Mez Breeze is one of the leading innovators in the fields of experimental storytelling and virtual reality literature. Her work has heralded new ways of making and collaborating for creators, and her ethos and politics demonstrate ethical practices for all creative practitioners. In 2019 Mez was awarded the Marjorie C. Luesebrink Career Achievement Award to honour her decades of experimental work in the field of electronic literature. The Writing Platform is thrilled to celebrate this accolade with an interview about her practice, influences and identity and the cryptic nature of her virtual global presence.
Your work straddles a number of forms and fields, do you consider yourself primarily a writer? Or a storyteller or digital artist? Or all of these things?
My work does absolutely stretch across [and through, and in-between] a diverse range of fields and forms, with my practice continuing to be a type of massive sandbox experiment. In relation to whether I consider myself primarily a writer, I tend to [mostly] think of myself as a “creative” [even with the awful hipsterish/advert-like baggage that the term “creative” comes with nowadays], like a type of digital tinkerer. At the moment I’m basically a combination of digital artist/writer/storyteller, electronic literature creator, games developer/designer, VR sculptor, and Mezangelle-crafter, so it’s difficult to pin down an exact term that encompasses all I do, and how I do it: mostly because of the need to constantly explore + experiment + play + learn + problem solve [ie curiosity is my bff].
It’s been an interesting past two, three years in relation to what I’ve been creating with Spatial Computing tech [Virtual Reality and more broadly XR (Extended Reality)] and how this impacts how I view, and label, what I do. In 2017 + 2018, after coming to the difficult realisation that I needed to examine how [and with whom] I was making funded creative work[s], I began seriously shifting my creative focus back to skills related to the plastic arts, skills that I hadn’t properly used for over 20 years. This was also an attempt to swivel away from what I’d become known for creating/writing, choosing instead to pivot towards the unknown [something I have a history of doing when creatively constrained or pigeonholed]. It was at this time too – after getting up the courage to prioritise professional standards and behaviours [especially regarding one digitally-born series I was involved with, in regards to behaviour considered acceptable by other leads of the team] – I moved away from a more traditional business-centric perspective and shifted back to creativity for creativity’s sake by forging connections with a group of incredibly motivated, generous, and positive XR Artists. Encountering such a diverse, considerate and talented crew was like a breath of fresh air, and meeting them has been such a motivator to continue crafting 3D and VR models that I’ve since incorporated into my digital writing projects. To put this in context, I’m not officially a sculptor or 3D artist [though I was trained in the visual arts in the early 1990’s], so launching into this area was a tad daunting, but I’m loving the challenge, the sense of community [and common decency], the comradery, the constant learning processes involved, and how I’m able to fold all this into new digital literature and storytelling.
What is your approach to technology in relation to story? Is your aim a coming together of form and content? Is technology a creative tool for storytelling or the foundation for the story?
The technology I employ when creating stories I do consider [first and foremost] a tool. It’s a method of forging [and/or serendipitously breaking, playing, prodding, testing, reformulating, poking, and reforging] creative output [both form and content]. In terms of using tech to tell [or form] a story, my aims are [and this is where experimentation + play + learning raise their heads] dependent on my overall goals. If the goals are to create a story with a definitive structure and outcome [say where there’s a team involved, or if a project has commercial intent], then my aims are *very* different to a project where I can be more expressively elastic. There’s a fine line between producing open-ended and freeform tech experiments with no critical assessment and experimentation for its own sake coupled with being rigorous about the quality of the final output. It’s a fine balance, and it’s often hard to achieve.
Are there affordances in technology that allow you to write/create in ways that are more impactful for audiences?
There are certain aspects of technology that I’ve enjoyed molding and contorting into various states over the years, and a byproduct of this is that [fortunately] audiences do seem to resonate with the results. Often I’ll take a punt on various technologies [like the Vive Pro VR rig, Vive trackers or haptic feedback gloves] that I hope will shape my creativity in interesting [and unexpected] ways, which I’ll then assimilate into projects that hopefully make sense to an audience. I became interested in the idea of using technology to craft works that an audience would find impactful when, in 1994 [or 1993?] I was first exposed to the work of the Australian Cyberfeminist Collective VNS Matrix. Their mix of feminism, text/image merging and virtual engagement intrigued me, as at the time I was creating mixed-media installations involving painting, computer text and computer hardware. I first dove into the Internet in 1994 using Telnet/Unix to explore avatar use, identity-play and interactive fiction: it was here that ease-of-dispersal and temporality were incredibly important for both the production and the absorption of such works [often the audience were the creators, and vice versa]. Mezangelle had its roots here, initially evolving from immersion in email exchanges, computer programming languages and chat-oriented software [ie y-talk, webchat, and IRC].
