Nicole Ruggiero Designs The Future With The Past In Mind

“When I can't tell the difference between real life and a digital creation, I actually get quite bored.”

Words by Tierney Finster 
Photos by Kofi Dua

Nicole Ruggiero (@nicoleruggiero) is a 3-D net artist from New York who compares her work to a dream, something that mixes influences and items from different times and spaces together in one place, and in doing so, creates a logic all its own. Nicole’s design and animation work is inspired by the internet, online subcultures and personal nostalgia (sometimes for nostalgia for past iterations of the internet and its former subcultures).

Nicole tells TRASH about how finding current design inspiration in favorite cartoons from childhood, feeling guilty while trying to avoid burnout and envisioning the way virtual and physical reality will merge in the future. 

To borrow a question you’ve used in your art, how has the internet impacted your life?

I had a very difficult childhood growing up. Both of my parents had drug problems and I really turned to the internet to find people who I could relate to and befriend.  I feel like it was a lot harder in my local communities to find people to relate to than online, especially being a queer person. I was very lonely but found people I could directly relate to online, which is what really got me interested in creating digital art.

When I first really started going online and finding these communities, I would go to websites like Gaia Online, Myspace or LiveJournal. I also met a lot of people with similar interests to me in AIM chat rooms. I got into manga and anime this way too.

Anime got me into drawing. I started off digital painting and Photoshop. My Dad actually bought me a drawing tablet when I was twelve and I started painting in Photoshop. I would post all my horrible digital paintings to forums, get feedback, make friends through the pieces and just look at a lot of art. I met a lot of queer people and created this resource that became a really positive outlet and space for me to develop my interest in art, online culture and digital media.

What forum or anime had the most impact on you creatively as a child?

Drawing wise, I think I started off drawing characters from this Manga series called Ranma 1/2. I also really enjoyed Chobits and Kingdom Hearts, which is a video game, but it's in anime style. Kingdom Hearts was a huge influence on me and still is. I don't play it because it's super long, but I just watched the gameplay of the whole game basically. It was a really big influence for the last animation I did.

Looking back on it, Chobits is really interesting. It's about this android girl who winds up experiencing human emotion but doesn't understand how to participate in society at all. This guy finds her and basically teaches her how to be part of society. She can only speak one word. I loved this. It's very funny to look back on, because I don't think I realized how relevant that is to what I'm doing now.

Ranma is about this character of who switches gender when they're hit by water. That's also very interesting. I read a lot of very queer manga. That didn't really inform my art, but it informed me as a person. It helped me feel comfortable coming out in 2003 when I was 12 years old, which was hard.



I feel like it's always happening; I'm constantly trying to level up. You always want to reach that next level. You always want to push yourself to do better, to do more, to engage in new experiences. I guess the first time that ever happened was probably when I started doing 3-D. I was doing a lot of 2-D before. When I was in middle school, I was doing digital painting and then flash animation.

As I went into high school, my family really wanted me to be in all the smart classes. I wasn't able to do as much art as I wanted to, which I've always been very sad about. My family was encouraging me not to be an artist, I didn’t know how to do anything else and didn’t really have any interest in anything else.

I remember struggling in college and finally just switching into the art school and being like, "That's it."

I wound up switching into graphic design. Eventually one of my friends at school was doing 3-D. I was like, "How are you doing that? Please. I keep trying and I just get so frustrated. It's very hard to make my way into this program that's so different than what I'm used to."

She just encouraged me. Finally, I got out of a relationship and had extra time. I was like, "You know what? I'm here to focus on doing 3-D."

I thought about what I wanted to make art about and was like, "The internet." My roommate was always calling me an internet person. For the longest time I didn't fully understand what he meant. I was just like "Everyone uses the internet. What are you talking about?"

Then I realized, I do use the internet differently than people. I do know things about the internet that are very niche but also very interesting. Within a few weeks, I was leaving my full time job and coming home to do 3-D stuff at night. I started posting what I made to my Instagram. I think it was a very good time for me to have started doing that because I got picked up by a couple of different publications.

I think my first "Wow" moment was when I had a piece school viral on Tumblr. Then I got picked up by this publication called Philippines and they posted my work and I was like, "Oh my God. People think this is cool."

That really encouraged me to just keep going.

I was like, 'I'm onto something. Let me keep making work like this."

And that lead to more work in augmented and virtual reality?

