The VR industry is a high-stakes game of empire.
Debbie Ding, Architecture (still) (2018). Courtesy the artist and DiMoDA.
Five years back, when access to virtual reality equipment rendered the knowledge gap between professors and students all but negligible, artist Alfredo Salazar-Caro, then a fledgling student himself, began to envision what a virtual house made for digital natives could look like. Within its walls, he pictured, would contain the Stargates of his dreams, each portaling out to wonderlands of his creation, of course, but also to realms devised by intrepid others from his international, underground milieu.
And thus the Digital Museum of Digital Art came to be: a virtual edifice forged in Unity and animated by a blinking constellation of Internet downloads across the globe. The current mission statement describes DiMoDA as the “preeminent virtual institution devoted to digital/New Media art,” proceeding to suggest that the structure itself is an “architectural contribution to the Internet’s virtual landscape.”
The better part of DiMoDA’s operation involves collecting digital artwork and commissioning new ones, counting the likes of Jacolby Satterwhite, Claudia Hart, and Brenna Murphy in its growing roster. When fortune strikes, DiMoDA also organizes the occasional salon.
This Thursday, for example, DiMoDA minted its latest commissions with a public opening at the 3-Legged Dog in New York’s Financial District. Under Salazar-Caro’s curatorial prompt, the projects aim to conjure “witchcraft, magic, simultaneity, and the virtual body.”
Curious readers should decide for themselves whether the twin shows, “New Talismans” and “Mind//Body Dualism,” delivered on their promise, but it’s worth noting that DiMoDA 3.0 boasts the combined output of artists Rindon Johnson, Morehshin Allahyari, Paul Hertz, Shane Mecklenburger, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Vicki Dang.
That DiMoDA’s holdings can be accessed remotely is just one of the distinguishing characteristics to rally industry support. Notable among them is the Whitney Museum’s Adjunct Curator of Digital Art, Christiane Paul, who is slated to organize DiMoDA’s fourth round of commissions next year.
With north of three decades of experience in the field, Paul is skeptical—of both the medium’s long-term viability, and of the technology’s limitations, maintaining that artists working in VR art today are hardly exempt from the headaches that hampered artists in the past.
“There are real challenges connected to embodiment and movement in virtual space,” Paul told the STREAM in a phone interview. “You are basically inhabiting a divided body that exists and is moving around in physical space while having a virtual presence in virtual space. These conditions present very banal challenges when it comes to immersion.”
“Then there are other challenges,” Paul continued, “among them how a work reveals itself to you because of its time-based nature, which is not a new phenomenon per se but a characteristic VR shares with many other forms. But VR constitutes a different kind of time-based experience in physical space. You're wandering through a space and expecting something to happen. The hook of a piece needs to reveal itself within a certain time period to keep people interested. Time in and of itself is a challenge.”
Writers Ryan Kuo and Nora Khan, to whom a lion's share of VR art's leading literature can be apportioned, have made formal criteria like narrative continuity, interactivity, and compositional unity prime subjects in their exploration of virtual experiences. In popular literature, meanwhile, VR art's latest contributions have spurred critics like Hettie Judah and Jason Farago to question whether the medium warrants royal treatment just yet.
“We see more and more VR experiences being exhibited in physical venues,” Paul concluded. “But providing an environment in virtual space that gives you access to multiple VR pieces is a more curated experience that ironically comes closer to the one you might have in a museum space.”
Debbie Ding, Architecture (still) (2018). Courtesy the artist and DiMoDA.
the NEW(ISh) PARADIGM
Established in 2015 with co-founder William Robertson, the technologist responsible for designing DiMoDA's foundational infrastructure, Salazar-Caro is hyper-conscious of the pressure to frame the museum as the first of its kind—and remains reluctant with reason.
Hardly a new phenomenon, virtual reality art is entering what some are designating its third wave. Curating art in virtual spaces can be traced as far back to the machinimists of the 1980s, a loose network of video game enthusiasts that appropriated copyrighted material for cinematic productions. These productions would, over time, find their way into Second Life, one of the more influential online platforms to host a virtual world (and within it, virtual art exhibitions).
In this way, DiMoDA descends from a decades-long tradition of digitally-facilitated interventions expanding art's function in virtual space. But renewed attention this time around has resulted in a curious scramble to make tone-setting claims—emboldening initiatives like Acute Art VR, which Swedish art collector Gerard De Geer launched last year, to crown themselves the “world’s first virtual reality art platform” in a promotional video.
According to Salazar-Caro, the coming influx of art world megastars sounds a number of alarms around the future of VR art's legacy—namely its potential to dislodge pre-headset virtual art platforms that preceded it like Panther Modern, Club Rothko, and Vngravity, to name a few.
Performance artist Marina Abramović, one of the three figureheads to headline Acute Art VR (along with Jeff Koons and Olafur Elissaon), has been gathering momentum as a celebrated adopter of the technology. In her “Times Talk” last Tuesday, Abramović remarked on the virtual landscape's potential to extend her practice.
“[The Marina Abramović] Institute was first related to the actual building,” Abramović said. “And we understand that MAI doesn’t need any building because we are virtual. We are time-based art. So our policy now is: ‘You don’t come to us. We come to you.'”
