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Creative livable virtual spaces and cultivating community

Creative livable virtual spaces and cultivating community

Insights from Visual Artist Mélanie Courtinat

The first time Mélanie Courtinat felt the weight and the expanse of an immersive space was in San Francisco. She was a student at a Swiss school with a focus on 3D and new media. Courtinat walked into the gallery to see, for the first time, the world of teamlab, the Tokyo-based art collective that designs immersive experiences.

“Everything in the exhibition felt like I was a part of it. It felt so generous to the viewer, to the spectator,” she said. “Everything was moving around me. I felt at the center of the experience.”

That experience transformed Mélanie’s nascent practice. Since then, Courtinat has become an award-winning art director and artist, born and based in Paris, France. Her specialty is reworking video games, expanding, contracting, and breaking them for unique outcomes.

However, like many artists, Courtinat had to find new ways to exhibit her work during the pandemic. She moved to VRChat and started creating exceptional spaces for individuals to visit before opening them up to others. She says meeting new people “felt super weird.” But once she learned the ground rules, the world opened up. “I explored, and I started creating safe spaces,” she expressed. “Spaces where I would feel good, then I left the door open.”

Ahead of her workshop on designing engaging spaces for VRChat , we spoke to Courtinat about some tips for those looking to bring their work into immersive worlds.

You still have to think about some rules to make the experience enjoyable and livable.

Approach new spaces like an anthropologist.

Courtinat said that at first, she didn’t know where to go in VRChat but started poking around with abandon.

Honestly, it’s like digging for gold. I spent hours on VRChat, but it was nothing but the tip of the iceberg. There are also private spaces to which I may not necessarily be invited. It was a lot of Reddit digging, but simply putting on the headset, jumping from world to world, and asking other people, “Hey, where should I go?”

Make it “livable.”

There’s a common misconception that virtual spaces shouldn’t resemble physical ones, but Courtinat says there’s a lot to learn from how we navigate the real world. Look at your natural surroundings and apply what you see to your virtual space.

You think of an online space, like in some aspects, like a real one, an existing one. It’s not something crazy where everything is possible, and there are no rules. In a real space in architecture, you have to think about where you will put the toilets, right? Where are you going to put the emergency exits?

 There are rules you have to obey. In a virtual space, you don’t have to add these types of things, but you still have to think about some rules to make the experience enjoyable and livable.

From "Out of Bounds," which explored spaces beyond game's conventional borders

Speak without talking

Because virtual spaces accommodate a variety of languages, verbal and non-verbal, make sure your virtual space is legible. Courtinat says to avoid didactic prescriptions and try to tap into the unconscious needs and desires of your visitor. She frequently recommends the open-world, multiplayer game Journey, which allows players to interact without language and gives them a clear place to go.

Journey is perfect. In the distance, you see the mountain, and there’s no need for language. You just immediately know it’s now your time to play. But also, this is your goal. No words have been said, and you know where to go.

This is something you have to keep in mind when creating online spaces. To make the player or the spectator or the visitor, to make them feel like they’re the one making the conscious decision of going over there, even if you’re actually the one rolling out the red carpet.

“I have nothing against white cube galleries,” Courtinat says. However, the spatial, budgetary, and creative constraints prevent her vision from coming to life. Virtual spaces have different restrictions, but she recommends focusing on the impossible experiences in the real world. More importantly, people coming from outside of games have some real advantages. A healthy naivete can inspire you to look for new ways of creating. There’s something super exciting about the freedom that online platforms give you. For someone who’s used to having the practical and technical needs of how to build something, they can, for once, leave it behind. They can see what they would do if they would have complete freedom. They want to add a complete, uh, they want a space that is kilometers long and where you have a forest; it’s possible. They want a pitch-black space, even when it’s 11 a.m. It’s possible. What would you do if everything was possible?

Focus on what can’t be done

Treat the space like your home .

The visual communication of the space after it’s been built is incredibly important for attracting guests. “You have to play by the rules” of self-presentation, Courtinat says. Just as you might tidy up and take nice pictures before sending a house party invitation, ensure you capture your virtual world in full detail. Take hi-res photos. Pick the right angles.

To show your virtual world, You have to do more than record what you see inside the VR headsets because it will look wobbly. No one cares about a walk-through of your space.

Create events like a party happening in your space. Tell people you’ll be there at a specific time with a link to join and a gorgeous picture of your space. 


Parts of this interview were condensed and edited for readability and clarity.

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