Ways of Working The Making of Sam Rolfes You have recently delivered your first video for Progress Bar. Could you explain what we are looking at?

This is the first installment of an improvisationally developing series of animations and performances which are impregnated (in a continuation of Michael Oswell’s brilliant work)  with promotional details and elements from each event, alongside re-appropriations and recastings of pop culture figures and experimentation with emergent internet performance formats such as Let’s Plays, YouTuber vlogs, erotic fanfic, etc.

How did you approach this video?

Starting from the context of Oswell’s rad narrative posters, my own interest in re-casting pop culture figures into fanfictional scenarios, iterative improv comedy, and quickly developing realtime performance, I decided working towards a way to just jump in and find a compelling narrative and conceptual thread would be the best way to start.

Make the characters, build a scene, write a super quick script, and just try to develop and iterate as fast as possible, learning from the failures along the way.

What tools did you use?

I performed each character using a motion capture suit our studio was sponsored with, performed the camera in VR using our Vive, animated the scene within Unreal, and sculpted each of the objects and bodies within a digital sculpting program.

Why did you decide to use Cuphead?

Gaming subcultures are something I have a lot of history with, not to mention with me having performed most of my animations inside game engines, so it makes most sense to draw from that well, for one thing.

Secondly, as I’ve been trying to figure out how to make my esoteric experimental practice compatible with reference-based meme comedy formats, I’ve learned catching the wave of a joke or topic is essential, so after reading a Kotaku.com article about ‘cupsonas’ I felt it was the perfect time to attempt jumping quickly onboard. I may have done so too early, and possibly should have gone with a more recognizable character, but most of the ideal options (Sonic/Sanic for example) have already been picked over and abstracted into staleness already.

Once I start seeding the footage more widely into net subculture forums, etc. I’ll know better. I’m approaching this like comedy though, which is a medium you supposedly spend a lot of time failing abjectly at before you hit on something … maybe that’s just me.

You have inherited a remarkable body of work from Michael Oswell. How do you deal with this?

Hahaha, I deal with it by summoning a superhuman level of arrogance to think I’m up to the challenge for following that act, but also that series was incredibly impactful to me and I’m trying to carry forward many of the ideas of narrative and maximalist overwhelming into this different format and scenario.

Is your work part of a larger development? If so, how would you describe it? If not, do you expect it to be down the line?

In that people are slowly getting more into realtime game engine performance and painterly organics, etc. I see people here and there. More largely, acting out through avatars via AR and experimenting with how these expressive 3D tools can affect their relation to their environment is a more important part of the big-picture development.

I’d like what I’m working on to be part of a larger development as long as it’s being used for more than just tech demos. It’s a difficult balance though — easily tipped into ham-fisted VJ eye-candy or over into masturbatory aspirationally-elitist esoterics… as soon as Snap or someone makes full body tracking as easy and shareable as face tracking is getting, then it’s really going to kick into gear. Things definitely seem on the edge of being widely utilizable for more widespread communication and performance.

You made a video for us explaining your working process. Could you tell more about this video?

I’ve actually made a couple videos like that in the last few years to explain experimental elements to clients where I felt writing or diagrams wouldn’t cut it, but it made particular sense in this case to do a selfie style “hEy GuYS, this is sAm & 2day we’re gonna __” vid since I’m slowly and painfully trying to work within and pull apart the elements of that vlogger sphere.

As someone who rarely appears on camera with his face unfuckedwith, I’m taking whatever opportunities I can to learn the over-the-top selfie character to better play it in performances going forward. Anything to chip away at the self seriousness I have toward myself haha.

You mentioned theatre design in general and Robert Wilson in particular as a reference for this work. Is your work moving in this direction, towards, well, direction?

