Brooklyn-based artist Tabor Robak builds digital worlds as a means of mediating the one he lives in, tunneling into tropes of nature, cinema, and online culture with crystalline videos and softwares. Visual overload is a running theme, whether the over-served element is ice cream or CGI explosions (he’s recently made works devoted to both), and yet he often circles back to musical collaborations. Robak merged the dramatic imageries of Catholicism, military info-tainment, and sci-fi empiricism in Vatican Vibes, a music video for Kuwaiti-born artist and composer Fatima Al-Qadiri, and was a founding member of the short-lived, clarity-obsessed boy band HD BOYZ. EXO, shown below, was originally made to accompany performances by the band Gatekeeper. The video’s otherworldly landscapes are influenced as much by terrestrial extremes as by the magic of switching on a video game and they hint at timely notions of finitude.
Can you describe your relationship to music and musicians?
I listen to music all day as I work. I like to hang out with musicians, and artists in general, because my favorite subjects to talk about are inspiration, process and the other aspects creating something.
Specifically with regard to EXO, can you explain your creative process with the band Gatekeeper?
Gatekeeper is Aaron David Ross and Matthew Arkell, electronic musicians based here in New York. We all share similar interests in pop culture and draw inspiration from the commercial world. As they were beginning work on new material for an upcoming album, which came to be EXO, we talked about creating an interactive real-time 3D project to go with the new music. I took inspiration from their sounds to create the structure, tone, and color pallet for EXO. We all had fun sharing ideas and working together.
From the open-ended narrative one can project onto it, to the limitless expanses of terrain it cycles through, EXO is a figure of endlessness and infinity, like many of your works. As counterpoints, do finite notions like sustainability and the end of the world feed into your work?
I love playing with shared and familiar things: archetypes, ideals, genres, tropes, conventions, trends, etc. In EXO I wanted to capture the beauty and wonder I find in video game worlds, especially the moment when you turn on a video game console and a expansive and immersive world so easily sparks into being. So I worked with very basic structural elements of video game worlds, like the convention of having each level set in different biome with a single dominating color: a blue ice world, a red lava world, a green jungle world and so on. Here I also used the common structure of having a central hub area that you return to multiple times and having the first half of the game set in a light world (peaceful environments) and the second half in a dark world (chaotic environments.) As I worked on the piece and reflected on how it could be read it made sense that one of those potential readings brought to mind current pop culture topics, like sustainability and ecology as well as the entertainment industry's obsession with the apocalypse. Maybe it is easier for me to develop an emotional understanding of nature through the way I feel about the magic of a game world coming to life that is also extremely fragile—unplug the console and poof goes Skyrim.
What technological advancements—imminent or hypothetical—are most exciting to you?
Fully functional augmented reality. I want to walk down the supermarket cereal aisle wearing something like Geordi's visor and see augmented reality images of the Trix rabbit and Tucan Sam dancing in the aisle selling cereal.
Narrative is of course going to be a part of any cinematic experience whether you impose one as a filmmaker or it’s left entirely to the viewer. Can you explain how you conceived of EXO and its narrative, in its original state as a navigable videogame environment?
In the full play-through version of EXO, which is comprised of a navigable real-time 3D environment with accompanying soundtrack by Gatekeeper, the only thing the player can do is walk, look, and listen. Even if you don't interact with it, the piece will continue by warping the player along as when the music suggest cues for each new scene. The goal was to have no gameplay and create just a visual and sonic experience.
Do you still show EXO this way, where users can control how they move through it? Do you consider the linear fly-through version you’re showing here to be the same work? A different one? The content is the same but the experience is very different.
Originally it was shown with Gatekeeper playing the music live and me exploring the real-time 3D environment live, all in front of an audience. Since then it has been shown multiple times with Gatekeeper playing live with a recording of my play-through. Since they are moving on to a new album and new material it may not be seen again like this for a while. The version of EXO seen here, which is now being more widely shown, is a shorter, silent video where the virtual camera remains still in each scene creating something like a slideshow of slightly animating nature photos. I think it works better this way as an art piece by capturing the visuals better by allowing a clearer look at the details and subtlety in each scene. Without the music and all the camera movement the piece becomes a bit less bombastic which brings out more sentiment and allows for quiet reflection on the imagery.
Which actual places most inspire you?
Malls, cities, and dense green nature.
And which imaginary places?
All open world games, from Skyrim to Burnout Paradise.
What are you working on now/next?
I am working on four new pieces for my upcoming solo show, Next-Gen Open Beta, at Team gallery in New York, which opens November 21st.