20 Aug 2020 • Technology
'People are craving experiences because they’re more valuable than buying something,' says Anita Fontaine
Having spent the last 20 years traversing the globe, Australian artist and director Anita Fontaine has landed in New Zealand, from where she discusses her work in emerging technologies, the link between wellness and VR, and why spaces should have sentience.
After Anita Fontaine studied fine art photography in Australia, her interests diverged into video games. ‘I was obsessed with what felt like the ultimate medium for all these textures and assets I was generating,’ she says. She pictured someone walking around in these virtual environments, exploring her imagined spaces, surfaces, textiles and photographs. Environments that offered infinite possibilities. Schooling in the world of video games ensued, as did tech-related art residencies.
Through her art practice she met Geoffrey Lillemon, who became her long-time creative collaborator. Until 2014 they operated under the alias Champagne Valentine to create ‘art for brands’, with an emphasis on using emerging technologies. Now based in New Zealand, Fontaine has founded future labs in the advertising industry, worked for start-up incubators in San Francisco, and directed films across the globe. Her underlying philosophy? ‘Creating things that enhance reality and experiences that people haven’t seen before.’ And, ultimately, shifting our collective consciousness.
You have a rich and varied educational and work background. How has it shaped what you do?
ANITA FONTAINE: My work involves spatial design, so it was like I was preparing for that moment, a few years ago, when VR emerged on the scene in a bigger way. That point coincided with my return to Amsterdam from the US. Geoff [Lillemon] was feeling the same thing: the moment is now. While running Champagne Valentine we inhabited the edge of what was possible technically, so it seemed on point to think about a future-lab concept. We talked to Wieden+Kennedy, and they were excited about the idea. It didn’t become The Department of New Realities [DPTNR] until a few months in. I don’t fit into traditional advertising at all, but I do understand it. I’m always trying to push for the non-conventional. With the Department, we were trying to alter advertising and creative landscapes, and to give people hyper-sensorial experiences that they’ve never had before.
A project for beer brand Corona, Paraíso Secreto combined a VR experience with a physical set design to give the people of Mexico City the feeling of being outdoors in a built-up urban environment.
The advertising industry’s take on the experience economy, you might say?
Advertisers have tried everything and traditional media methods are getting tired. People are craving experiences because they’re more valuable than buying something. There’s a growing desire to make physical spaces smart and surprising. I’m not talking about Alexa, but about something deeper and reactive – maybe even living and breathing. About layering smart technologies in a cool way. Integrating theatre and sound. Creating art installations or tools that are culturally relevant. Technology can really be utilized to heighten emotional states or enhance your reality. It’s such a powerful medium in the right hands. Instead of headsets being used as a gimmick, could they add layers of wellness and actually improve your inner landscape?
You mention wellness and the senses, key factors in your work.
People are focusing more and more on wellness. How can we build spaces that benefit us? I don’t think the answer would be anything to do with how many LED screens can fit in a room. We’re becoming more sensitive and delicate with technology. And I don’t think technology is a bad word, by the way. It can add a lot of sensorial beauty to any situation. The haptics around technology are just as important. The theatre, the sculpture, the installations: they need to feel raw and slightly imperfect, something to take technology out of a cold digital space and into something warm you want to touch. My mind is full of weird ideas: pods, for example, that could change their inhabitants’ consciousness. Shifting people’s perspective so they have a positive, anxiety-reducing experience: that’s a goal I want to work towards. Spaces that affect people deeply, with the kind of intensity you’d get from a cinematic experience. Relating the work I’ve done with VR – the control you have with it – back to the real space is really interesting to me.
To ensure there was a shared experience surrounding Bitmap Banshees, a dystopian VR survival game installation, Fontaine x The Department of New Realities (DPTNR) outfitted a physical bike as the interface for the game, ‘turning players into performers’.
Are you mainly talking about dedicated wellness spaces, or incorporating wellness into all types of spaces?
Particularly in cities, there’s a gravitation towards less frenetic spaces that give us peace of mind. But spa culture is blowing up as well, and plenty is happening in the future beauty scene. One idea we were working on at DPTNR was a beauty spa for avatars. The theory was that in the near future we’ll have a physical self and a digital self that might need updates or a day at the spa. Actually, I think this might already be happening on some level with Instagram face filters.
Instead of headsets being used as a gimmick, could they add layers of wellness and actually improve your inner landscape?
My work centres on speculative fiction. If I don’t try to define the future, then someone else will. Even though some of it might feel like science fiction, I have to start somewhere.
What about a more concrete project that conveys your ideas about speculative fiction and multisensorial experiences?
Paraíso Secreto for Corona is a good example. We had a problem to solve: to give the people of Mexico City the feeling of being outdoors in a built-up urban environment. We curated every detail of the theatrical journey, from the set design to the experience inside VR. You had to find a gold coin to access a world behind a secret door, where you were fitted with an untethered VR headset that allowed you to walk through a physical construction of paradise. You could reach out and physically touch whatever you saw in VR – plants and rocks, for instance. You could smell nature, feel the wind in your hair. By the end of the journey you arrived to watch the sunset at a beach, a room we filled with sand and beautiful light installations. The set design helped to trick the brain into thinking it was in a natural environment, and people responded really positively. It wasn’t that we were trying to replace nature with this project; we wanted people to be reminded of it. In the lead-up to Paraíso Secreto we encountered a lot of research, especially in therapeutic realms, that suggested nature in VR is better than no nature at all.