Mezangelle is highly conceptual and fuses traditional language conventions, image and text, programming code, social commentary, and online communique´ – it’s been intriguing [and occasionally irritating] niche audiences now for over two decades. I’ve gradually been integrating Mezangelle into more expansive projects for a while now, including complex narrative game environments and projects like my 2018/2019 Virtual Reality Microstory Series V[R]ignettes.
What projects have inspired you?
Are natural ecosystems a project? If yes [or even if no], I draw intense and constant inspiration from them, from closely observing all types of wildlife [crimson + eastern rosellas! blue-tongued lizards!] including pollinators [blue banded bees! caper white butterflies!] in the permaculture setup I have here on Gundungurra land, to microclimate-crafting – I get such frissonic ideas when fostering [and reflecting within] these environments. Also, inspiration strikes in the most ephemeral of places, and for the most part what inspires me aren’t creative works as such, but if pushed to picked some inspirational projects they’d be: Surge by Arjan van Meerten, Firebird – La Péri by Innerspace, Patchwork Girl by Shelley Jackson, World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment, Ænima by TOOL, 1984 by George Orwell, The Cells by Louise Bourgeois, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and The Endless Forest by Tale of Tales.
What technologies and/or platforms are you excited about currently, and what do you see coming down the line?
I’m tingle-excited about accessible, responsible and affordable spatial storytelling tech and associated platforms, and am currently using such tech to create works like the collaborative XR Story Series V[R]erses. What I’m less excited about is the use of XR tech to promote project/platform siloing [think: privacy concerns related to Facebook-owned Oculus products and the many questions over the retention of Oculus generated data, transparency regarding how this data is used – including sensitive metrics to do with body/haptic monitoring and voice recording – and who they allow to access it]. This concern part-explains my shift in 2017/2018 to using XR platforms in a different way, with projects like V[R]erses, A Place Called Ormalcy and V[R]ignettes created specifically to be experienced variably across a wide range of devices, computers, and platforms. Unfortunately, a lesson the death of Flash has taught us is that VR may unfortunately be headed along this same route, where certain hardware and distribution channels become more and more restricted and siloed [think: Google recently binning the VR Daydream headset and switching its new gen Pixel phones to AR, Samsung pulling the plug on GearVR, and Facebook producing a range of tetherless headsets that could lock users into a Terms-of-Service-loaded surveillance nightmare]. In 2017 I saw this shift coming and pivoted to make sure at least some of the VR-centric projects I was producing had access concerns right at the forefront [as well as only using VR hardware and software that didn’t/doesn’t perpetuate this – goodbye Oculus headsets and apps!]. As a result, I decided to try to create works that audiences can experience in WebVR [browser-based] environments that are openly optimised for mobile devices, desktop computers, and VR headsets. It’s incredibly important to me that tech such as AR and VR doesn’t just become a vehicle for the privileged, where only those who can afford to experience such walled-off, high-end works [and indeed, produce such projects] become the standard or default. After coproducing high-end works for quite a few years, it really did open my eyes to how such projects can perpetuate inequality and exclusivity – the opposite of what I want my work to convey.
What I see coming down the line can be summed up by this quote I gave earlier this year [with a liberal dollop of AI and neural networks/ DeepFakery utilisations thrown in]: “I suspect that VR as an industry definition is probably going to be subsumed into the category of XR [Extended Reality] or SR or SC [Spatial Reality/Spatial Computing] as those seem to be the broader industry terms scrabbling for purchase at the moment. From my POV it’s been really interesting to see another tech hype curve go into what I term “Peak and Trough Syndrome”, just as has happened with AR – you have industry types predicting that VR and AR will be the next big thing, only to have actual functional constraints [such as comfortability, tetherless gear making a less-than-definitive-dent in the overall market, lack of robust blockbuster VR content production and audience uptake, platform wars/fragmentation, monetisation dilemmas, etc] all affecting mainstream adoption rates. I am keenly following how VR social spaces and VR arcades will fare over the next few years, as well as the swerve away from VR/AR/MR as the next massive tech trend to such tech being viewed and conceptualised as an integrative social service and/or “virtual beings” vehicle [especially when combined with AI, like with 3Lateral’s acquisition by Epic, Magic Leap’s Mica or VR Story Studio Fable’s relaunch with digital human AI/VR agents as their focus].”
Your work has a philosophical and political dimension: do artists have a responsibility to respond to the current state of the world?
