Flirting the boundaries of virtuality and reality, Sam Rolfes gives a whole new meaning to virtual reality. His art: although esoteric in theory is hauntingly familiar in actuality. Rolfes’ 3D animations are consecrated in digital havens, roaming the warped landscapes and wormhole worlds of his creation. With a style so inventive, it’s no surprise Rolfes’ repertoire boasts the likes of Lady Gaga, Danny Elfman and booming brands: Nike and Adult Swim. Come along with us on this journey - it’s just a click away.
A quick web search of Sam Rolfes throws up a plethora of attempts to categorise your work into one succinct sentence. How do you explain your practice to those not familiar with your work?
Semi-succinctly: I’m a digital performance artist, whose work largely emerges from real-time 3D improvisation. That can take the form of VR puppeted music videos, motion capture festival-stage performances with musicians, album covers, fashion print collaborations, games etc. but the core element is playing around in 3D until a narrative takes form.
Even more succinctly: I strap complicated looking tech gear to my body and use it to make gnarled 3D characters have anxiety at each other.
Since your art champions a new and distinct field, does your artistic background differ far from the work you create today?
My brother and co-founder of Team Rolfes, Andy Rolfes, and I started out as painters and illustrators, working in oil paint and watercolor, although since childhood we’d experimented in early crude Flash animations, tacky signature images for gaming forums, and music event posters. Our mother ran a 3D studio for several years, but despite having huge books explaining Blender, 3DS Max, etc. laying around our home in Texas, neither of us really got too deep into it, because the medium felt really sterile and boring - complex line drawings with dots all over that you had to know some kind of arcane science to move around, when I just wanted to make a cool looking spaceship.
Even though it’s removed by several layers of abstraction at this point, both of us still approach our current digital practice through the lens of painting; everything from the way we sculpt our 3D characters and environments, set designing in VR by roughing out a clay mockup of the performance space, to the focus on live performance, is derived from our decade plus of semi-expressionist painting, responding to the image developing on the surface and letting the narrative take shape organically. My painting mentor, Wesley Kimler, works in an almost identical way even though I’m fully digital and his 20 foot plus oil paintings are very much physical.
For many artists the pandemic imposed major creative restrictions, shifting their art into the digital sphere: since your art thrives in the digital world, how did the pandemic affect you creatively?
You know it’s funny, just prior to the pandemic there were all these online music shows popping up all over the place, Open Pit’s Minecraft festivals and Club Cringe VR chat parties, and then once the pandemic hit they all petered out. The mega-corporations that control a huge percentage of American media fired almost all livestream creative departments at Twitch, Adult Swim, etc. In a time that one would assume would be the golden age of digital performance, everything went into limbo.
There are a lot of explanations for that, but personally while we had several projects come together that might not have happened sans-pandemic, videos for Lady Gaga and Danny Elfman to name a couple, many of the higher-visibility projects of ours during this time felt unreal, that any sense of success or artistic dialogue with a broad audience was theoretical when I couldn’t go out to a club and talk about it with people.
Our studio thrived, but without the IRL connection it could have all been a dream - no matter how mediated and virtual our lives might get, it can’t replace meaningful community connection IRL.The two should always be in dialogue and honestly when absolutely everything is virtual, it’s not that interesting any more!
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Your complex 3D-animation crafts these dystopian microcosms where reality has no real place. Would you say there is an element of escapism that comes with your work, whether that be through its creation or performance?
I’d argue actually that a primary goal of mine with each animation is for a sense of anxious reality to permeate through the whole thing; that if my work ever manages to be compelling, it’s often a result of managing to have some of the humanness penetrate the otherwise alienated digital medium.
I think many of the people in the lumpen 3D art world rely on escapism as a conceptual device because it’s hard to give this kind of art real world weight. If anything, most of the time these days I’m only striving to make things feel as real as possible, regardless of how gnarled and abstract the imagery is. Tying every element of the performances, from the camera animation to the position of the digital sun in the sky, directly to the movement of a real human source helps accomplish that to an extent; laying the groundwork of a somewhat recognizable base reality that then we can heighten dramatically on top of.
Digital puppet characters are often used within your work – is there a particular creative process behind building these characters? And do you find much of your own personality is integrated into their composition?