Fontaine x DPTNR reimagined a classic children’s fairy tale in VR, presenting the result – Senseless Fairytale – at the Cinekid film and digital media festival.
If you’re the only one using a VR device, there’s a strange interaction between you, the user, and the others around you. You’re the performer, even if you don’t realize it because you’re in your own world . . .
Exactly, and that was something we explored at DPTNR with our VR game installation Bitmap Banshees. Players could cycle through the streets of a dystopian, psychedelic future version of Amsterdam being chased by banshees, all inside a VR headset. We knew there was going to be an influx of people on the evening it launched, and wanted to give a sense of a shared experience, so we deliberately outfitted a physical bike as the interface for the game, turning players into performers. We also created collectables like prints, patches and scarves for keepsakes. It’s important to be thoughtful about making single-player VR experiences inclusive so that onlookers don’t feel isolated. But soon we might all be connected inside the multiverse multiplayer style.
When would you choose to use AR over VR?
If your reality sucks – you’re sandwiched between people on an aeroplane, for instance – it’s so much better to be in VR! But if you’re sitting on a beach, then AR is much better. Then you’re just enhancing what’s around you. These technologies are a bit like shamanic tools though – we shouldn’t be using them lightly. Who knows what they might be invoking?
Do you have a recent example of a project for which AR was the perfect fit?
I am currently creating an augmented reality boat tour, which was meant to go live in Liverpool this May until these unforeseen circumstances arose. It will hopefully launch in early 2021. The ferry system there is 800 years old, and the client offered up the ferry as a platform to disrupt the tourist route and commute using art and technology. The experience blends theatre, sound and set design with AR portal sculptures that point outwards as the ferry travels its course. It’s kind of wild. The story is a protopian fairy tale set 150 years in the future. We’ve overcome climate disasters, resurrected humanity and we’re back to worshipping esoteric earth elements. I played with the guided tour format, rewriting the script for someone of that time. But there’s also a completely new narrative layer – the augmentation of the landscape and environment around you. I’m pulling together a diverse collective for the project – writers, animators, musicians, sculptors and creative technologists. It’s a really international project in that sense. Quite good practice for our new reality of collaborating from our independent bubbles.
Top to bottom: For part of MTV’s 2016 worldwide campaign, Fontaine created an ident that imagined a doomsday scenario in LA, where ‘inhabitants split their days between VR and an eco-apocalyptic nightmare’. Adorned in niqābs equipped with oxygen filtration, figures fly seamlessly through the multiverse in consciousness-altering meditation pods. 3D animation Julien Simshauser / Builders Club | Fontaine recently directed a film for environmentally friendly footwear brand Allbirds, signalling her shift towards ‘creating conscious content and experiences’.
You’re still working internationally from New Zealand, but has your new home base sparked any specific new ideas?
I’m so inspired by the landscapes, yet just as concerned with the state of the environment and expanding collective eco-anxiety. I love the excitement around sustainability and innovation here and feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. I’ve just finished directing a film for Allbirds to launch its first performance shoe, which could really disrupt the oil-oriented shoe market. My new focus is on creating conscious content and experiences. That means I’m working more with international clients who have similar ethics.
If I don’t try to define the future, then someone else will
I’m also incubating a project that it’s too soon to say much about: a new concept called The Enlightenment Club. Something to do with silence, technology, meditation – potentially connected to hot springs. The idea has felt even more relevant in relation to the coronavirus crisis. Every day I meditate with people in California. We sit in silence, but it’s so powerful to know that someone is sharing this moment. I feel The Enlightenment Club has the potential to connect people like that through space and time.
How else has the Covidar-19 situation impacted your view of technology?
I’m ready for the New World Order. Not in the creepy surveillance way, but I’m hoping that certain things will break down and be rebuilt more effectively. That the suffering involved will open people’s hearts to what’s going on, what people have been ignoring ecologically and in the realms of healthcare and our general way of life. People tend to think technology can solve anything but, in this instance, I think we need to put our phones down. Zoom is making people crazy! I envision a solution to connecting us all that feels healthy, fun and almost organic – but we also have to make sure our privacy is protected, which is a big issue at the moment.
What about the pandemic’s impact on brick-and-mortar spaces? And how does technology fit in there?
I think these spaces could go two ways – either becoming places of anti-technology or futuristic living and breathing entities. Or a blend of the two. Since we’re only really on the cusp of thinking about this – tapping into all the senses – more R&D needs to be done. It might be about connecting with good brands that offer opportunities to expand these ideas.
What if architects, Noses and creative technologists combined forces to embed spatial design with sensorial, organic and smart tech?
What’s happening around us currently, I feel, will impact consumer behaviour and how we want to inhabit the world. As a human race we’ve been rebriefed to what advertising, consumer and retail design could even mean in this new context. I really hope humans don’t flip back, and simply rush out to get the latest pair of sneakers. I actually saw a post about sneakerheads lining up the day before lockdown and felt quite ill.
I wonder whether retail installations will become more like gardens – more calming, more about giving consumers the tools to heighten their consciousness. Like my protopian experience for the Liverpool ferry, what if retail environments recalled earthly essences? What if architects, Noses and creative technologists combined forces to embed spatial design with sensorial, organic and smart tech? When people feel ready to shop again, they will have emerged from a period of consuming less. They’ll be craving artful – maybe even healing – realities that draw them in.