Artist COVL on working in VR, being authentic and making the metaverse inclusive

In recent years, you’ve probably heard people talk about the “metaverse”: an online world where people can meet virtually via VR headsets, like in the Ready Player One movie. But you may not have realized that this isn’t just a sci-fi dream anymore. Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, is building it right now.

Buy an Oculus Quest headset and you can enter the Metaverse via Horizon Workrooms, which puts you in a virtual meeting room, or Horizon Worlds, an ever-expanding virtual universe where you attend events, play games, watch bands, and socialize meet new people, hang out with friends and more.

Meta is very keen on bringing creatives on board to build new, exciting locations in Horizon Worlds. They go to great lengths to ensure that the evolving metaverse is diverse, multicultural, and inclusive. So in February they launched the Metaverse Culture Series (MCS) with a Black Future series.

On International Women’s Day, an exploration called Women Beyond followed. For Ramadan, they teamed up with Muslim creators around the world to create a documentary titled #MonthofGood. Then came the Pride Unbound experience, exploring identity, chosen family, security and culture in the metaverse of the future. Today, Meta launches the fifth installment in the Metaverse Culture Series, Tercera Cultura (Third Culture), which explores Latinx culture, identity, and justice.

As part of this, they have teamed up with multimedia artist COVL to create Nuevo Norte (Spanish for “New North”), a one-of-a-kind mixed reality installation to be experienced in VR at Meta Horizon Worlds. This will be accompanied in “real life” by a 2D mural and an AR extension at the international art fair Art Basel in Miami (December 1-3).

We’re big fans of COVL, whose illustrations are bold, super colorful, and energetic, whether they’re put at the service of big brands like Nike, Red Bull, and Google, TV shows like Never Have I Ever, or one-off projects like the first Coachella house from Instagram. So we were delighted to have the opportunity to meet her in the metaverse, chat about Nuevo Norte, stay with her culture and background, and work as an artist in VR. Read our interview with COVL below or watch the full video at the top of the page.

But first, a little background knowledge. Tercera Cultura is named for the street where COVL’s family lived in Puerto Rico before immigrating to the United States. And for her, it’s a reinterpretation of her home in a new, immersive, metaverse world while playing with her organic, psychedelic artistic style. Throughout Tercera Cultura you will find vibrant colors, soft edges, lush tropical greenery and playful, cinematic scaling.

The VR experience puts you in a technicolor tunnel; then enter a vibrant, sprawling world filled with larger-than-life plants and ethereal animals. In the distance you can see four floating islands that you can visit through enchanted doors.

The first is La Islá, a tribute to COVL’s upbringing in Puerto Rico and Miami. Then there’s Cafecito, an opportunity for COVL to refresh memories of spending time with her grandparents at local cafes and inhale the scent of freshly brewed coffee and butter.

There’s also an entertainment area (cuéntamelo) and a discoteca, a multi-level dance floor with neon lights and soaring manatees swimming through the sky. The inspiration here is clearly Miami, where growing up, COVL would fall asleep to the sounds of live salsa performed by local musicians as the pink and orange lights filtered through the blinds.

Read on to learn how COVL approached the project and the challenges and lessons learned along the way.

How did you get into VR as an illustrator and how did you develop the world in practice?

This is actually my first time working in this space. The meta team initially contacted me to see if I would be interested.

Horizon Worlds gives you the power to create any world you dream of. It was a little daunting at first. But as with all skills I learned, it was really easy to pick up. I was able to take the skills from the things I use in digital work and implement them in Horizon Worlds. The Meta team showed me the software and taught me more about the Metaverse. This allowed me to expand into the world we are talking about today.

How similar or different was the creative process here compared to creating a mural or an illustration, shall we say?

Luckily I was able to implement the same kind of process. We worked back from sketching and creating mood boards. From there I was then able to work closely with the team to build whatever I had on my mood boards and sketches. So luckily, yes I was able to implement my same type of workflow in this area.

Was there anything that surprised you about creating in VR?

To be honest, I thought it was going to be very difficult. As artists, we have conditioned ourselves to be within our medium or ability. So I worked in 2D space for the longest time and shied away from being in virtual space because I thought it would be a very difficult and lengthy process.

But once I got started in Horizon Worlds, it was really easy to get used to. Being able to use your hands and build things up, for example, was a lot easier than I thought. To the point where now I’m just like, ‘Okay, that’s something I can definitely implement in future projects.’

How did you come up with the concept for Neuvo Norte?

Really, I already had this world in my head, like in my subconscious. So the development of Nuevo Norte was second nature to me. It boiled in my brain for years, and then I was finally able to make it what it is today.

Your work is all about colour. Was that easy or difficult to do in VR?

It was a bit difficult at first because it’s very 2D with all my other work. So I’m going to implement things like highlights and shadows to really make my work stand out. In Horizon Worlds, I found that I could now actually physically use that light and shadow with the various features and compartments that Horizon Worlds has. So it was a bit difficult to understand at first. But the moment the team showed me how to use light and vibrancy in this world, it just clicked.

At Tercera Cultura, you represent a culture that connects millions. How big was the pressure to get this right?

I felt a little pressured because this is an issue where you want to be inclusive. They want to make sure everyone who enters this world feels part of the narrative and the story. So there was a moment where I struggled with that because there’s only so much you can do to make sure everyone feels seen.

But Neuvo Norte was about my experience as a Puerto Rican, to recap, and what was that like? This made it easier for me to identify myself around the world and implement things that I thought would tell my story as a Puerto Rican, but also the nuances of what Latino, Latino, or Latina is. And hopefully people can resonate with that. It may not look or sound the same, but the experience at hand is the same.

They have also created other works that go with this VR creation. How did you manage to make all of this work together coherently?

At Art Basel we will activate in three ways. We will have an 8ft by 20ft mural that is my iteration of what Nuevo Norte looks like. And then, when attendees see the mural, they can pick up their phone, open Instagram, and that mural will come to life in AR (augmented reality). And then the third component, the root of it all, is the metaverse. So participants can experience this in VR, AR and physical space.

I sense that you enjoyed this experience. So would you encourage other artists to get into VR?

Absolutely. I think this space opened my eyes and mind to the possibilities of what art can be in the future. And having equity in the future art that you create and what that looks like.

As artists and creators, it’s part of our ethos to constantly evolve and learn. Trying to see how we can adapt our work and craft to different aspects and mediums. So I definitely recommend that artists of all media try out the VR space, the Metaverse. I recommend being curious and asking questions about how you can be a part of it. And you know, reach out to someone at Meta and talk to them to see how they can be a part of that experience.

Learn more about the Metaverse Culture Series here.

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