#CreativeImpact | Q&A with VR Designer Lucy Bonner

Lucy Bonner uses coding, virtual reality, and illustration to confront social imbalance and bias through interactive design. Project 1324 recently caught up with the designer to chat about her latest project, Compliment, and her advice for creating impactful VR experiences.

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What social issues inspire your creative work and why?
Social issues surrounding systemic imbalances and oppressive power structures drive me to create work that brings these injustices to the fore. The intersecting social structures of oppression are on such a large scale, and so entrenched, that many people don’t even think about them unless affected directly, which only serves to support and perpetuate the problems. As a feminist, much of my work has focused on the established patriarchal power structures and the ensuing gender imbalances. I want people to confront these systemic biases and think critically about what it means for our society and humanity.

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What tools do you use to express your creativity?
I try to use tools best suited for the message I want to communicate. As an illustrator, I tend to gravitate to the Adobe Creative Cloud – Illustrator, After Effects – but projects like Compliment required me to learn new skills and tools, such as Cinema 4D, Unity, and the Oculus Rift. At Parsons, I learned the logic fundamentals of programming and coding, which can be easily communicated across platforms and specific languages. My previous work with coding languages like Java and Objective-C made learning C# for Unity much easier. The Parsons MFA Design + Technology program I went through instilled a mindset in which, basically, if you want to do something, figure out how and make it happen. It’s encouraging and liberating.

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What was the inspiration behind your latest project, Compliment?
Upon moving to New York, every time I left the house I was harassed, and it takes an emotional toll. I lived along Broadway in Bushwick, Brooklyn, when I first moved here and started working on Compliment. I wanted to exemplify my daily experience, so took photos of the buildings and streets surrounding my apartment and on my walk to the J train to use as the textures and visuals of the project’s environment.

I’ve developed a habit of writing down the harassment I get each time in my phones Notes app. I use the harassment I myself have received – as well as a few choice anecdotes from friends – and place them in the mouths of male character models, combining them with the physical movements men have often employed alongside their verbal assaults. The harasser characters step in front of the participant, follow them, and block them from moving forward, much as in my own real-life experiences.

As a woman, multiple times a day I endure comments about my appearance, what men would do to me, how I should act, how I should properly respond, how I could please the men around me. Not to mention those who simply touch, bark, whistle, making smacking sounds, invade my space, or simply leer at my body as if the only thing keeping them from helping themselves is the fact that they have somewhere else to be. Women’s bodies are routinely perceived as objects – objects whose sole purpose is for the gratification of the men around them. The entitlement is overwhelming.

Men were surprised by the regularity, pervasiveness, and severity of my experiences with street harassment, but did not really understand the emotional and physical safety repercussions of it, or how street harassment supports, and is a symptom of, the dominant patriarchal system in which we live. As frustrating as it is for women’s experiences and voices to be dismissed so easily and so frequently, I realized that I could use my daily experience and my anger at continued disbelief to craft a project exemplifying the “compliment” of street harassment.

Compliment is an exploration and manifestation of the harassment I have received, and an attempt to convey the feelings of vulnerability and frustration it creates. Compliment points out the absurdity of calling street harassment a compliment rather than the dominance posturing it is.

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What do you hope players take away from the immersive experience?
Compliment explores street harassment and conveys the forceful intrusion and violation of space and attention that makes a woman feel vulnerable, angry, and silenced in order to raise awareness and effect change.

I want participants to recognize the effect street harassment has on those forced to endure it daily, with hopes that experiencing a small portion of it will encourage them to listen in future, not disbelieve others’ experiences, abandon the dismissive notion that street harassment is a compliment, and support efforts to change the systemic patriarchal paradigms that support street harassment.

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What tips do you have for young artists who are thinking about creating for VR?
For those looking to create work for VR platforms, like the Rift or Google Cardboard, I would suggest letting the topic choose the form. Rather than starting out wanting to make VR, find something in the world you want to process or reflect on through your work, and if VR suits it, use it.

I found that virtual reality has much to offer, but also has some ethical pitfalls to be aware of. There is a troubling trend of using “empathy” for self-aggrandizement, and an easy tendency to need “proof” of another’s experience before believing it. This can quickly derail conversations about the issues facing our world. In an effort to show others’ experiences, virtual reality can sometimes aid in what Leslie Jamison, in her book Empathy Exams, calls “pain tourism.” As she describes, “This is the grand fiction of tourism, that bringing our bodies somewhere draws that place closer to us, or we to it. It’s a quick fix of empathy.” Our work should challenge people’s assumptions regarding the need for our own eyes to witness in order to empathize, and validate the experiences of others, seen for ourselves or not, and I think it’s important to keep this in mind when designing and creating virtual reality work.

I would also encourage people to not be intimidated by development of virtual reality. When I decided to work with VR for Compliment, I had never worked in 3D modelling, Unity, or VR before and learned from scratch – with time and effort and the help of some very supportive friends willing to pitch in and help figure things out when Unity documentation and discussion forums failed me.

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Were there any insights you didn’t pick up about the game until you saw players trying it out?
I knew I wanted to create work around the issue of street harassment as it is something I feel strongly about. The possibilities presented by virtual reality were perfectly suited to the issue so I decided to teach myself the skills needed. It has been challenging at points, but I’ve learned a lot.

Several issues have emerged throughout the creation and iterations of Compliment. I struggled with lighting the scene throughout the first two prototypes, and while attempting a dark, moody environment, ended up with a scene so dark all the characters – harassers and bystanders alike – look the same: shadowed and looming. While looming is sometimes what I want, I do want to show the individuality and diversity of the characters – all types of humans make the decision to intrude on other humans’ space and attention and fail to respect the fellow autonomy and humanity of women (and men!) of all types and appearances. Whether a woman is on Wall Street, 5th, Broadway or Atlantic Avenue, in a mini-skirt or bundled up for a snowstorm, harassment finds her.

As I move forward with Compliment, I am also working to build it for the Google Cardboard platform rather than the Oculus Rift. The Rift DK1 I have has been great, but I want a more broadly available and easy-to-use platform with a higher resolution to help with the inherent motion sickness some people have experienced with the DK1. While the DK2 is available, as well as a new consumer model, there is still a lot of setup, wires, and weight involved for the system. Cardboard will offer Compliment to a broader audience.

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What advice would you give young designers looking to produce meaningful work?
Don’t be put off by ideas just because you don’t know how to accomplish them yet – you can learn any program or technique as you go, and working through the issues, getting your point of view out there, is more important than any sort of “perfection” in the finished piece. I’ve found that the more passion I have for a subject or issue, the more powerful the finished piece, regardless of whether or not I’d worked with the chosen medium before.

See more of Lucy’s work at lucymbonner.com