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Interview: Virtual Reality Artist Jeremy Couillard On Tech and Cannabis to Create Experiential Art

“The stoner artist in me loves the idea that life could just be a simulation.”

by Kate Messinger

by Kate Messinger

New advances in technology are putting psychedelic experiences at our fingertips, and artists like Jeremy Couillard are taking influences and inspiration from cannabis highs to make Virtual Reality art not only interactive, but trippy. “The stoner artist in me loves the idea that life could just be a simulation,” says the Brooklyn-based programmer and artist who transformed Louis B James gallery into a “Out of Body Experience” Clinic this summer, welcoming “patients” to put on Oculus Rift goggles and explore a surrealist virtual landscape, inducing feelings of transcendence not far from the effects of marijuana. Couillard created a world of bizarre gumby-like characters, small visions of tech induced psychosis that popped up in the waiting room as 3D printed figurines and acted in the animated news reel playing while patrons waited for their appointment.

From Couillards Out Of Body Experience Clinic installation at Louis B James Gallery.

The Out of Body Experience starts in a white room. There the viewer is given VR goggles which shows a simulation of the room in front of you, until suddenly you are taken out of your body and propelled through a series of strange places and scenarios, surrounded by those characters you saw in the waiting room. The experience is otherworldly, expanding the limitations of physicality and creating new places for the mind to explore through technology, and Couillard isn’t the first to say that its effects of euphoria and self-reflection are similar to that of THC. “I’m pretty inspired by stoner ethos,” he divulges, “I like pseudo-profundity and psychedelia.”

Images from Couillard’s newest Virtual Reality Project.

The project was a breakthrough in the artistic capabilities of this new technology, but Couillard isn’t stopping there. This Art Basel in Miami, Couillard is bringing virtual reality projects to the beach, with a video stimulation that connects a viewer’s physical interaction with a real plant and a sci-fi video game of nonsensical proportions. The artist’s signature blob creatures will make appearances in viewer made totems, that explore the types of “ objects we make to give our lives meaning before we think that life should have a meaning.” The simulation is part of a project with Louis B James Gallery and Half Gallery, held in a bungalow at the Edition Hotel, a place where patrons of the hectic and massive yearly art fair can go to get away and see another part of the art world, and themselves. Couillards work, like cannabis for many, is a vehicle for relaxation, introspection and at some moments, an escape from our minds and bodies. The two are not exactly intertwined, but both open up a new cross pollination between transcendental art and the mild psychedelic properties of THC.

MERRY JANE spoke to the Couillard about his recent projects, his relationship to cannabis, the transient experiences of some users had while participating in his Out of Body Experience Clinic.

MJ: How did you come up with the idea for the Out Of Body Experience Clinic?

I’d been waiting for VR technology to be accessible my whole life and when a development kit finally became available I got one and started thinking of ways to use it for an art show. I built the appointment based clinic around the VR piece as a practical way to not have people waiting in line and also to get them in the mood to have a weird adventure.

A paintings of a virtual landscape from Out Of Body Experience Clinic.

People definitely seemed into it. A rich kid gave me a 50 dollar tip after telling me he “only” makes 15 grand a month. Elementary school aged boys were my biggest fans and would ask to repeat the experience until their parents dragged them away. I think that was important because a lot of the ideas were me trying to go back to a place where my aesthetic sensibilities weren’t skewed by what we are taught in school. A lot of people didn’t realize it was an art gallery or a show. One woman stopped by after working all day on a tourist bus. I don’t think she had any idea what was going on and I don’t know how she ended up there. When she took off the headset she asked “is this for science?” Another woman stayed in the waiting room almost all day because she said she was afraid to leave. A group of people walked by and were wondering where the gallery went that used to be there. I was happy with these reactions because my favorite art is the kind where at first I’m not sure if it’s art or not. That’s where I know there are new ideas.

MJ: The technology and the characters you use in the simulation are both pretty trippy, inducing similar feelings to being high when you put on the Oculus Rift goggles. Did cannabis influence the project?

I don’t know about cannabis specifically but the idea of drugs definitely influenced the project. The idea of having a strange experience that makes you question material reality. It would be cool to design some crazy art drug and people would come to a gallery to take it, hang out for a bit to have the curated experience, and then leave. VR is the closest thing to that I can think of.

Shots from the Out Of Body Experience Clinic.

Also the idea of being with certain technologies for extended periods feels a little like doing drugs. Disorientation, loss of a sense of time, euphoria, addiction etc. It’s getting easier and easier to project what’s in our heads onto a glowing screen. But the easier it gets the more I start to see how curated the experience is through the software being used and I wonder what exactly is in my head and what was already in the computer. I end up getting pretty hilarious looking nervous monsters. They look like, and are inspired by drug induced experiences, but ultimately they come from my lone struggles with contemporary software.

MJ: Do you have any stories about people using your simulation while high?

We did have a few people by one night and they smoked some weed and did the OBE. And quite a few people came in off the streets pretty baked. I loved that idea of aimlessly walking around the Lower East Side with some friends on a nice spring day, smoking weed, exploring, and then stumbling into some psychedelic waiting room and having an out of body experience in an empty basement with a stranger. In a way I made this show for those people. Stoner groups were the most excited visitors we had. They’d ask if they could stand up during the OBE and I said it was better to sit but they wouldn’t listen and stood up and shouted and laughed anyway. They were so excited to be in the space and would always hang out for a long time in the waiting room afterwards and watch The Bob Monroe 24/7 Out of Body Experience News Network.

MJ: Is smoking cannabis a regular part of your studio practice?

I’m pretty inspired by stoner ethos. I like pseudo-profundity and psychedelia. I like super saturated, Peter Saul-esque colors. I like the idea of esoteric and political conspiracies, going down rabbit holes deeper and deeper. I wish everyone would just chill the fuck out and be nice to each other. I wish we didn’t take things so seriously. I hope one day, as Philip K Dick says, there could be a lifting of a “...massive perceptual/conceptual occlusion having to do with the ontological structuring factor we call causality.” Whatever that means.

From Couillard’s upcoming project.

It feels like somewhere there is a fountain that new imagery emerges from and we can tap into it sometimes and drink from it. When we think too much about paying rent and student loans and our failures and successes...we’ll never get to that fountain. I’m not sure if weed helps us get there either but sometimes when I’m high and I put on Charles Cohen or whatever and lay on the floor and close my eyes the increased level of sensitivity helps me see things in my head I wouldn’t usually notice.


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Kate Messinger

Kate Messinger is a writer and eater living in Brooklyn. She is a contributor at Paper Magazine and The Creators Project, has been published in Marie Claire, The Observer, Man Repeller, and The Gloss and can make nearly anything into a sandwich. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @methemessinger.



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