Marie-G. Losseau & Yann Deval
Marie-G. Losseau & Yann Deval have been developing the Atlas project together since 2016, creating models of imaginary cities and interactive virtual worlds.
What is your background and how did you become interested in VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality)?
Marie: I trained as a scenographer, and I am primarily a visual artist. I have also worked extensively on cultural mediation projects and participatory creation.
Yann: I work in the audiovisual field, particularly in animation and special effects. I am also a musical composer. I discovered VR around 2012, with the Oculus DK1, the first truly accessible headset. That's when I started to explore this new medium, which allowed me to combine my different interests, mainly around notions of interactivity and immersion.
You co-directed Atlas, a hybrid work combining digital and visual arts. How did the idea for Atlas come about?
Yann: When we met, Marie was working with puppets, and I had taken part in the musical creation for one of her shows.
Marie: For years, I led workshops at the Maison des Cultures in Molenbeek, notably a series of artistic workshops for children around the creation of models of imaginary cities, "Les classes urbaines". Yann discovered this work, and that's where our dream of immersing the audience in virtual reality model worlds was born.
Can you tell us more about the world of Atlas, and the different cities that make up this ever-changing universe?
Yann: Atlas is a space made up of several wooden models, which form imaginary cities and districts. By walking around, spectators will have the possibility to interact with these cities, which have organic properties: some cities fly, others have roots. They are alive and can therefore expand or reproduce.
Atlas is an experience that comes in three formats, with which spectators can interact. In the first, using a VR headset, the viewer is projected into a virtual world, where they can plant seeds to make buildings grow. The second gives access to another version of this world, thanks to the Hololens, mixed reality smartglasses. The third uses tablets to reveal and bring to life some of the houses.
The idea of working with the viewer's imagination interests us a lot, while taking into account the fact that VR is a very intrusive medium. We did not want to use it to impose a universe on the spectator, rather to stimulate their imagination. That's why our dramaturgy doesn't specify things too much. Is it a science fiction universe or the remains of a lost civilisation? We leave all the doors open so the audience can make the work their own and find their own answers.
How do you finance such an ambitious project, which requires substantial technological resources?
Marie: By dreaming big from the start!
Yann: We started with something very simple, it was a fairly modest project at first. Thanks to funding from the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, we were able to create an initial prototype, before building the project in stages, through calls for projects. We also obtained funding from STARTS (via IRCAM), before meeting Fridolin Wild, from Oxford Brookes University, who helped us integrate mixed reality. It is also a participatory and generative project: the audience creates elements that were not planned. Over time, the project has grown significantly.
Children have played an important role in the development of Atlas, notably through workshops in schools in Molenbeek (Brussels). Why is it important for you to involve them in the creative process?
Marie: The city is not something you build alone, but with others. Atlas is still being built today by adding elements, just like a real city. We wanted the encounter with the work to take place not only during the exhibition, but also during its creation. Having worked a lot on the mediation of works that were not my own, this time I wanted to create a project that breaks down the roles, halfway between the art presented in museums or theatres, and the "amateur" art that is proposed in workshops. With Atlas, I am a visual artist, a scenographer, a facilitator and a mediator all in one.
Atlas combines a reflection on town planning with a more ecological discourse: there are seeds that help buildings to grow. Was this approach self-evident?
Marie: From the start of the project, we wanted to do something that metaphorically evokes ecological and climatic issues. But we remain on an artistic terrain and we do not impose a scientific or political discourse. The choice of working with wood and fragile materials, objects made by hand, sometimes by children, is a counterpoint to the very technological dimension of the work.
Your work has been shown in many contexts: at the Venice Architecture Biennale, at the Ars Electronica festival in Austria, at the BAM MuseumLab in Belgium. How does the reception change according to audiences and sectors?
Yann: What is very important for us is to address different audiences. VR directly appeals to a certain audience, quite young and tech-savvy. We also wanted to reach people who have no interest in it who have never experienced these media. We wanted to do something intuitive. A first experience in VR, for someone who is not prepared, can be very strong emotionally, it's a small jump into the void.
Marie: There are also different levels of reading depending on age and interests. Our approach is technological, but the more artistic aspects allows us to reach another type of audience. People enter through a door of their own choosing, and then discover the other aspects of the project.
The Atlas project, by Marie-G. Losseau & Yann Deval, is listed in the “VR Immersive Experiences” catalogue, that presents some forty original works at the intersection of virtual reality, live entertainment and visual arts.
The catalogue is designed to introduce partners of the cultural network (theatres, museums, cultural centres, art centres, festivals, shopping centres, etc.) to new kinds of shows and exhibitions – many of them collective and participatory – which meet a growing public demand for forms of entertainment and cultural offerings with a strong digital dimension.
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