For Mixed Reality Artist, The Virtual World Is His Canvas

For about a week now, Reilly Donovan has been walking around the Collins Gallery at Mystic Seaport, with a modernistic-looking contraption on his head, carefully stepping over various steel beams, hydraulic pistons, and discarded bubble wrap strewn across the floor.

The careful observer will see the 33-year-old Donovan occasionally point his finger in the air, then point a finger on his other hand, then make a motion as if he were playing with an imaginary sock puppet. He can be overhead saying “Show pingo” every now and again. Then he returns to the laptop he has set up on a folding table in the gallery, and starts tapping away at the keyboard.

This is art — specifically sculpture — in the 21st century, where modern technology meets carved wood  and fabricated steel. The result is an interactive experience for the museum visitor like never before. When “Murmur: Arctic Realities” opens Saturday, January 20 at Mystic Seaport, visitors will not only be able to walk in and around an intricately carved simulation of an Alaskan pingo created by renowned contemporary artist John Grade, they will be able to see and hear the flora, fauna, and wildlife that lives around that exact land form created using mixed reality technology.

New media artist Reilly Donovan is constantly refining the Microsoft HoloLens Mixed Reality experience visitors will see in “Murmur.” Photo: Andy Price.

Donovan has been working on the virtual aspect of Grade’s project for just about a year, although it looked far different when the two artists began collaborating in January 2017 then it does now, less than a week before the opening. In its nearly finished form now, “Murmur” utilizes Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to provide the mixed reality experience. As visitors walk in and around the sculpture, the HoloLens headset will show them holographic images of the summertime Alaskan tundra, including grasses, flowers, and bodies of water. They will hear the summer breeze, bird calls, and mosquitoes buzz.

Grade’s massive sculpture (15’ x 38’ x 42’)  is kinetic — the upper portions of it collapse down and move back up to replicate the lifespan of a pingo, a hill of ice that grows over centuries in the Arctic’s highest latitudes, then collapses. The steel framework is covered over with sheets of carved Alaskan yellow cedar, large pieces along the bottom and sides that gradually grow smaller as they reach the peak. Grade drew the inspiration for the piece when he traveled to the Alaskan Arctic three years ago as part of Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab residency for artists, and discovered pingos on the tundra.

For Donovan, this is the latest step in his evolution as a sculptor, photographer and filmmaker. A graduate of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, where he makes his home with his wife Cyrena and their two young children, Donovan has been working to combine his mediums for many years.

“This is a form of sculpture,” he says of his work in Mixed Reality. “It’s just not a physical sculpture. It’s a sculpture made of light and sound. From the beginning, I have been interested in going outside the traditional structures to create. I’m more interested in the overlap of these mediums, where one informs the other.”

Sculptor John Grade, left, confers with New Media artist Reilly Donovan. Photo: Joe Michael.

Donovan became interested in virtual reality about eight or nine years ago,  when he was creating motion graphics (computer animations). He taught himself to write code, and then began creating interactive experiences. He was fascinated by the ways that the technology allowed him to be able to “create things that are very uncommon, that are not of this terrestrial world. For me, I was very hungry to create unique things to see; things that are very out there.”

When the first Virtual Reality headsets arrived on the scene about five years ago, Donovan said it was a “natural evolution” for him as an artist. When he and Grade began working together on “Murmur,” it was to have been a virtual reality experience, but then Microsoft released the HoloLens. “We decided that was the right direction to go,” Donovan says. “HoloLens is mixed reality, when the virtual content co-exists in the physical world. It was the right fit.”

Just as a canvas is the path for a painter’s self-expressions, Donovan sees the HoloLens the same way. “It is a tool for self-expression,” he notes. “It is a medium. It’s a canvas. The holographic content is the aesthetic thread, the interplay, between (Grade’s) physical form and my objects.”

Donovan thinks this is the first time that a physical sculpture has been so tightly wedded to mixed reality, and he looks forward to the relationship between the piece and the technology evolving as the technology is refined. Just as an iPhone user needs to update software to have the best experience, so too will the HoloLens change as time goes on.

“We will continue to push this,” Donovan says, noting that there could (and likely will) be a time when the HoloLens headset and sculpture share information with each other to change the visitor experience; that the piece will have “network-based sharing” so that users can integrate with each other in the exhibition; and finally that there would be a telepresence, so that if the piece were in two locations, users would share the experience. “It will be a never-ending project,” Donovan says with a laugh. “As the technology evolves and updates, the project will update.”

As the group enters pre-opening crunch time, Donovan looks back on the last year. “It’s been a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s been great working with John and his team — they are a great group, so talented and collaborative. We are all pushing our skills as hard and as far as we can.  For me, this is really exciting. This is the beginning of what the future will have for us to express ourselves with.”