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Posted 18.09.19

Sci-fi, virtual living and post-internet materiality: Q&A with Molly Erin McCarthy

By Sarah Packer

virtual environment © Molly Erin McCarthy

We caught up with BA (Hons) Fine Art student Molly Erin McCarthy to chat IRL vs digital, her favourite tools and the importance of experimentation...

How would you describe yourself as an artist and your practice? 

Well, I love learning new skills and processes and I think that’s what drives a lot of what I do. My practice is a space for me to ponder stuff, and being able to make something is really important for me. It’s my way of thinking through things and communicating with the world.

Your work explores the relationship between IRL and digital environments, can you tell us why that interests you and how you begin to interpret that through your work?

Our relationship to virtual and physical space is becoming a more and more important topic. We’re seeing virtual reality become commonplace, neural implants and haptic suits being developed, and the increasing climate emergency is making us ask whether we will even have a choice between living virtual or material lives in the future. All of this comes with heaps of issues around accessibility, hierarchy, and privacy, but it also forces us to consider how human experience will evolve. 

 beacon, body, port (2019) © Molly Erin McCarthy

I’ve been playing video games since I was a little kid, and I spent a huge chunk of my childhood in online communities, so the personal interest is already really strong. I was pretty addicted to our desktop back in the day, I can remember my mum shouting down the stairs at me to get off the computer and go to bed. It’s only recently that I’ve started to tap into this in my art, but the decision to move in this direction has been so fulfilling and allowed my practice to become a really fluid aspect of my life.

My work involves a lot of back and forth between material and digital space/processes, and I’m always thinking about the strengths, weaknesses, limitations and possibilities of both worlds. Obviously there are things you can do in software that would be impossible IRL, but this also applies vice versa. As technology develops, I wonder whether this will remain true, but that’s something for future Molly to think about.

Molly working at KARST

What's your favourite go-to digital software that helps you create your work?

I started off in Fusion 360 after a series of Workshop Wednesdays at Plymouth College of Art, and recently I’ve been working in Blender which is a great open-source software. I’m now moving into Cinema4D and Unity, but I’ve got a lot to learn in those programs. The thing about digital processes is you often have to jump between different software to get the results you want, some tools are more suitable than others just like in more traditional processes. 

I also love experimenting with apps and things not usually considered to be tools. For example, editing screenshots in Instagram and then rather than posting them, using them as textures on 3D models. Working like this can be much more accessible, and it also immediately embeds whatever you’re doing within a contextual framework. You can make digital art with pretty much anything - apps, games, google maps - it’s just important to be aware of the associations of those tools, and approach it from a critical perspective.

What advice would you give to someone looking to explore virtual processes?

If you’re looking to get into CG/3D I highly recommend starting with Blender. You can do a lot with it, it’s free (!!!!), and there’s tons of online tutorials and community support. It also runs pretty well on laptops with lower specs so that’s great. Once you get started, especially if you haven’t worked with much software before, it can be really daunting. Keep at it, practice often, and remember the 80-20 rule (roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes).

Also, let the process guide you and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. in both my digital and physical work some of the best things I’ve made have been the result of failed experiments. Having fun while making is key, and it can lead to some really interesting results.

we can rerender that 4 u, wholesale (2019) still © Molly Erin McCarthy

What inspires and informs your work?

I get inspiration from a pretty wide range of places: science fiction, video games, internet culture, architecture, construction sites… The contemporary condition is defined by heaps of information in a constant stream, and I think growing up online has meant that my research process mirrors that a lot. I could be watching a movie, reading a book, or just walking through the city centre and something will always jump out as a possible starting point for work.

I think it’s also really important to remember that you can only make art from your own perspective, and you shouldn’t neglect that. Sometimes the personal is more relevant, other times it’s more of a contextual consideration, but ultimately you shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge your background and how that has impacted your values and interests.

On my first day at college, I remember my lecturer Helen Markes saying that “art will become your life”, and that’s the honest truth. 

What do you want people to understand from your work? 

The great thing about creating something is that everyone who interacts with it will use their own experience to interpret it. So if people get the conceptual reading I was aiming for, that’s amazing, but ultimately as long as they take away a playful sense of curiosity I’m happy.