This outlook, it appears, is catching on. Anish Kappor, a powerhouse in his own right, has also partnered with Acute Art VR on a collaboration that premiered alongside Abramović's piece at Art Basel in Hong Kong this past March.
All sides of the table do share one thing in common: Problems. Some of the toughest to work around include developing sustainable financial models, establishing effective presentation formats, and removing barriers to entry.
Participation in the current virtual arena is inextricable from considerations of access given the cost of requisite software and headsets. Google and Samsung only recently introduced consumer-grade products that cater to audiences at every price point. Moreover, the process of constructing immersive experiences demands heavy, time-consuming labor that's akin to building a video game.
Where competition is growing and the terms of engagement have yet to be defined, DiMoDA's bid to stand apart from (and perhaps even above) the crowd is contingent on finessing its place as a historical milestone in the art world's imaginary—both online and IRL.
Rindon Johnson, Hides Sought (still) (2018). Courtesy the artist and DiMoDA.
In an opinion piece for The Creators Project in 2016, VICE reporter Beckett Muffson, who in the same article paid homage to Ernst Klein's 2011 novel Ready Player One, makes an earnest case that a utopian, post-identity future is written in the cards for virtual reality art. "Once we've fully integrated with the virtual reality matrix," Muffson postulated, "will we even see the skin our cyberfriends were born in?"
Identity, as writer Ryan Kuo notes in his thesis, is heated territory when it comes to virtual spaces. Where avatar construction is concerned, Salazar-Caro himself has held firm that the possibilities for expression are almost always eclipsed by the pre-existing culture that participants bring with them.
A self-identified champion of "non-mainstream artists," Salazar-Caro has made it a point to enact what he calls "queering the virtual." Inducting artists from a variety of backgrounds into DiMoDA's halls is one form of the practice.
Artist and poet Rindon Johnson, who was commissioned for DiMoDA's third and latest edition, noted in an interview conducted by Salazar-Caro and shared with the STREAM that he's taken to interpreting the field as a new linguistic plane.
Johnson's work, which concerns itself with explorations of sign processes, signification, and communication, runs the full gamut of visual production including text-based projects like Shade the King, to online community spaces like Imperial Matters. In his project for "New Talismans," Johnson channeled his process into an immersive virtual reality experience titled Hides Sought (2018).
"There is a fluidity of being," Johnson explained. "Within every shifting narrative there is a really interesting form of queerness...I think we are gravitating towards a form of refusal to fixed signifiers which seek to classify our bodies."
Social scientist Nick Yee offered this observation in an interview with CNN dating back to 2007. A researcher at Stanford University at the time of publication, Yee added that the reasons virtual participants assume foreign identities change from person to person—and they aren't always kosher.
"[E]ven though online characters are not bound by rules," Yee said, "they tend to self-regulate how they look and often mirror human behavior in the real world."
"Virtual spaces are somehow a form of heightened awareness," Johnson expanded. "When I experience or make something that allows me to live in a whole new relation to my physical self, it feels incredible[...]indescribable. That said, and not surprisingly, I can sense the systemic realities of our present slipping into virtual spaces. I actively avoid chat VR spaces and high-key first-person shooters."
But if human behavior IRL permeates the virtual, then opportunities to condition the reverse might also hold true.
"The freedoms are endless," Johnson said. "We need more visually articulated language around ways that we feel in virtual immersive space. These are new feelings and we have to explore each part of them and their effects cautiously."
Paul Hertz, Fool's Paradise (still) (2018). Courtesy the artist and DiMoDA.
CONNECT THE DOTS
So where does this leave the Digital Museum of Digital Art? Is it the champion sum of ancestors lost to Internet days past? Or does its orientation as a virtual museum of curated art signal the beginning of a truly "new" frontier?
The way artist Claudia Hart sees it, DiMoDA is both with plenty to spare.
Hart, who identifies as a digital native herself, has been practicing with emergent technologies for over three decades. In an interview with the STREAM, Hart was quick to relay an optimism in the tradition's future—emphasizing that, in her mind, the keepers of the virtual world will always belong to digital natives, adding that they hold the natural advantage in constructing these realities.
"If you live in the digital realm, it changes the way your brain works," Hart explained. "You think laterally, or rhizomatically, which is also the way the internet is organized—entertaining multitudes simultaneously. What that means is you swim in this kind of new culture that's emerged as digital mediums have dominated everything: information and how it's organized, epistemology, the nature of knowledge, and how knowledge is connected. How people communicate now has created a paradigm shift."
The shift, Hart explains, has bred a web of networks that, more often than not, are siloed off in their own self-perpetuating vacuums. At the heart of these sub-cultures—some new, some re-spawning, all invariably adapting to the virtual world's ever-changing landscape—lies the real challenge of community.
"Kelani is a node and she's a salon," Hart continued. "She loves people and that's more effective. And then she sends us emails and you read them, because they hold a possibility of meeting. Of actually going. Of community. So even if you're not there, you know that's the community. I know that when I'm there I would like to be part of it. I want to know them IRL. It's nodal."
"And that's what he needs to do and that's what needs to be added on," Hart concluded. "The social networking needs to be connected to real life."
Editor: Julia Kaganskiy