Walking the line between the virtual and real, Nicole Ruggiero “mix and match[es] relics from different time periods” to manifest emotions and comprehend existence.
Tell me a bit about your background
I started digital art when I was 12. I have always been a keen internet user. I had a difficult childhood and it made it hard for me to relate to people, so I found others online that could relate to and support me. When I graduated college I decided I wanted to get more into 3D art, instead of just traditional 2D. I decided to also concentrate on the internet as the main topic of most of my art.
How did you get into 3D Visual arts?
I was doing 2D digital painting, illustration, and animation. I felt a bit bored with it. I wanted to work with more realism and saw people making some really cool stuff in the 3D realm. It finally felt accessible, so I decided that it was time for me to jump in.
Your work focuses on playing with the boundary between virtual and real spheres. Where do you think this fascination came from?
I’m 28 now. When I was younger, around 12 or so, I started meeting people online who I would later meet up with in person. That was in 2003. A lot of people found it strange. Even when I was in college, it was still strange to people, the frequency with which I would meet people through the internet. It felt crazy and scary to a lot of my friends who didn’t use the internet like me. After I graduated college, my roommate frequently called me an “internet person.” I thought that was an accurate description and I wanted to focus on what that meant…to exist in a physical form yet experience a lot of socialisation and community building in the digital realm. Only after creating those communities in the digital realm, would we meet in person. It’s a bit backwards from what a lot of people were used to, especially back then.
What lured or lures you to themes of the emotional and social culture around technology?
Growing up, I needed a lot of emotional support. I didn’t receive much from my family because my parents suffered from drug addiction and were not as present as I needed them to be. I also realised I was queer at a very young age. These two things made me reach out to people online, who were having similar experiences… We would talk all day, surf the web, and create small communities based on our interests. It was a bit immature (I mean, I was in middle school) but we would catfish people, we would also create small communities and share music through Soulseek (similar to Limewire). I also joined internet forums that related to art, which I invested in very heavily.
Now, I create my own communities based around art and I continue to make very good friends who I can talk to online. I have my own Discord server for people who do digital art, which is where you can find me hanging out most of the time. No matter what the topic, I think this kind of community building is very important. People don’t realise it, but it’s so easy to find someone to talk to, whenever you need, just by using the internet. You can find niche interest groups that you wouldn’t be able to find in many local communities, just by using hashtags or googling for forums. To this day, I still use the #vaporwave hashtag, which is one of the first communities to begin and majorly exist on the internet.
Similarly, what drew you to choosing to express these through “nostalgic relics”, what entices you towards nostalgia?
Nostalgia is a way for me to express the past. I like to mix and match relics from different time periods to create a singular piece that conveys a specific emotional theme. I am able to date my piece to a period of time and also create a way to draw other people in. You will see a lot of pop culture references in my work. I think by using these icons and brands, I am creating an ecosystem that viewers are intrigued by, relate to. By doing this, it makes it easier for the viewer to process the emotions and concepts that are contained inside of the work.
Like any artist, you have key themes your work always analyses, but with each new project, how do you normally come to an individualised concept? Do you have any mental protocol that you follow when creating work?
I want to start off by saying that a lot of my work is created as a way for me to personally process emotions that I have had or have been experiencing. I do so while also thinking about larger communities as a whole, thoughts or ideas that may be and have been trending, and what others are or have experienced.
Your outcomes take on a range of forms. You create individual avatars, animations, work in augmented and virtual reality, events and more. Which feels most natural to you as a creative expression and why?
I don’t think that there is any one process that feels most natural. For me, it is about communicating a concept. I like working in 3D because it really walks the line of the virtual and the real. The concept is best conveyed when you experience the 3D work in the form of VR and AR, which is why I chose to focus on these things when I create larger works in the form of exhibitions. When you experience my work in this format, it really allows you to understand what it means to exist in real life and digitally at the same time.
Personally, I am interested in your work as I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into virtual worlds, how people live their lives through these, and how we can use these for artistic expression. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences working so closely and consistently with new digital phenomena like virtual and augmented reality?
I want to start by saying that I very strongly believe that existing only digitally is not healthy. I think it’s important to have physical interactions which you currently cannot experience in the virtual space. The digital world, though, is amazing. You can get lost in it. You are able to express yourself in a way that is more accurate to how you wish you were able to in real life but cannot. I am able to do things with my digital avatar that I am not able to do with my physical body, which allows me to express emotions, thoughts, and feelings, that I otherwise would not be able to. At the same time, you are existing mostly in your head. You can also get lost in a fantasy, which is a danger of this world and another reason why I think it is important to take these communities that you may be creating online and bring them out into the physical world, so that you do not lose your grounding of the physical space. That being said, the virtual space also makes room for more creativity, honesty, and community. It gives these fantasies a backing, which makes it more possible for them to be built into the physical space. A cool example of this is virtual clothing or make up. You see people creating these things in the physical space now, yet they have been given their form firstly in the virtual space.
Would you say your life is influenced by a digital world, do you see yourself as having a second online or virtual self, or simply an artist that works with digital media?
Definitely the former. I have a strong virtual presence. I feel that my physical reality is shaped by my virtual experiences, rather than the other way around.
What do you think about people who live a different reality via virtual worlds?
I think it’s great. I think there are dangers to this… but I also think it makes our lives so much more vibrant, intricate, and beautiful!
There is a lot of debate about the pros and cons of these virtual tools and business and creative platforms, especially in terms of them being used as a vessel to assist the male gaze. How do you perceive these virtual platforms and programs as creative tools and how they will influence society?
One of the main propagators of the internet and CGI was the porn industry which is rampant with the male gaze. I think the male gaze is more of a societal problem, than a virtual problem, which is currently being dismantled through feminism but has a long way to go, unfortunately. On a positive note, the internet creates a platform for many voices to be heard. For instance, feminist and queer communities are able to find and support one another and come together to fight directly against the patriarchal structures that suppress our society, like the male gaze.
courtesy NICOLE RUGGIERO
interview KATE KIDNEY BISHOP
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