Reflections of reality: world-building in new media art
New media gives us the opportunity to create entire worlds with a level of detail unimaginable until now. Whereas before an artist may conceive a universe in the form of a book or through a glimpse in a painting, now the artist does not have to rely on the onlooker’s imagination to give a fantasy-world a backstory or physical aesthetic. Think of films and video games, and how technological advancements from CGI to 3D and virtual reality allow us to immerse ourselves completely. It creates the opportunity of putting many ‘what-if’s’ into practice. And so, world-building has become a central theme in digital art as well.
In a series of articles, Electric Artefacts sheds light on the various facets of Vacation at the End of the World. In this week’s instalment, we turn to the creation of alternate realities and futurism.
One collective that notably works with through the construction of universes is Keiken. The narratives they build play with notions of immersion and sensorial experience as well as the structures governing those experiences. For one of their latest projects, Keiken collaborated with CGI artist and designer Ryan Vautier to create ‘Metaverse: We are at the end of something,’ a 5-channel video installation later also turned into a gamified online experience. The pieces presented in Vacation at the End of the World are stills from this metaverse, they are glances into a disembodied and sensorially abstract reality. The work ‘We are at the end of Something’ looks futuristic in a way we may expect; soaring silver architecture and entities zipping past, perhaps on their morning commute.
A closer look at these entities reveals that it isn't clear what sort of means of transportation is possible in this new world. Some human-like figures appear to be standing on hoverboards, but we also see a caravan of horses and even a pegasus on a hoverboard. Have humans morphed, or have horses acquired evolved minds and independence? In another work by Keiken and Vautier, ‘Biome,’ horses aren’t the only emancipated creatures: sentient fanbots are described to be “posed like a reclining geisha, unaware that they are being watched.” Keiken and Vautier blur the distinctions between human/animal/machine and the ways in which we perceive and interact with these categories.
A different work in the exhibition presents a curiously similar composition. In Kumbirai Makumbe’s ‘Some Things’ there are also two chrome beings placed in a natural landscape, but these figures seem more fluid than those in Keiken and Vautier’s work. We catch a human-like figure in the exact moment of transcending their body, while the one behind them appears post-transformation. Makumbe’s work addresses the multi-dimensionality of blackness, notions of inclusion, in-betweenness, care and transcendence. In this context, the figure in the background may be seen as someone or something that has gone through a process, and now appears as a portal through which they can enable the transportation and transformation of others.
Makumbe’s work is an example of how world-building within new media art can offer interpretations or alternatives to the world we live in. Another artist who serves as a good example of this is Georgia Tucker, who in her work ‘Advena’ presents a paradisiacal resort, Instagram-ready with perfect beaches complemented by architecture in trendy colours. While in Makumbe’s world institutionalized racism may be a thing of the past, in Tucker’s Advena climate change and environmental crisis never existed - or at least that’s what it’s trying to convince you of. ‘Advena’ shows a world in which you can escape into a perfectly commodified version of nature without repercussions or guilt. As a result, the immaculate environment seems almost too perfect, the palm trees and ocean so pristine that they can only be the product of a monstrously unleashed for of consumer-hedonism.
New technologies are giving artists the tools with which to manufacture increasingly life-like worlds. They mimic what we know so perfectly that one can’t resist tampering with reality in the most absolute and fundamental ways. We experience the world through our senses, but what if we didn’t? Our identities are forever caught up in our physical forms, but what if they weren’t? A window into a possible future, new media art is the latest chapter in how art has always forced us to look beyond the way things are.
Cover image by Keiken x Ryan Vautier, We are at the end of Something, 2020