Dr. Monika Masłoń is a visual artist, an art educator and the author of the VR experience “CONTROL NEGATIVE”. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź and Ph.D. studies at the Film School in Łódź, where she completed her Ph.D. thesis. She is a lecturer at the Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw and the University of Leipzig where she conducts classes with the students of the department of Arts education in fine arts. In this interview we discussed the gaps that are created in immersive experiences, the important of losing control and how to use disruption in VR productions.
Can you introduce your project and maybe explain the motivation behind it?
While working on an earlier VR project, I was intrigued by the moments when the medium was revealing itself; when immersion was disturbed. These moments are generally perceived as undesirable in interactive experiences, something you might think of as a software bug. These moments reveal the façade and make the experience seem no longer “real.” I had the same feeling when a lag caused a discrepancy between the movements of my hands and the “in-game hands.”
I asked myself why these moments seem more interesting than a convincing illusion. These moments of disorder reminded me of experiences of loss which distort our perception of reality, when everything we have grown accustomed to suddenly changes. In my case, I thought about the death of my father and the loss of control connected to it. Losing control, I realized, was a feature of both the disrupted VR experience and the real experience of loss.
A consequence of this realization is the VR project Control Negative which I’m currently working on.
Can you tell me about the structure of the piece? How does this structure bring the participant onboard the experience and how do they exit?
I would like to exhibit the experience as a kind of installation in a gallery space. You, as the participant, first see a three-dimensional linear form in the shape of a house; let’s say four-by-four meters at the base. This is the first moment of onboarding, when you see the form and then you enter. In this way, you cross the border into the experience. Then there is the first moment when you put the headset on: you are in the darkness and you hear The Voice – the unseen narrator – and she leads you to the center of the house. In one sense, I want the onboarding to be quite smooth because there is a logical transition between the physical world and the virtual world: you cover your eyes and you are in darkness. The border is not so “sharp,” you could say.
But it’s also a bit disorienting too, right?
Yes, there is some kind of opposition: you are in a physical structure with dimensions, but you are also in the darkness. Also, when you meet The Voice, you might be a bit scared. The Voice is asking you to walk somewhere; you have to offer your trust. Establishing your relationship with The Voice is also part of the onboarding. Then, when you are in the game phase, so to speak, you have a “tutorial” chapter that is meant to be more joyful; where you get to know the environment and your abilities.
To continue with the structure of the experience, in the next chapter you start with a task to perform. But then things get weird. You aren’t sure what’s wrong or why it’s wrong. Also, The Voice is there, but it’s not giving you helpful information. At the next step, your agency as the experiencer is even lower.
So the structure is that you have less and less agency as the experience progresses?
Yes, basically. You have a cause, let’s say, but the effect is not what you might expect. Then, at a certain moment in the middle, The Voice explains that this was all intentional. Narratively, this is the point of no return. At this point, your agency as the participant is basically gone; except for a moment, an epilogue, at the end when the rules change again but there is no “purpose.” In this last stage, you can grab objects again, but you have to do it gently and there is not task. There can’t be a task because your influence is so limited.
Is this the conclusion of Control Negative?
It’s like an epilogue. By the time you get to it, the story has already finished in a narrative sense. This is like the last part, to have a moment for yourself to reflect before you exit.
Can you explain the process of creating the experience structure?
You know, I think the problem with discussing the structure now is that I see so many structures throughout Control Negative. There is a structure within every field. There is a structure for agency, influence and action; there is also a structure of your emotional relationship with The Voice. These are like layers, and each layer has its own structure. These layers meet in different ways at certain points. I’m always struggling to make a summary because I want to mention every layer.
Before writing the script, I got some suggestions for how to outline the structure of the experience. I had a problem at first because this outline style didn’t work for me. One suggestion asked me to consider the intended emotions of the participant. But this made no sense to me, because I provide different impulses at once; I’m giving sound, agency, visuality, etc. In the end, the problem was that I had emotions related to visuality, emotions related to mechanics, emotions related to the story. Sometimes these emotions were very similar, but sometimes they were not. And I want to create moments of confusion, where you are lost a bit. At the same moment, you can experience two different emotions at once. Such “conflicts” are interesting and I think they put you in a position where you can refocus on your inner self. It’s not so easy to create this kind of tension, because we as humans want to simplify things. We want to recreate reality, but with only one path. These moments when we are not simplifying our experience are very precious.
Generally speaking, VR is still mostly associated with cinematic and gaming experiences. How do you balance elements from each of these media in your work?
I’m using characteristic aspects of both cinema and gaming. The actions of participants, and their interaction with the piece, are crucial to this work of art. But, at the same time, I’m also telling a story. From a formal perspective, it’s a combination of generative and cinematic elements. What’s helping me to combine such distant forms is to use black-and-white images, shown in negative. This makes it somewhere between real and unreal. In this liminal setting, I hope that the distance between the gaming and film elements is not so great, either. I’m also planning to use video as a texture for 3D objects and also filter 3D reality to make it more like recorded video space.
