Nov 15, 2023
In about three weeks time I was able to view both WWWUNDERKAMMER, an exhibit by artist Carla Gannis at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art and attend A Community Night by Beeple at his studio in North Charleston. Both experiences touched on aspects of the digital / virtual world and in their own ways add interesting commentary and retrospective. And both gave me mixed feelings, so let’s unpack that.
Let’s start off with the positive impressions I was left with. First thing that comes to mind is that I appreciated how Carla’s work touched on social issues. Each one of the digital characters represented a different aspect of the work that must be done in order for the future to be a more equitable one. And aesthetic wise, it felt as if you were simultaneously encountering both a complex and simple environment. As all the imagery were contained within boxes, but were collaged in a way that there were hundreds of references pertaining to internet culture to catch and understand, especially if you are a regular internet goer. With Beeple’s work I mostly enjoyed the aesthetics and high amount of interactive aspects. For instance, throughout the whole studio space there were screens that contained a mixture of visuals and sound, and when you placed on the corresponding headphones, it felt like you, as the listener and viewer, were being subliminally programmed. There was also a giant art piece that you could draw on upon entering the space and the room closest to it contained 80s/90s feeling video games that you could play. And yes, yes I did spend about 20 – 30 minutes at a block computer playing a very pixelated first person shooter game, one of the classic types of video games of that era. And that same room also contained older radio and computer models that you could touch and fiddle with to see what would turn on or stay dormant.
The key difference, besides the aesthetics, were the different imaginings of the future. Gwylene Gallimard – a TINYisPOWERFUL colleague – explained it best during a car ride conversation after both experiences. She pointed out that Carla’s exhibit leaned more towards the idea of protopia. With protopia being somewhat of a middle ground between Dystopia and Utopia. Meaning that it puts more weight into incremental changes for the better, than just accepting the world the way it is or trying to make it perfect. While Beeple’s collection of work leaned more so towards Dystopia, a world in disarray, predestined towards doom, gloom and injustices. And I am inclined to agree, due to the hopeful undertones one can sense in the WWWUNDERKAMMER exhibit, and also due to the feelings of despair and nightmarish imagery depicted in artwork at the Beeple Studios.
Now let’s unpack those mixed or rather neutral impressions. Carla’s depictions of different aspects of activism were a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand seeing them as characters as opposed to just concepts helped to create a deeper connection with them however on the other hand there were moments when they felt more like caricatures of what they were supposed to represent as opposed to three dimensional characters, which would have served better for concepts that are very nuanced with many intersectional layers. And the hidden humor / inside jokes were also a bit of a double sword; as while you don’t need to understand everything about something, understanding some of the inner jokes would have enhanced the experience, especially for people who did not grow up with or are not accustomed to internet culture. And this is less on the exhibit and more so on execution, but the Carla experience would have been much better if there was a designated guide who proactively was helping people utilize the Oculus headset. The Oculus headset was one of the major interactive features of the exhibit and would have greatly enhanced my (or really anyone’s) experience of it because of the level of immersion it would have provided if used to its full extent.
I originally thought that the difference in production was going to give me a better opinion of Beeple studios and in a way it did though the visual/auditory stations and an area / lounge room that was decked out with screens on all the walls and columns (that Victoria, another TINYisPOWERFUL colleague, pointed out is augmented reality in it’s own right). And it didn’t hurt that we got to see Beeple in action, and that it was reflected on the walls of the screen lounge. However, that live showing was (you guessed it) a double edge sword. It gave both a sense of wonder, but also made community night feel more like a party than observing art. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as parties are nice, but I personally did not come there for a party.
And lastly my negative perception of both of these experiences was that they felt like a regurgitation of online culture, specifically gamer culture which regularly touches on both Utopian and Dystopian themes. I also felt that while there were a lot of immersive aspects to both, that they could have pushed the boundaries more by really hyperfocusing on argumentative reality and making it as accessible to interact with as possible. Though to be completely fair, If you haven’t been regularly exposed to gamer and online culture as I have then you may have a completely different experience. AND the reason I may be having this impression is my personal interactions with online and gamer culture that has trained my brain to crave a clear interactive story in which participants become characters or create their own aviators that interact with the story. So these experiences could have been executed wonderfully and may just be a matter of taste, and preferred ways to consume art and online / gamer culture. All in all despite my mixed feelings I would highly recommend that if you get the chance to experience these spaces, in any form, sometime in the future I would still highly recommend giving them a try!