DIGI-DUB CLUB / RALPH BORLAND

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Digi-Dub Club (and other similar ones) by African Robots and SPACECRAFT. An artwork in VRChat


“This is a VR social space, so many people can visit it, and we’re designing the space as if designing for a venue, providing places for people to gather. The amazing thing about VR is that standing next to the fire, you ‘feel’ warm – VR is very visceral, your mind interprets the digital environment with your body.”


RALPH BORLAND


A few years back, we wrote about your projects African Robots and SPACECRAFT. Since then we’ve seen the projects grow. And we hear you’re launching some new artworks this week?

Back when you first interviewed me in 2016 I was working on small-scale interactive electronic birds and insects, and spaceships, with street wire artists in Cape Town. In 2019 we launched by far our largest artwork to date, Dubship I – Black Starliner, on the Afrofuturist exhibition ‘Still Here Tomorrow…’ at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. That work was funded by the National Arts Council, and allowed us to really show the scale of our ambition for wire art. It’s a six-metre long, half-ton music-making spaceship sculpture which plays a version of the dub track ‘Black Star Liner’ by Fred Locks. It’s about the Black Star Line shipping company launched in New York by the political activist Marcus Garvey one hundred years ago, and about the way his work is remembered through dub music – which like funk and hiphop uses space travel as a metaphor for liberation

Digi-Dub Club (and other similar ones) by African Robots and SPACECRAFT. An artwork in VRChat

Digi-Dub Club by African Robots and SPACECRAFT. An artwork in VRChat.

Digi-Dub Club by African Robots and SPACECRAFT. An artwork in VRChat.

You’ve seen the pop-up exhibition ‘Dubship I – Exploded View’ in Woodstock last month, in which we showed the Dubship in pieces, along with a video projection of a 3D scan of the sculpture, as we prepared to take it into Virtual Reality for a new artwork. That new artwork, titled Digi-Dub Club, is launching on the shared Virtual Reality social platform VRChat this Friday 6 November at Art Joburg with Kalashnikovv Gallery, along with another ongoing project Zimbabwe Space Station. On top of that, we’re also launching an online store for SPACECRAFT, selling our small-scale spaceship sculptures, the same day! So it’s a busy week.

Tell us more about Digi-Dub Club – and what’s VRChat?

Sure – so during the process of making Dubship I – Black Starliner, I was introduced to Virtual Reality as a creative tool by Jason Stapleton, of Ambient3D. We worked closely on the project, first of all producing a 3D model in VR of the scifi-like atrium of the MOCAA, so that I could design the sculpture to be suspended in it at the right scale. I worked in VR to not only experience the space at life-scale, and work as if suspended in mid-air inside it, but also to sculpt the form of the sculpture. I’ve used VR with Jason on more projects since – it’s an amazing production and visualization tool for a sculptor.

SPACECRAFT – A Southern interventionist art project

MF01 UNLTD / Wire art sculpture by SPACECRAFT

What we’re doing now is closing the loop on the project, by 3D-scanning the real-life sculpture we produced with metal-workers and wire-artists, and taking that back into VR. That movement between digital processes and handcraft is an emblem of our work with African Robots and SPACECRAFT: we produce real-life objects that resemble 3D models, in an old school ‘wireframe’ style, sometimes based on 3D models and designed in VR. We have plans for an arcade game using our wire-art spaceship sculptures 3D-scanned and animated to recreate the original Star Wars arcade game we refer to, again looping from the digital to the analog and back into digital again.

Zimbabwe Space Station – Concept Sketch A SPACECRAFT production

Zimbabwe Space Station – Public lightbox A SPACECRAFT production

Digi-Dub Club is an artwork that takes place in VR. At the centre of the work is a 3D scan of the Dubship sculpture, shown at life-scale. Because it was captured using a laser radar scanner – a LiDAR scanner – it’s made up of many tiny spheres floating in a point cloud that describes the object. LiDAR captures colour too, amazingly, as well as millimeter accuracy of the object. We’ve played on the appearance of the LiDAR scan, accentuating the sculpture as a hologram or ghostly apparition, a projection floating in the space. Around the floating sculpture is an otherworldly environment: a desert landscape at night, with the ruins of gigantic versions of the sculpture protruding from the desert floor around it. A fire burns nearby – this is a VR social space, so many people can visit it, and we’re designing the space as if designing for a venue, providing places for people to gather. The amazing thing about VR is that standing next to the fire, you ‘feel’ warm – VR is very visceral, your mind interprets the digital environment with your body.

XW01 UNLTD / Wire art sculpture by SPACECRAFT

TF01 UNLTD / Wire art sculpture by SPACECRAFT

The work is accessible to many people at the same time because it’s in VRChat, a ‘massively multiplayer online virtual reality social platform’. People can create an account on the platform and login from anywhere with a  computer and an internet connection. Once in, you assume one of many available avatar forms (or advanced users can design their own) and you explore 3D ‘worlds’ which people have created on the platform – over 25,000 of them and counting! This year has seen a surge of interest in platforms for remote interaction given the restrictions on physical gatherings, and one of the beneficiaries of that interest has been VRChat.

Sounds pretty cool! And Zimbabwe Space Station?

Zimbabwe Space Station is an artwork engaging with another form of new technology – the drone – to create a flying sculpture. It’s an ongoing project which we’ve explored through a few different media: there’s a lightbox graphic up in Observatory in Cape Town, a public artwork that was funded by Streetopia. And we’ve produced a wire art ‘sketch’ of the space station attached to a drone made by Flying Robot in Cape Town, which we’ve successfully flown! The project imagines a future space station designed to echo the forms of Great Zimbabwe in a representation of pride in our African heritage. Great Zimbabwe was once the seat of an African empire built by the ancestors of the Shona people. Check out our documentation at africanrobots.net/zimbabwe-space-station.

Zimbabwe Space Station – Flying Sculpture prototype / A SPACECRAFT production

Zimbabwe Space Station – Tropical Sativa Selection / A SPACECRAFT production

And lastly – the online store for SPACECRAFT?

Yeah, so this has been a while coming – we want to make our small spaceship sculptures that we’ve been working on for the last few years accessible to people around the world. This year we got a grant from the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture to work on our online platforms, so along with Artist Admin in Cape Town, and a few expert friends, we’ve built a store to sell them. It takes place within the fictional frame of the project, depicting us as wandering space pirates and wire workers selling our wares. It launches at 4.20pm on Friday 6 November at spacecraft.africa


To visit Digi-Dub Club in VRChat, and to see more information about the project, visit studio.ralphborland.net/digi-dub-club on Friday 6 November when the project is launched at Art Joburg with Kalashnikovv Gallery.

Digi-Dub Club is an African Robots vs SPACECRAFT project by Ralph Borland with Jason Stapleton, Sean Devonport, Lewis Kaluzi, Farai Kanyemba, and Franco Shidume.

The production of Digi-Dub Club is supported by a grant from the African Culture Fund’s Solidarity Fund for Artists and Cultural Organisations in Africa