The thing with VR puppets is they want to explode. Their favourite thing is glitching all over the place; to fling their digital limbs into every corner of the level and destroy the scene you were working on is a day well spent for a VR puppet. This is particularly the case if there are a lot of ornate, thin, flowing limbs and attachments to their bodies, which is why it’s usually smart to keep them as simple as possible. I, however, am not smart about this and prefer to design the characters as intricately as possible, to the chagrin of Andy and our team (laughs). Many characters of ours can only survive in a zero-gravity environment, like a blobfish that collapses on land, because of this.
Their personality however can never be entirely predicted ahead of time, which I find constantly fascinating. You’ll sculpt, rig, paint this character thinking they’re going to act and move a certain way, but once they’re in the scene with you, floating around, they almost always have a personality that’s completely unique and unexpected. It’s then up to me to get to know them, find out what movements they like, who they are at their core, and then work that into the broader performance in a way that doesn’t feel forced. I might be bouncing them around like stupid toys half the time, but there really is quite a lot of nuance to it.
You've previously worked on projects for Lady Gaga, Adult Swim and Danny Elfman, to name just a few. With these projects are you granted much creative freedom? Or is it rather a case of you working towards a provided criterion?
Yeah, given the state of arts funding in the US and culture broadly, I’ve ended up in a situation where I have to situate my ‘art practice’ within a broader commercial industry instead of a gallery or something, because music release cycles have their own promotional infrastructure, cultural relevance, and funding. This isn’t always an ideal situation, but particularly with Elfman and Gaga it was a pretty lovely experience creatively.
Working directly with Elfman and his brilliant creative director Berit Gilma was a joy honestly. Not only were they willing to be completely flexible to whatever I thought was the best route for the project, but Elfman no surprise nailed every take during the recording process so perfectly that we finished the session 3 hours early - unheard of!
The Gaga projects similarly were almost suspiciously smooth most of the time, only a few notes from her here and there during the entire process of creating the Sour Candy video and Dawn of Chromatica imagery. Each note was insightful to the point I couldn’t argue against it if I wanted to. Bloodpop was a constant proponent and supporter of ours the entire time, which made the intensity so much more survivable. For both, and almost all of our projects, the work was incredibly exhausting - over 18 hour days, 7 days a week, for months, but were so creatively fulfilling I don’t regret a moment of it. One of our most recent videos for Umru, Tommy Cash and 645AR, had our team working directly with Umru himself on overlay design - he’s such an excellent and fast designer it felt like cheating.
For some other projects, well, I’m sure anyone reading this who’s freelanced before knows the typical story of dealing with client dynamics and the exploitation that comes with that. It remains a constant struggle for us and one I wish to free myself of as soon as humanly possible.
Alongside performing and creating the visual campaign for the immersive arts festival Unsound you also designed merchandise for the event. Is fashion a creative avenue you would be open to exploring further in the future?
We have a fairly long history with fashion projects; it’s been a few years since my collaborations with Nicopanda, Nicola Formichetti’s brand, but I did a few seasons with them that I’m incredibly proud of, along with a season with Kaimin. I moved to NYC thanks to LVMH paychecks from working as a 3D sculptor for them, helping design the vitrines and storefronts of Vuitton and Dior for a couple years, while Andy worked at Nicopanda and shot NYFW for years, and as a studio Team Rolfes has done projects for Nike, Adidas, Versace, Cartier, Outlaw Moscow, and some others I’m drawing a blank on. That said, we’re looking to get back into it - it’s not a particularly financially supportive industry even when working with the bigger brands, but it can be fun.
Many of your previous projects have been for a community of artists whose work is often housed by the genre hyper pop. Would you say there is much community within your field of work?
Yes it’s funny how the different churns and flows of cultural scenes get contextualised - technically, my animation work started with the deconstructed club and proto-hyperpop world of PC Music, and now basically all of that is considered hyperpop. The same thing happened with IDM, glitch-hop, electronica and every other micro-scene that’s part of the ocean of electronic subcultures over the last few decades which get labeled and boxed in for easier marketing.