Personally, the work that stays with me is that which creates a moment or a memory, it has to feel immersive even if it’s not an immersive installation as such. For example, Phyllidia Barlow’s show cul-de-sac at the Royal Academy was mesmerising. The scale of the work, the composition, and materiality all combined into an adventure. I spent my time there wandering around and underneath towering sculptures, asking “how was this made?” and trying to spot all the little details. If my work becomes an encounter like that, I’ll consider it a success. 

virtual environment © Molly Erin McCarthy

You've worked as a Technical Assistant on some of the shows at The Gallery and you interned at KARST. Tell us a bit about what was involved with those roles and how they have helped you as an artist.

Getting technical experience in galleries is a great thing to do while developing your practice, you get exposed to exhibitions that you might not normally take the time to visit, you pick up skills that will help you visualise and construct work, and on top of that you get to meet all kinds of creative practitioners who will impact you in one way or another. You’ll be thrust into a range of situations where creative problem solving is key, and if you’re serious about being an artist I think it’s important to recognise all the hard work technicians do. 

For example, my time working with i-DAT on The Infinite Guide in 2018 completely changed my practice. It helped me recognise that my interest in science-fiction and speculative realities is a perfectly valid tool to create art with, and exposed me to interactive technologies that I had never really considered in an exhibition context. Really, it’s down to that experience and the support and interest the team gave me that my practice has become what it is. 

Overall, my tech experience has shown me how important it is to connect with other creative practitioners - from all walks of life - and share knowledge and experience so we can foster growth in the community as well as in ourselves. 

You have an upcoming show at the fourth edition of Wrong Biennale in London, how did that opportunity come about?

I applied to the open call for GOINGAWAY.TV, a group show that will feature work from a range of artists in the form of an online TV station and IRL exhibition. I’m going to be showing a video called western approach to paradise (2019), a love letter to the Toys R Us building at the bottom of town. Last year the footbridge over Union Street was demolished, with the Western Approach bridge scheduled for demolition this autumn. The building and its bridges became a kind of architectural icon for me, a representation of nostalgia and my own anxieties about the redevelopment of the city. This is all coalesced into a speculative narrative told through a spaceship terminal and using archival footage alongside 3D scans and models. 

Tell us about your experience/journey so far at Plymouth College of Art. You started on our Foundation Diploma right?

Yeah, I started off on the Foundation Diploma in 2016, I had just moved back from London where I’d been living for 3 years. I was planning to just do my foundation in Plymouth, but after my time at the college, I felt so happy and settled I decided to stay. 

It’s been a journey of self-discovery and growth. I would never have imagined ending up in the position I’m in now at the start of my time here. The experiences I’ve had, the work I’ve made, all of it is a real testament to the colleges dynamic nature and the current state of Plymouth. There’s been a huge push for promoting arts and culture in the city recently, it’s humbling to see it happen to somewhere I know so well and it makes being a local emerging artist really exciting.

What's been a highlight of your time here so far?

It sounds cheesy but there has been so many! I’d have to say the end of year shows have always been a blast, it’s great getting to celebrate your cohorts achievements. I was also lucky enough to be put forward for a Venice Biennale Fellowship during second year, and although I wasn’t successful I got pretty far in the application process. That’s probably the proudest I’ve ever been.

You're about to enter your third year, what's your next step? 

My next step is to stay calm haha, third year is pretty scary! 

I’m working on my dissertation at the moment which is an examination of post-digital/post-internet materiality as it relates to sculpture. I’m excited to think more in-depth about how our increasingly virtual lives are impacting on our physical experience of the world. 

In my work, I want to explore transhumanism and space colonisation, and the various hierarchies and power dynamics at play within. Growing up in Torpoint has given me a weird fascination with the military and it’s associations to developments in technology. Now, this is transitioning into a corporation/consumer relationship and I find that evolution both alluring and unsettling. 
 

See Molly’s work in ‘Notopia’ at Plymouth Art Weekender from 27 to 29 September 2019 and at the fourth edition of Wrong Biennale from 1 November 2019 to 1 March 2020

mollyerin.co.uk

Follow Molly on Instagram: @molly.erh

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