The Collision Between Contemporary Art and VR/AR Technologies

An Interview with Artist Reilly Donovan

By Leah St. Lawrence

Reilly Donovan describes himself as an electronics artist—a relatively new concept in contemporary art practice, though the merging of electronics and art harkens back to the artistic utilization of film and photographic technologies. Using space, installation projections, and emerging tech more commonly found in gaming or entertainment industries—such as virtual and augmented reality headsets—Donovan creates visceral interactions between his work and the viewer. In the following interview, he shares his process and the concepts behind many of his hardware/software-driven artworks.

Leah St. Lawrence: What types of hardware do you use in your work?

Reilly Donovan: I use computers, phones, monitors, cameras, sensors, virtual reality headsets, and virtual networks. Recently, I’ve emphasized experimenting with virtual, augmented, and mixed reality as emerging art forms. Mixed reality is the merging of simulated content with the physical world. The only mixed-reality headsets that currently exist are Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap, and I’ve been working with both. They are developer models intended for experimentation, and I’ve been exploring their capabilities and integrating them into my artwork.

You’ve also been working with glass in conjunction with digital tools, and you had a residency at Pilchuck where you made work exploring string theory in physics.

One of my main objectives at Pilchuck was to experiment with the intersection of glass and mixed reality. I did this by developing custom software for glassblowers using the Microsoft HoloLens. With the headset, glassblowers could see both the physical world and holographic renderings of objects to fabricate—they could scale, rotate, and place an object alongside themselves as they blew glass. To help them with fabrication, they could walk around an object to get a true sense of its form from every possible perspective.

String theory—which suggests that everything that exists is made out of vibrating strands of energy—has informed a lot of my visual work. I found the parameters of glass correspond to the dynamic properties of strings and chose to explore the spectrum of representation offered by string theory at my Pilchuck residency. The glass forms we made are modeled after string theory’s higher dimensional geometries, many of which are algorithmically derived, such as spherical harmonics, Calabi–Yau manifolds, supershapes, and Möbius strips. The glassblowers made open and closed strings, some of which took on the form of sine waves, and they would shake the glass while it was hot to encapsulate and suspend the vibration of an otherwise entropic state within the material.

Reilly Donovan working at Pilchuck School of Glass.
Reilly Donovan, Strings, 2018. From an artist in residence program at Pilchuck School of Glass, Stanwood, WA.

Let’s talk about your project Hypnagogic Hypnopompia. What does the title mean?

Hypnagogia is the state of consciousness between being awake and being asleep. Hypnopompia is the opposite—the state of consciousness before waking. The project is about this strange borderland of the mind, where structure and chaos coexist. It combines a variety of emerging technologies, including volumetric video recorded using the Microsoft Kinect. Viewers use their hands to navigate the environment, which is populated by various homages to landmarks in the history of cinema. The Lumière brothers, Dalí, and Hans Richter are among some of the pioneers hinted at in the work. I made the piece early on in consumer access to virtual reality technology. I approached VR as if it were the next big thing that would change our culture in the same way cinema and photography did. VR is like Lumière’s train bursting through the wall in a theater, but in this case, the train is almost really there.

And what about Hokum Bunkum? This is another quite conceptual piece of yours.

The project translates to nonsense, nonsense. It’s basically absurdity squared. After the 2016 election I felt helpless. It seemed there was nothing I could do to rectify the situation—I could only bear witness. I found virtual reality to be an environment where I could express that sense of having no control. In the piece, I use the leap motion to track users’ hands in the virtual environment. Gravity has been disabled, making objects weightless and difficult to grasp. Objects are also gelatinous and squishy, adding to the difficulty in holding them while also making them seem more like toys. The Russian flag, American flag, the constitution, an iPhone, a gun, a MAGA hat, a toy eagle, and a toy bear all swim around one another in an antigravity dance on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. The project is intended to be both playful and ominous, as if you really shouldn’t be playing with these very important items.

Reilly Donovan's VR installation Hokum Bunkum.
Reilly Donovan, Hokum Bunkum, 2017, virtual reality installation, Dendroica Gallery, Seattle, WA.

You collaborated with digital artists/musicians NoiseFold (Cory Metcalf and David Stout) on The Observer Effect and Vesica Pisces. How was that?

Cory and David are colleagues and friends, and they have had a huge influence on me. The two cultivate an aesthetic that aligns with the history, heritage, and trajectory of art and technology that I strive to participate in.

Cory and David have a toolkit they have developed for over a decade in Max MSP, a visual programming language. The Observer Effect and Vesica Pisces pushed that toolkit into new territory to support virtual reality, and I worked with them to make that happen. We worked together to develop the worlds and the fauna that populate the two projects.

An image of Reilly Donovan's Mirror Symmetry.
Reilly Donovan, Mirror Symmetry, 2018, interactive art installation, Bellwether arts festival at Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, WA. Mirror Symmetry is a natural user interface using a depth camera to follow people’s motion through space. The Microsoft Kinect tracks the user and represents it as interactive feedback.

You use several Microsoft products to produce your work, such as the Kinect, HoloLens, and Magic Leap. When you’ve interfaced with Microsoft about your use of hardware, how has that gone?

Microsoft has been very receptive and supportive of my most recent project, Murmur, a mixed-reality installation in collaboration with John Grade. They provided me with equipment early on to help develop our project. They are currently generating promotional material surrounding our exhibit, which has been a great opportunity to interface with their massive team of talent, and I look forward to working with them more in the future.

Do you think artists and technology companies will be able to work together more moving forward? I don’t often hear of large companies supporting everyday artists’ uses of technology.

That is a relationship that needs to be cultivated and maintained. It is essential to have artists working with emerging technologies to reveal what is hidden in plain sight. Technology is useless without context for its implementation. Artists provide insight into the expressive potential of emerging technologies. I think there are only benefits to our community and culture if companies and artists collaborate.

Reilly Donovan is a new-media artist based in Seattle. Learn more about his work at

Leah St. Lawrence is the editor of this issue’s feature.