How do you think about the concepts of immersion and presence in the context of VR? How do you use them in your work?
For me the concept of immersion is really the feeling of “being somewhere.” Not just that, but something is happening in this “somewhere” place and you are mentally moving yourself there. So immersion is closely related to your imagination. It’s a kind of escape too.
Presence is connected to the feeling of being “here,” and you are at the center of it all. You can sense what’s around you. With presence, you also have a certain amount of agency. This is how I would distinguish the two, immersion and presence; it’s the difference between “somewhere” and “here”. This distinction is an important part of the structure of Control Negative, because I’m using the difference between these two concepts. I’m trying to give the participant a feeling of presence with the controllers, especially in the tutorial chapter. But I’m also using distortion of control to send the user out of the presence; that’s an essential part.
If I had to say what parts of the experience are building immersion and what parts are building presence; I would say that the parts which build the narrative (what you hear, what you learn about the story of the Voice) are those which are connected to immersion. And those parts which are connected to presence are the interactive parts. You start with presence being more important, and then the balance is changing and you have more immersive elements. In the same way, your role is also changing from a participant to a spectator. But at the same time what’s crucial for me is that those aspects are connected. For example, you hear a story about disruption and at the same time you also experience parallel disruptions in the VR experience. At the point of intersection, however, there is some confusion about the story and your involvement in the experience.
To understand what I want to achieve at this inflection of immersion and presence, let’s imagine you’re reading a novel and then suddenly you see a scene from this novel play out right in front of your eyes. How would you feel if this happened to you?
I would think that it’s a very remarkable coincidence.
You would think that, but what would you feel?
I would feel confused and I would also wonder what the connection between the fictional and the real event is. My sense of how the world works doesn’t allow for this kind of coincidence. At the same time, because I can tell the difference between reading a book and living my life, this would make the experience even weirder.
Exactly. I want this kind of confusion to bring the participant into the story, even if it’s only in a small way. My strategy is to use immersion and presence simultaneously, in varying degrees, but also to use disruption to bring people deeper into the experience. I want a participant to feel like he/she is a part of the story because it’s no longer happening “somewhere”, it’s happening “here”. I want the story to invade the participant.
It’s already a lot but that’s not all. I want the story to invade you, but then I want you to come back as someone who experienced loss and do something with it. This is the last part. I want to achieve a very specific state: you are “here” in terms of presence, but you don’t have influence anymore. You can act, but your actions are not changing anything in long run. From the wider perspective they are irrelevant. Instead of escaping to another story, another reality, you are in the here-and-now, but your agency is only realized through gentleness and slowness. And it’s only for you. You know that you can’t change the whole thing. This is a state of acceptance without control. It’s control negative.
Let’s talk about sound. What role does sound play in the experience?
There are three kinds of sound in this experience. The first comes from The Voice; spoken words. The second are sound effects meant to build your sense of presence – the sound of putting a coffee cup on a table, for example. The third is the music layer. Of course, The Voice is meant to be narration and the sound effects are meant to create a sense of reality. Music has another role: to lead you emotionally. I didn’t want music that was illustrative, and I didn’t write musical cues into the script. I told Karolina, the composer, how I wanted the user to feel instead. I think she understands my intention and I can trust her because music is outside of my expertise.
What about the role of space?
Space is very important. I realized that the house structure at the beginning of the experience is a visualization of my own inner experience. In a certain sense, the house is also me. I think I’m extremely sensitive to space, in general, and I think the house at the beginning is about creating a certain space; an extension of myself. I feel like it’s a part of me. And it’s part of you in the experience.
When you put on the headset and you are in the darkness, you aren’t able to extend yourself into your environment. But when you can see the virtual space, it’s a mirror of the linear structure. You are in a parallel reality. It’s another kind of negative.
What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
I want to make an artwork that is useful. I want to talk about the existential angst and emotional disorder that I experienced personally, but such experiences are also universal. This is the most basic goal. I want to talk about the feeling of control in our lives, to ask when it helps us and when it harms us. I also want to provide an opportunity to rehearse dealing with loss of control. I want to reveal the mechanisms of illusion to give users a chance to practice doubt.
As an artist, this is also my first project which is so closely related to my own life. Of course, I use a lot of metaphors in this art work, but I’m also very direct with many of my feelings, thoughts and experiences. This is one reason why this is such a unique project for me. This is also the first production where I have to rely on so many other people. I have to communicate with them, to explain what I want for this work and why it’s important. It’s also a narrative work, with the beginning, middle and end; that is something new for me as well.
What is your style of collaboration? Are you directing people to realize your vision?