I am in the sense that I’m trying to conceptualize of my projects going forward more in the realm of theatre since I seem to be increasingly moving into that sphere of thought when it comes to narrative, bodies, dialogue, etc. Thinking of levels and 3D spaces as sets, larger casts of characters, choreography and interrelation between them within spaces, it’s all stuff that’s been played with forever and I’m slowly learning the basics and how to import it into my practice.

It’s moving towards being a director in the sense that my team is growing and I’m adopting a directorial role with them, but I’m still pretty stubbornly auteurish in how much I build and perform personally — around 70% at minimum these days, which is admittedly down from the 99% previous.

What's it like collaborating with with other artists from different disciplines, with different ways of working, often in different timezones?

Overwhelming and time-abstracting in the sense that I’m constantly juggling over 5 intense projects at a time with people who are all active at different points of the day, which has resulted in 18 hour days and months of nocturnal living, but the caustic burn of living submerged in that headspace can be thrilling when it goes well.

You end up noticing personality, creative, and timing patterns across all industries that arise during the course of all of these projects. By working in many different formats with their own collections of neurosis and quirks, I’m trying to find some sort of connecting thread of truth or … strategies at least.

It ends up being a function of performing or sport, like everything: for nearly every night of work, especially deadline nights (which were 5 out of 7 days last week), I must hit my marks and execute several things improvisationally in a given time, and then tumble into the next trick while dodging dramatics, ducking through and finding loopholes in timing, and end up thoroughly fatigued before returning for the next round.

How's capitalism treating you? How do you divide your time between research, development and production? And between commissioned and self-directed work?

I’ve never experienced anything outside of a capitalist system and professionally exist in a freelance context even more capitalistically based than most ‘artists’, so it’s hard to separate the role capitalism plays in my masochistic existence from my obstinate choice to only pursue projects that interest me (rather than well paying corporate work), and other eccentricities.

In that I can’t afford health insurance other than for my eyes and teeth, live in a contractless apartment that I suspect is possibly actively killing me (cue the sneezing fit I just had), etc. I can say fairly confidently that I live and work in spite of the existential threats capitalism poses, at least.

As a severely and often pettily competitive person, I do wonder how I would function within socialist “emulation” as an alternative to the traditional western definition of competition. As Wikipedia tells me that Stalin said,

"Principles of (capitalist) competition: defeat and death of ones and victory and dominance of the others. Principles of socialist emulation: friendly assistance to lagging ones by the leading ones in order to achieve a common rise”

So maybe in another system I would be less of a vindictively competitive asshole lol; one can dream.

Regardless, every day is generally a 12-15 hr miasma of development, production, and attempting to keep my emotional state from spinning out; research and any internal thought is generally done in the midst of production or creation, which is one reason I have moved increasingly towards realtime improvisational play: I can’t really know anything until I’m inside, living it.

Research is generally done on a case by case basis for solving a particular problem I’m presented with by the collaborator/client/benefactor/situation. Idle theorizing and development is something I did endlessly in art school and was largely a paralyzing waste of time, and these days when a deadline isn’t looming over my head (when I’d otherwise maybe be researching) I’m instead busy having an identity crisis.

The only self-commissioned work I do is in quick fits of random, intense image making to post to instagram or save for an album cover (often as procrastination for the commissioned work). Everything else has a client of some sort, which gives me an external deadline to force me back to work.

That said, I’m unusually stubborn in my industry for almost all of my projects being ones I’m personally excited about and can have a directorial role to shape things in a way that I consider my personal practice. That is also why I’m far more frequently broke than my contemporaries who more often take big budget client projects or random consulting gigs.

What do you think should people understand better about the ways of working afforded by the internet, networked technologies and new software?