I wanted to get more into those spaces, so I reached out to people who were already working in them to help me improve my development work and to collaborate. I worked on an augmented reality project called “Slide To Expose,” which was a bedroom exhibition that you would enter and download this app to your phone. I worked with this teen from Berlin called Refrakt and the artist Molly Soda. We made this bedroom and you would find different objects in this room, using the app to scan 3-D pop-ups, 2-D pop-ups, an audio sequence, whatever. That was a super fun project and it toured the world.

Then I worked on a VR project with a team that took place in other bedrooms. That one was for the Oculus audience, called “No Escape.” It's about being stuck in this space where you are constantly being bombarded with messages, emails, phone calls, television programs, loud music. Like all these consequences of contemporary culture and at the very end of the experience you're transported.

You snap all these electronics in the room and then you’re like, "Oh my God, it's done." You're transported to this nature environment. Then at the very end you hear one last message before the experience ends. The whole idea is like no escape. There's no removing yourself from this culture even when it is extremely frustrating.

Right now I'm working with the Magic Leap, which has been unbelievably difficult. The Magic Leap is a really cool device. Basically it's an augmented reality headset. You see your environment and you see all these digital components at the same time; it's interactive. It's much like the Oculus Live, except it's in you're seeing these objects in your actual environment. It's such a new thing that is pretty difficult to create experiences for still. My progress is very slow but very exciting. I wanted it to move faster like some of these other projects I’ve done, but we have to put so much more effort into this one because people haven't really used this before. There isn't much information on how to do things, so you just have to figure it out.

How do you forecast the future of AR applications in modern society?

I really think that AR is going to be implemented to where we're no longer looking at a phone or device, but we are wearing glasses and goggles or contacts and just interacting with these visual cues. Physical and virtual realities would merge. I would absolutely love that. I would love to be able to work on my computer without having to hold a pen. I'd be able to move my hands freely. There's this video called “Hyper-Reality” that I absolutely love. It's basically this video where this person's walking home in a city and everywhere she looks is digital, but digital mixed with real life. I really think that's the direction we're going.

What do you envision for the future of AR and AI in media and entertainment?

Well, I know that applications are being developed that allow people to participate in live events and feel  very immersed in those events without actually being there, using VR. I feel like this is really captivating.

Code is also being written right now to predict body movements, mouth movements and sounds. To the point where in the near future, we're going to have videos of people that were created entirely digitally. You will not be able to tell the difference between that video and the real person. Talk about fake news. That’s gonna get a million times worse, which is actually quite scary. You’re gonna have people creating things that represent real people and show them taking certain actions that they never actually took. It's going to look completely real and you're not going to be able to tell the difference at all. That's the scary part of it.

I remember learning about primary versus secondary sources in elementary school, and soon we’re going to have to really look and make sure the videos we trust aren’t coming off Facebook or from some random website. Get your information from like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes or whatever publications that you can trust, that have been around them, that is reputable that's not going to put out something that's entirely untrue.

However, this same technology is going to be quite amazing because it could also be used to make very beautiful art, great movies, video games and any kind of entertainment like that. I do think that if you get that far to where we can recreate human behavior digitally almost perfectly, it's going to be really interesting if there's good storytelling behind it.

As for virtual characters, I feel like one day we'll hopefully have like a reality TV show with the virtual characters just doing real people things. To get that to look completely realistic is still going to take a long time from now though. When things look too real, I feel they lose some of their magic. When I can't tell the difference between real life and a digital creation, I actually get quite bored. I feel like I want to see the corner of the computer. I want to see how this isn't exactly like a person. 

How have friendships impacted your art practice?

I just got finished doing a design collaboration with a group of my friends, mostly using Cinema 4D. It was funny because we were sending a file back and forth the whole time. I was looking at the way she set things up and it was really interesting because we were doing the same thing in different ways. There were a couple of things that I didn't realize before seeing her work. I think it's always nice to collaborate with people, exchange information with people and not stay in one hole all the time.

What’s a question you’d like to ask another creator?

How do you balance art with all of your other interests? Do you think it's important to take a break from making work?

I ask this because I have moments where I get very exhausted from making work. I feel like I need to take a break and I do, but I also feel lazy when I do. I also get worried that the next person is going to do something better me because I'm not constantly working. I give myself these breaks because I know it's not healthy to not do that, and I don't want to overwork myself and die early or something.


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