I have to trust people and trust my intuition. It’s important to find people I can rely on and communicate with. For example, with Rafal, he is a professional scriptwriter so I trust his knowledge. But we have a good relationship and we can have conversations when things don’t feel right. This kind of cooperation is really important for me. I would prefer to gather a team and to stay for a while in one place where we can work and be inspired by each other. There are some fields, like visuality, for example, where I know exactly what I want; but in other areas I have to share my intention and let the other person use their own abilities to produce something.
How do you show absence? How do you create the feeling of absence?
I really think absence is everywhere in this art work. First of all, when you enter the exhibition space, the first thing you encounter is a linear structure shaped like a house. Of course, it’s not a real house; it’s like a skeleton without the rest of the body. You see something which suggests an object, but it’s just a suggestion. Next, when you put on the headset, you are in the darkness. You don’t see anything at first; there’s only a voice leading you. Later on, the voice is part of semi-dialogue where you only hear one side of the conversation. The user experience is all about visual gaps as well. Sometimes these are quite literal, like when you start in a dark room, or when you have to have to fill holes with certain objects.
In general, the work suggests throughout that there should be something more, but it’s not present. You feel like you are missing something, and it creates a disturbance. We experience this in our own lives all the time. Imagine a crossword puzzle – we know the agony when there is only one word left and we can’t think of it. This is the pain of absence. But there are small absences and there are big absences. I’m really trying to tap into that feeling when something you are used to is gone, when the rules you know are suddenly changing. You lose something that once seemed obvious, that you took for granted, that you depended upon. Sometimes we might not identify this feeling as an absence, but this is what it is.
Is absence the same as loss? For me, absence and loss are two different things. When something is absent, it might be in a different location. When something is lost, maybe it will never return.
For me, they are connected. They are related. Maybe absence is the stage after losing something. Until you accept that something is lost, what you have is absence. But absence and loss are connected in terms of this experience too. Once you get used to something, and then suddenly it changes, then you can also say that you have lost something. What I’m really focused on is the disturbance that comes with loss.
I think it’s more important to focus on loss and disturbance within the context of the medium itself. Virtual reality adds another meaning – another shade, you could say – to moments of disruption. In such moments, the feeling of presence, of immersion in the experience, is disrupted as well. The disruption calls attention to the medium, and suddenly you are back in reality. This is something I’m using to create a specific feeling of mourning, a feeling that everything is falling apart and will never be the same again. I recognize this from my own experiences, and I’m trying to recreate moments of congruity in VR as well.
For example, there is a chapter in Control Negative in which you’re starting with a simple task to “separate left from right.” You’re using hand-shaped objects which act like your controllers, and while you’re focusing on the task you hear the Voice tell you a story from the past. Suddenly there is a moment of disruption and the user mechanics of catching an object and putting it away have suddenly changed and you cannot get rid of the hands you are holding. Instead of controlling your original controllers, you are controlling the hands you are holding with your controllers. When you catch another hand in your extended hand, the pattern is repeated and you move further and further from your original source of control. This is one of several metaphors for loss and disruption; you have a task and you understand the actions necessary to complete it, but after a certain point everything changes.
Many creators use VR’s immersive capabilities to build a sense of verisimilitude. But you’re using VR to create an environment that is very obviously, and intentionally, artificial. Can you tell us about your choice of visual style and what it offers to the experience?
I think the name “virtual reality” is a bit of a trap. This name makes you think that VR is a medium for creating something that is as “real” as your real life. But I think this is not the real strength of the medium. On a much higher level, I think it’s your sense of agency which gives you the feeling that you are “present” in a VR experience. I’m working on this – this sense of agency – much more than just creating an illusion based on a recreation of the real world.
I’m also trying to create an impression that you are in some kind of strange reality. I’m using the negative image, in black-and-white, to create a similar feeling, a similar impression, that you would have from looking at a photo negative. The negative image is so close to reality, but it’s also very distant. It’s parallel to reality, you could say. On the one hand, you recognize people, places and objects; but on the other hand, they are obviously not real. I’m fascinated by the negative image and how it disrupts our perception. Imagine looking at a photo negative of someone you love. Would you recognize that person?
Probably I would recognize them, but the reversal of the negative creates an uncanny impression that they are not the same person I know.
The negative form and its uncanniness are somehow connected to the physicality, the materiality, of death. The archetypal experience of the uncanny is looking at a dead body. This feeling of uncanniness is also related to absence as well. Again, the negative form is just another example of how absence is present throughout this work.
Was it difficult to create such a personal work, one based on your own experience and the loss of a family member?
