possibility that I was longing for and a freer environment than the traditional art spheres. At the same time, I found new friendships and connections with artists, thinkers and collectors.“

Auriea Harvey

Fauna v1-dv1 (in The Temple) [2021]

“I love interactive art. I enjoy the situation of a screen and using hardware or touch to activate something. And carrying the art I love the most around with me, not just an image of it, but the work itself. Creating for that situation and creating for others who value that, is very important to me. It seems that NFTs have made people take notice this kind of work, like never before. 

For years I didn’t make any physical artwork. I made video games. At a certain point I stopped that practice but carried on my love of 3D and branched off into VR and AR. Putting people’s bodies into the digital, taking objects out of the digital. Then I got into 3D printing and it still feels like magic, so I started making digital forms into virtual and tangible sculpture. At this point there is little difference to me, in each reality there are ways of working with materials and appreciating the outcomes. NFTs have provided a lens through which collectors can see there isn’t much difference as well.

The biggest challenge is getting people to interact with the work. I refrain from predictions about how viewer behaviour will change because I don’t think it will. Some people enjoy finding out how something works, others are afraid they will be ‘bad’ at interacting and never try, still others just want a passive experience. Another challenge is web technology. It’s so far behind what can be done with offline game engines! The limitations of weak phone processors… In fact, everything is against making the most advanced works possible. 

So the ‘crypto art space’ needs an upgrade. Or to understand that not everything needs to be on the web. Yet, somehow, this is how it always is at the intersection of art and technology. When you live here, you make do with what you have.”

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