Oklahoma Contemporary
Studio-in-Place artist Tess Elliot
A person with dark hair looks into the camera

New Light

June 04, 2020

#ThursdayThree with Tess Elliot

Augmenting reality with the Studio-in-Place artist and instructor
A digital image of green treetops against a blue sky
Prototype image from Infinite Oaks (2020)

Need a change of scenery? Tess Elliot has an app for that. Through virtual reality (VR) technology, animation, small-gauge film and more, the Oklahoma City-based artist engages relationships between individuals and their surroundings. Her deeply multidisciplinary practice has recently turned toward augmented reality (AR) applications, like Grass Flower Weed, allowing users to "grow" their own tallgrass prairie in real-world environments with their smartphone.

Elliot will continue to explore the potential of AR art experiences as part of her Studio-in-Place digital residency with Oklahoma Contemporary. Her project, tentatively titled Infinite Oaks, will allow app users to virtually reintroduce blackjack oaks, post oaks and other native tree species to the Cross Timbers region of Oklahoma.

Before the recent unrest surrounding police brutality and systemic racism, which may impact details of the artist's Studio-in-Place project*, Elliot talked to us about her goal of connecting the community to native ecology and each other through a shared digital experience.

Digital images of bluestem prairie grass in a backyard environment
iPhone screenshots of Grass Flower Weed: Bluestem by Tess Elliot

Your work with apps is something of a new development, right? Can you talk about how you got there?

Yeah, my practice kind of shifted. I was doing sculpture installation virtual reality (VR) stuff, and I had a show slated for Tulsa along similar lines before the pandemic hit. So I started to create these augmented reality (AR) art apps that were similar in content. I wanted to research and talk about native grasses and flowers. I wanted to create experiences with hyper-psychedelic floralscapes to kind of shift people's perspectives on what's aesthetic or beautiful.

Grass Flower Weed was my first time sharing work through that platform, where everyone individually experienced a kind of augmented, virtual prairie landscape through their own phones. It seemed really appropriate for quarantine. It felt like a really wonderful way to connect people who maybe don't have access to nature at the time. People can grow a virtual prairie while they're stuck inside their homes.

How does this work engage the concept of public space?

In Oklahoma, I've noticed everybody kind of just owns their own private little spaces. There's very little in the way of public communal spaces. I think that's pretty much the case everywhere, but it's particularly noticeable here, where it's really flat and the roads are very gridded. Everything's just kind of fenced off. And so I think for each of us individually, when we have a kind of aesthetic choice like mowing our lawn every day, that comes with consequences. I was trying to make some kind of experiences around that.

A digital image of blackjack oak trees on a sunny day
Infinite Oaks (2020)

Can you give readers an idea of what's in store for Infinite Oaks?

When I saw the call for Studio-in-Place, I thought I would make another kind of augmented reality app with the same kind of ecological concerns, but tailored to our community in the central region of Oklahoma. Instead of creating these animated species of grass or flowers, these European invasive weed species — which, if you let your lawn grow, will just kind of grow. I wanted to think about the trees that used to be here, or some trees that still are but maybe you don't have access to them.

I'll be creating these kind of groves of trees in a couple different locations in the central region of Oklahoma. They're geo-located, so it's GPS-specific. You can go and find these virtual groves of Cross Timber ecology: post oak and blackjack oak species, primarily. It might be in a more empty space or some public space that no longer has that native landscape. You can access it virtually, and maybe think about whether or not this is something we value to protect or possibly re-establish in the future.

How do we imagine futures through these emerging technologies? That's the spectacle or the wonder of them: They're so new that it makes you think about the future, and what they can bring for the future. Infinite Oaks is optimistic, but it’s also caged around this desire to see these changes in the real world. I would love to see more natural spaces and more protection of the native ecology of the region. And so I want to provide this kind of opportunity for the public to be able to experience a kind of Utopian version of it. In order to ask: What do we want of technology? What do we want of our future? What do we value?

Tess Elliot is an assistant professor of art, technology and culture at OU. She studied at the University of the Arts in Berlin in 2006 and received her BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art in 2008. She completed her MFA in Art and Technology at the Ohio State University in 2017. Her multidisciplinary practice involves sculpture, installation, animation, VR and small-gauge film. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, recently at the 8 Fest in Toronto, Ontario, Aggregate Space Gallery in Oakland, Calif., and the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Tess will return to Studio School as a digital media instructor.

* Editor's note: Following this interview, protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement erupted throughout the country. These events add an additional layer of complexity to the story of COVID-19 and our community. In keeping with the spirit of the Studio-in-Place project and socially responsive practice, Tess Elliot is considering ways that she may adapt Infinite Oaks in response to the call to community action in the time of a pandemic, and to proceed with the project respectfully and with sensitivity. Readers can expect a blog update to her project next week.

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