I’d say in my experience, there is community within the community. I’ve experienced thousands of people sharing lovely moments together across different cities and genres and settings, I’ve been through probably a dozen scenes at this point in my life and during that time I have had many meaningful friendships and connections. That said, we’re more atomized than ever - split apart into individual consumers and then re-collected based on our Spotify preferences. Some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve had have developed recently when I learned to spend time with people outside of the club night.
When it comes to the community of visual artists it’s largely the same thing, but usually we’re so burned out from deadlines that the primary interaction is through Discord or Instagram meme page group chats. I could go on for another 10 pages on how the dynamics of subcultural community are in flux, but it suffices to say that the situation is getting worse, but some of us are coming to terms with the state of things and trying to find something more substantial for ourselves.
You worked on the visual art for Club Harlecore, 24-hour virtual club experience platforming performances of digital DJs. As a DJ yourself, did the amalgamation of these two creative disciplines make this a particularly interesting project to work on?
Well firstly I should credit and shout out the NotReal_Virtual team for the original character and environmental design. Team Rolfes came in and brought the characters to life with animation and direction, expanded on each scene, etc. but the core foundation was created by them.
Danny Harle is such a once in a generation combination of virtuosity, cultural presence, and wit that literally anything he does I would jump at the chance to participate in, but specifically the world building and split-personality dynamics of Harlecore made the whole project incredibly rewarding to perform within - particularly the live shows where I’m puppeting MC Boing and DJ Ocean, and Dan controls DJ Danny and DJ Mayhem with motion capture.
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Your recent art has very much pertained to the digital realm, is the physical sphere ever a medium you would explore?
Returning to physical media in a real way has been on our minds for years, partially because that’s often a prerequisite for interfacing with the ‘professional art industry’, but the primary hurdle to that is finding a context that feels contemporary and fun enough to bother doing it.
At this point, I’d rather make some sort of performance prop, experimental game controller, or fashion collection than a painting. I might start simple with some DJ Fuck merch and go from there.
Following from this, as we observe the pioneering success of digital art, would you say the entity of art itself is shifting towards a heavily digital future?
It depends on what you mean by art; if we’re talking the traditional white-box gallery or museum art world, shambling along on life support by old money and financial capital, they’ll do whatever they can to mimic what is happening in pop culture so that they can justify their self-appointed positions as stewards of cultural taste and recipients of state funding.
If we’re talking actual popular culture broadly, that will also become increasingly digital given the insane investment into metaverse and web3 projects that will continue for the next decade as one of the few marketplace frontiers left to speculate on. As our real world conditions IRL get worse and worse, the virtual spectacle will have to get better and more all consuming to compensate.
Art usually at its best can simply represent the time and conditions it arises from and we will be in a heavily virtual, escapist world for the foreseeable future. I could see a return to tradition type of interest in physical media again possibly, but the state of society would have to drastically change for that to not just end up being a passing fad or curiosity.
In March of this year Team Rolfes implemented an auction of digital art as NFTs to fund an experimental musical physics game. Can you tell us some more about the project?
The game we’re slowly moving into production on really represents the next era of our studio, one that’s more participatory with our broader community, more iterative and sustainable, more fun. The game that’s slowly taking shape is something like a cross between Gary’s Mod and Warioware (game-ifying the Team Rolfes animation process) that is published episodically, where we debut the game in a pre-alpha state, but the audience can contribute lore, characters and partially control the direction and development of the game as new versions are dropped every month or so.
There’s a web3 component we’re trying to figure out, where peoples’ contributions earn them a percentage of ownership over the profits of the game but that’s all dependent on finding the right partner for it who isn’t trying to just turn the project into a cynical cash grab. I’m working on it!!
Looking ahead for the upcoming year, can you tell us about any other projects currently in the works?
Other than the game, over the next few months I can’t really say specifically who we’re working with, but we have a couple narrative series in the works, as well as a potential large scale live opera performance, some live stage shows, maybe a couple music videos, maybe another Harlecore AV show soon.
Expect some live stage performances and maybe a few surprise DJ Fuck sets in Europe late Winter and or early Spring. Keep an eye out for the first drop of Version 0.000001 of our game, hopefully around the same time. We’ll likely be spinning up a new discord and several other ways to hop in and participate, so in the immortal words of some of the most insufferable people in media: “watch this space”.
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