GEORGE TOWN, PENANG – After two years in the pandemic and the restriction of live events, suffice to say that much of the art world has taken a deep dive into the digital realm, giving rise to NFTs, VR, AR and more unprecedented mediums. But with the return to a new normal, do these digital art forms still have a place?
Australian creative digital studio Maitree House believes in its future, with their commitment to digital art mediums cemented with their project Cahaya XR, which exhibited as part of the 2022 George Town Festival. XR, short for Extended Reality, is a collective term for Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality, and in Cahaya XR, the team exhibited XR work produced at the end of a 3 month featuring three artists exploring community engagement and art.
At the forefront of the creative team is Creative Producer & Project Manager Luvenia Kalia. Born in Malaysia and a dancer by training across Singapore and the USA, Luvenia returned home to Malaysia when the pandemic hit, and began to wonder how a performing artist like her would find work in such a restricted environment. And when she met Maitree House via a cross-country motion capture dance project, Luvenia hit it off with the team, and joined them as a project manager.
“As a creative producer and project manager, my role switched from pure performance to looking for funding opportunities, grants, partners, and networking, all for Cahaya XR,” says Luvenia. “It’s been very supportive here at Maitree, where I work maybe 4 days a week, and have a day to balance my role with my own independent projects and dance.”
The word ‘Cahaya’ means light in Malay, and in a way, sheds light not only on the exciting new world of XR, but also the arts, culture, history and heritage featured in the works. In short, the exhibition fuses local stories with immersive technology to demonstrate new ways of reimagining Penang’s traditional stories and heritage, while showcasing how the metaverse can be used to hold space for inclusive community storytelling
“People tend to think of technology and art as two separate realms, but what we’re trying to do is show people how the two can be bridged,” says Luvenia. “As a performing artist, I understand what it’s like coming from that side of the industry, and can better explain to other artists what potential XR holds for them, to give them opportunities to do new things, and because Maitree would focus on the tech side, allows them to focus almost entirely on the artistry, and give them the creative liberty to explore.”
Over the course of the 3 month mentorship, Maitree provided their artists with a crash course on producing XR art, from its origins to actually working with the technology, and understanding the workflow. “The educational aspect is so important, because that only can be enough to spark an interest, and hopefully, spread to institutions and across the country from there,” says Luvenia. “Once they were used to the workflow, there was a lot of back and forth between Maitree and the artists, in a collaborative process to achieve the best tech output and artistry possible.”
The three featured artists/mentees in Cahaya XR are, namely, multi-disciplinary artist Ysabel Loh, husband-wife design team White Bones (Benjamin Lam and Cindy Leow), and multimedia producer Kabilan. Collaborating with mentor Michelle Brown, Ysabel Loh presents The Pulau We Call Home, exploring the stories of Penangnites through an immersive virtual reality experience of sound and visuals, built upon interviews of the locals’ favourite places in Penang, and the memories they’ve created there. Collaborating with mentor Stephen Voon, White Bones presents Kah Ki Lang, celebrating the richness and diversity of Straits Chinese Baba Nyonya culture, from the Intricate details of the exterior front facade to immaculate workmanship of the nyonya needlework on a kebaya. Finally, Kabilan and mentor Quilin Ooi present Docking Days, an immersive VR documentary that explores the stories that lived within the decks of the loyal Penang ferry, which was terminated on 1st January 2021.
“In selecting our artists, we wanted a group who practiced different disciplines; we’re big fans of White Bones, and they’re the ones that created the key visual for Cahaya XR, and as digital creators, it makes sense for them to explore more mediums in that realm,” says Luvenia. “We knew Ysabel was studying in the UK and was experienced in Unity, alongside being a performing artist and skilled in her storytelling abilities, and so reached out to her on Instagram. And finally, Khabilan used to work at Penang Performing Arts Centre, and we knew he was looking for new opportunities to create. So working alongside this diverse group, you gain a lot of insight from their various disciplines and working styles and projects.”
Of course, at this early stage, XR still has a long way to go to be fully recognised and become commonplace in the world of art, and beyond developing the artists and showcasing their work at GTF, Cahaya XR also featured several fringe events educating and exposing members of the public to XR, from talks to workshops. “You can see how VR documentaries are becoming more popular now, where people could say put themselves in the shoes of a refugee to see what it’s like. Meanwhile, XR headsets are becoming more accessible these days, and we can see other companies around the world are already hard at work developing this field, so we don’t want to be left behind when it becomes mainstream,” says Luvenia. “Still, we must always remember that XR isn’t a one for one replacement for physical art, but what it can do is to amplify and complement it, such as just incorporating an element of it into a show. The fun thing is that it’s still evolving and changing every day, and there’s so much room for experimentation, especially since we’re playing with a digital space and not making physical changes to the reality, where we can put entire sculptures or transform spaces without having permanent impacts on the real world.”
“XR work is still very resource-heavy, and to even execute our project requires some degree of funding. It can be hard to explain it to investors and sponsors at times because it’s the kind of work people won’t ‘get’ until they experience it for themselves,” Luvenia adds. “So with GTF, it was a real opportunity for us to start the whole process with education and exposure, to start the ball rolling in the hopes that eventually, artists are inclusive enough or experienced enough to make XR more commonplace in their work, and use Cahaya XR as a prototype to show others the possibilities.”
“It’s a slow burn, but it’s a process of building all this up, showing how important this is, and how much you can potentially do. Hopefully it brings the right people together and more interested parties, and start more conversations about it,” Luvenia concludes. “Perhaps in future, we can eventually build up to an XR festival that explores and showcases these ideas in full, and tying it back to documenting our heritage and traditions, to preserve buildings in the digital space through XR, that’s what we can achieve one day, when more people recognise and understand what it’s all about.”
Cahaya XR ran from 13th to 17th July 2022 as a physical exhibition at The
Whiteaways Arcade, and runs at a virtual gallery VR space online till 24th July. Those who prefer a more personal experience and have access to a VR headset my enter www.cahaya.com to find your avatar in their VR gallery space. More information available here