Actually, the hardest part was creating the dialogues. It was difficult because I didn’t want the text to be one-to-one from my own life. In any case, I couldn’t remember any specific conversations from the time of my father’s death anyway. But still, there was something stopping me. Some hesitation. The first few versions of dialogue were really bad because I didn’t want to face them. Dialogue is the closest thing to reality, you could say, among the forms I used in this experience. It’s not filtered or distorted. But when dialogue is too close to reality, you don’t have a way to escape. At least I don’t have a way to escape because I usually don’t work with words. With visual forms, I can always create some kind of metaphorical “escape room” to conceal and avoid what is painful.
In the end, I liked the dialogues because they are quite distant from my own experience, at least in terms of the details. But this also revealed something really important: if you think of the VR experience as combining two parts – the user experience and the story (including the dialogue) – you might think that the story brings you closer to the real events that inspired me, but it’s actually the opposite. The feelings and actions of the user are much closer to reality, even if the circumstances seem very different.
I guess what I really want to say is that, if you consider this VR experience to be related to my own experience, my own trauma, then it’s at the level of action and outcome where you get closer to the “real.” Actions are much more connected to experience than stories, perhaps because our history lives in our bodies, and our bodies are the vehicle through which we experience the world. It’s also within our bodies that we experience emotion. In this way, VR is a good medium for transferring emotions. It’s not a medium for telling stories, it’s a medium for “telling emotions.”
To me, that makes sense because you’re immersed in the VR experience. To a large extent, your body is also immersed in the VR experience as well. It’s not a textual medium where you have to watch and identify vicariously with another character.
When you are listening to a traditional story, you can think about how it relates to you, how it might actually be about you; or you can use it to escape from yourself. This is why cinemas are dark and when the film is playing everyone tries not to cough – it’s meant to help you disconnect from yourself and become immersed in the film; but you’re not “present” because your body is somewhere else. Depending on how you relate to it, the same story can be immersive for one person, or it can build a feeling of presence for another. But maybe there is a kind of story that allows you to have both. I want the story of my VR experience to be so connected to you, as the participant, that you cannot escape the feeling of presence; you cannot escape the feeling of being inside yourself. This is what I want at the end: an experience that doesn’t just go into another person’s story. I want someone’s story to allow you to go even deeper into yourself.
Interesting. How does this come out in the mechanics of Control Negative?
Maybe this is some kind of weakness in our media and in ourselves. It’s a weakness that we are not able to be where we are: we are always in our past, our memories, or in our future plans. Or we are in the news, which is another story. It seems to be a basic and fundamental human action: to be somewhere else. Maybe that’s why I want to play with this action. Control Negative is also a work which asks “where am I?” from the perspective of the participant. You are somewhere in the story, in the tasks, but many times during the experience you will have moments when you are suddenly alone, and you have to deal with that.
So you’re disappointed? Or your expectations are shattered?
Maybe, but at the same time I’m trying to create a situation where all the difficulties and disturbances are also a way to build reflection and meaning. The user has to be involved in this process as well. Imagine you’re reading a book – let’s say it has a blue cover – and then suddenly you lose it after reading page 152. Now, instead of finding this book, you find another book which also has a blue cover; you think it’s the one you lost so you pick it up and continue reading from page 153 as though you were continuing with the story. Imagine your own experience trying to connect these books in your head; but the connection only exists in your own mind. The books were obviously not meant to be read this way, and certainly there is no objective connection between them. To continue our metaphor, let’s say that on the last page, you realize your mistake; you are not reading the original book. The story is actually something you created. This is the most interesting part for me: that moment when you realize…
Maybe next I should create books like that…
I wanted to ask about the role of trauma, specifically, as a motivation for Control Negative. How did trauma influence this project? Did this project also bring you to a new revelation about your trauma?
It’s important to clarify that Control Negative didn’t arise because I had a story I wanted to tell. At first, I was intrigued by the creative potential of the VR glitch, as I said earlier, and then the next step was connecting this phenomenon with my emotions; my feeling of trauma. The decision that this story would be about the death of a relative was not settled at the start; that decision came later.
I remember at the early stages of development, I was talking to a curator and I told her that I was afraid to confront my trauma. By looking at it, by recreating it, I was afraid that it would be very painful both emotionally and mentally. She asked me what would help me overcome this fear, and I said that I needed to work with good people. That’s what I’m doing now. So far, I’m extremely lucky.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but we often try to recreate our traumas in order to resolve them. Maybe you’ve found a supportive community where you can unburden yourself?
I’m not sure if that’s happening with me. I think the real change is that I no longer feel like I have to do this project; I want to do it. More importantly, I want to do this project to help other people. It’s like a gift that I can give.
This interview was conducted with director Monika Maslon in September 2021, when the project was still in development. Control Negative was completed in 2022.
The interview was made and edited by Zachary Lowell.
Special thanks to Pola Borkiewicz and Piotr Maj for their contribution.
Project funded under the Ministry of Education and Science’s “Regional Excellence Initiative” programme 2019 – 2023.
The interview publishing was funded by the International Visegrad Fund.