Abso-fecking-lutely! Artists shouldn’t just have a responsibility to creatively respond to the current state of the world, they should also have a responsibility [as does everyone] to attempt to create beneficial change. From my own section of the globe, I’m constantly trying to effect relevant social critique/change with what I create [and how I create it]. Two recent[ish] projects from the past few years in which I’ve tried to convey a sense of this social commentary/responsibility are the Virtual Reality YA Adventure Perpetual Nomads, and the dystopian VR story A Place Called Ormalcy. Perpetual Nomads [or PN] is an Australian-Canadian Coproduction that’s part of the long-running Inanimate Alice digital story franchise. In PN, a VR Experience, you play as Alice where [SPOILER ALERT] you navigate creepy scenarios like finding yourself on the pointy end of a harassment stick, engaging in social app-based tug-o-wars, and attempting to cope with your phone battery running crazily low just when you really need it. But underlying all of these everyday challenges lies a more sinister one – you’ll have to play it to find out what it is, but let’s just say as writer, narrative designer and creative director of the project I wanted to ensure the message it conveys concerning privacy, surveillance, and greenwashed corporate corruption isn’t designed to be subtle [a hint: if you do dive into this work, do make sure to play PN right through to the end, past the credits].
Like PN, A Place Called Ormalcy is a work that also has social commentary at its centre. It has multiple ways of being experienced, read, and viewed – the audience can choose to experience it as a simple text-based dystopian story [with a profound warning for western democractic functioning], as a 3D set of tableaus with text annotations, or in a full-blown VR arena where they are able to teleport around within each chapter. With works like PN and A Place Called Ormalcy, there’s massive potential to get under an audience’s skin, and to construct experiences that challenge prevailing orthodoxies. What I tried to do with A Place Called Ormalcy in particular was slip under a user’s radar by offering up a child-like allegory that could be read/experienced as simplistic, but that also has deadly serious social commentary at its core.
You have an international reputation despite the fact that you do not travel for work and usually appear at conferences via Skype or other remote meeting platforms. Can you tell us a bit about how you manage this aspect of your life?
In the early 1990s, I was exposed to two life changing infonuggets. The first was learning about VNS Matrix [as I talked about above], and the second was learning about [and starting to implement] the sustainability system “permanent [agri]culture”, or permaculture as it’s more commonly known, alongside discovering eco-pioneers like David Suzuki and Bill Mollison. Encountering VNS Matrix then led me to collaboratively producing interactive fictions + games + experimental output with people has diverse as University of Melbourne students to Palo Alto engineers to Swedish computer geeks in the 90’s, and it taught me that identity could be used in this [then] new frontier-like space to subvert and collapse associated prevailing biases to do with gender, race, and age. This then linked to the realisation that [back then] such digital/virtual spaces could help alleviate certain prejudices + biases associated with gender labelling in patriarchally-infused fields. To some extent this stuck, and fed into the formulation of a growing plan to reduce my everyday effect on the burgeoning climate emergency [yup, it was even a thing even back in the 1990’s, though the phrase “climate change” wasn’t nearly as buzzworthy then as it is today] by deciding to devote myself to creating and maintaining working permaculture systems [and monitor, while actively reducing, my carbon impact] where caring for the environment was/is of utmost concern. I live [with] this concern on a daily basis, and have accordingly molded my everyday life around it. This decision was made in tandem with continuing to dismantle traditional constraints placed on women and minorities [in creative and technological spheres] through remote participation. The fact that embodying a digital, rather than physical, presence could help solve various issues like these absolutely influenced, and continues to influence, how I manage all aspects of my life. There’s also another secret-squirrel reason why I mostly choose digital participation at conferences and events, but this is part of a special longitudinal project that will be revealed in good time – some select few know about this, but that’s where the knowledge will stay just for now [and heh, could I *be* more cryptic?].
Lastly, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a working artist located in Australia?
Advantages: the isolation. Disadvantages: the isolation.
Main Site: mezbreezedesign.com
Patreon Site: patreon.com/mezbreeze
Mez Breeze creates experimental storytelling, digital literature, VR sculptures + paintings, XR experiences, games, and other genre-defying output. In the early 1990’s Mez first started using the Internet to author digital works and she hasn't slowed since. In July 2019, Mez won the 2019 Marjorie C. Luesebrink Career Achievement Award which: “…honors a visionary artist and/or scholar who has brought excellence to the field of electronic literature.” In November 2019, Mez’s Virtual Reality Microstories Series V[R]ignettes won the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Literature Award, the “…world’s richest digital literacy prize”. Her projects are taught worldwide, with her works residing in Collections as diverse as The World Bank, Cornell's Rose Goldsen Archive and the National Library of Australia.