I’m inclined to say that people already seem pretty acutely aware of the ways in which collaborative working via networked things can elevate and optimize a process…

However I desperately hope that we all collectively gain the tools and knowledge to be more aware of the corporate and functional structures that we use to do these things though. It’s incredibly easy to focus on the fun ways we’re connected and facilitated by these platforms, but I worry about the increasing power consolidation and opaqueness of the systems. With that though we’re fighting peoples’ inherent apathy towards anything that isn’t very obviously affecting them…so…

Is there one particular art form you feel closest to? And how do view the various artworlds, such as music, contemporary art, theatre and video games?

i do my best to move between each of those formats as fluidly as possible and try to learn as much as I can from each; and as I’ve done so I’ve learned they deal with similar flavors of nepotism, either ignorant or short sightedly elitist audiences, and general mismanagement and mistreatment of their creators. When it comes to fashion and theatre, they’re at least new enough experiences to me that I’m not as jaded as with music and “Art”.

I’ve ranted about the outmoded art system ad nauseam elsewhere so I won’t get into that, but video games shaped my perspective of the basic language of virtual interaction and choreography, and good live music is still the high water mark for a performative experience that I hold all other artforms to.

Gaming cultures and coverage of games is generally more interesting to me on a daily basis than any other creative culture. I read gaming coverage several times a day and really don’t actually play all that often, but I’m still engrossed in that headspace partially from being a member of several gaming “clans” and forums in the early 00’s growing up, but also because the coverage of it doesn’t cause me as much competitive heartburn as other industry media.

What are you watching, playing, reading, and listening to?

Not nearly enough of any of that honestly, but currently I’m …

— watching godawful youtuber beef vids to learn more of that character type and act it out more realistically, along with video essays on screen writing and comedic storytelling, & Kotaku gaming Highlight Reels which are the closest thing to self care I get

— playing Super Hot in VR – generally I’m a heavy VR skeptic even though I use it in nearly every project, but Super Hot’s use of the body and it’s simple essential relation of its movement through the space with the speed of time is endlessly compelling and addictive. I’ll often have roommates walk in and see me ending up contorted on the floor of my apartment from it. Got a 165 on the endless Escape Room space too, fuckwithme.

— Every day I read through a host of former Gawker sites which is more meditative and calming than anything, but I can’t really stand to read much art or music coverage outside of what I find through friends, as I mentioned above.

— other than the expected swath of emerging experimentally minded electronic artists and descendents of New York No Wave music / noise rock, I’ve been listening to improv comedy podcasts for a few years now; they keep me in an upbeat mood while pulling long work sessions and are something to focus on, whereas 12 hrs of music can become sedative.

How do you step away from work?

Other than my ‘morning’ reading of aforementioned blogs, twice weekly gym sessions to relieve an anxious, emotionally-affecting testosterone and lactic acid and panic and paranoia buildup I feel every couple days, and walking to and from cafes, I don’t.

I don’t go out to shows generally unless I’m playing them, working with the musician, or at least have enough of a ‘networking’ pretense to overcome my anxiety about not working (in which case I often end up happily flaking on the networking and dancing alone for 4 hours, the pretense of work sated).

This has resulted in few friends I see IRL at this point, and innumerable flake-outs, which is a point of self improvement I’m working on haha.

What are your plans for the rest of the season?

There are a number of things I’d like to see make it in; kinetic group scenes, political satirization, mixed reality experimentation, mashups of every new format and trope possible, colliding comedy with erotica and economic theory, an arc of tone from aspirational to gutteral despondency and narratively the episodic development of characters….

… but what actually shows up is largely dependent on what works in the moment, so we’ll have to see.

You are also a tutor at Shadow Channel. What can we expect from you there?

More or less the same thing hahah — I’d really like to take these principles and apply them to group performance or a novel form of group dialogue at the very least, but pulling apart the pieces of my practice and examining how each can be utilized for more practical, radical goals is something important to me.

What are your plans in the coming future? What would you like to make? And what can't you make?

This new body of work is what I’m most focused on right now; developing a language and toolkit to take these ideas and processes and use them for more direct action, communication, and impactful expression.

From here going forward, it’s just a function of trying and trying and building and failing and expanding the scope of everything to a point it gains momentum to be something truly powerful.